When war creates environmentalists

Surveying the skyline of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, you see destruction everywhere. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition has been bombing Yemen for four months and the damage is obvious – from blown-out windows to mounds of rubble where buildings once stood. But if you look a little closer you might notice something else new – small rectangles dotted across the city’s roofs.

As the war has intensified and fuel shortages have increased, a growing number of Yemenis are turning to solar power to see them through.

Two weeks into the airstrike campaign, which began on 25 March, Sana’a lost power. Most houses were plunged into darkness. Those with enough money quickly shifted to fuel-powered generators.

Jamil Nassar, a 45 year-old civil engineer, waited a week for the authorities to fix the power supply. When they didn’t, he invested. “Power is one of the basics of life,” he told IRIN, adding that the generator cost over $400 – far more than Yemen’s average monthly salary. “I bought the generator because I needed to follow the news and to lift water from the underground tank to the tanks at the surface.” This is common in Yemen, where many people have to rely on wells for their water.

A few days after splashing out on the generator, Nassar couldn’t get any petrol to fuel it, even though he had the money. “All the gasoline disappeared from petrol stations,” he explained.

At the request of the Yemeni government in exile, which had been forced to flee by pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition had introduced stringent naval restrictions. Ships were being forced to undergo a full inspection before docking, meaning many were waiting weeks before unloading. As the country’s oil industry had ground to a halt, these restrictions meant no petrol was getting to market. Saudi warplanes also targeted oil trucks in Houthi areas. The country was being starved of fuel.

Desperate for a little power any way they could get it, Yemenis began improvising and shifting to solar.

Saleem Mohsen, 34, bought three 80-Watt solar panels for $500 at the beginning of June. “It was very expensive because they were not available widely, but eventually solar cells are better than other alternatives because paying once is better than paying every day,” he said.

The panels produce enough electricity to power the lights in Mohsen’s house and other small appliances, but not quite enough for his fridge and water heater.

Running out of panels

Before the war, solar power was in its infancy in Yemen. The state lifted duties on solar panels to try to encourage people to buy them, but they were still too expensive for most. Despite a small shift towards renewables, the country’s subsidised oil industry and its proximity to oil giant Saudi Arabia meant there was little impetus for change. 

Within a few weeks of the conflict starting, the country had basically run out of solar panels. Prices trebled and no new panels were reaching the market. Mohammed Senan, an electrical goods retailer, said his prices skyrocketed as very few shops had any stock left.

A five-day humanitarian truce in May provided a rare opportunity. Thousands of solar panels were brought into the country and prices dropped.

During Ramadan, when Yemenis often sleep in the day and stay up at night, the need for power was ever greater. Despite the cost, many people rushed out to buy solar panels while stocks lasted.

Mohammed Hussein al-Awlaqi, the owner of another electrical shop, said it was difficult to give exact figures but business had certainly boomed. “All the goods we sell are solar,” he said. “Big solar cells, solar torches, even solar mobile phone charges.”

For many, though, prices are still too high. Yemen was the Middle East’s poorest country even before the war, and the UN estimates that more than 20 million people (out of a population of 24 million) now need aid.

Rashad al-Hamdani, 46, complained that he still could not afford the investment. “The solar panel that used to cost $150 is now at $100, but the dealers don’t think about the expensive costs of their accessories that have doubled as well. After buying the solar panels, we need batteries to be charged, inverters to invert power from 12 volts into 220 volts, the wires etc.”

Desperation – combined with ignorance about the rapidly changing costs of solar products – presents a golden opportunity to smart-minded and unscrupulous businesspeople.

Abdulkhaliq Hasan, 35, was desperate to light his home. Short on savings, he nevertheless decided to invest $150 on a 100-Watt solar panel. When he got it home, he found his friend had bought the same panel for just nine dollars.

“The company said the panel I bought produces the full power written on the box, but when I checked my friends panel, I found that there is really no difference,” he said.

 

am/jd/ag