Bassam Shalfoh has an unenviable job. Unlike his counterparts in other parts of the world working as power plant maintenance technicians who rush to repair faulty lines and restore electrical power to the people, his job is to do the opposite.
Wearing a pair of rubber gloves and a hard hat, he does the rounds across Gaza in a van, going from pylon to pylon according to schedule to cut off entire neighbourhoods for stretches of eight hours a day.
With limited supplies of fuel reaching Gaza, the power plant has to operate on one turbine instead of four, forcing it to switch off entire parts of the coastal strip to keep other parts going. Bassam and his colleagues from the Gaza Electricity Distribution Corporation (GEDCO) have to do it manually, climbing pylons and cutting them off from the grid.
“It’s a thankless job,” the 27-year-old technician tells me as we stop in central Gaza City to cut off part of it for the next eight hours. As soon as he gets out of the van, a motorist offends him in what turns out to be a daily occurrence for poor Bassam and his colleagues.
The frustration is understandable, although misdirected. While Gaza is gripped by the cold winter spell, Bassam and his colleagues are the only ones to be seen plunging the strip into darkness every day.
He tells me they had incidents where people would just climb the pylons to switch on their area again – at great risk of electrocution – forcing him to go back to switch if off again and to lock the switch box with chains and padlocks.
Israel allows the transfer of only 2.2 million litres of industrial diesel every week for Gaza’s power plant, allowing it to use only two out of its four available turbines and leaving up to 28% of demand uncovered with 32 hours of weekly electricity cuts spread over Gaza.
The problem got much worse since the European Union stopped funding the weekly supply of fuel to the Gaza power plant at the end of last year. Fuel supplies covered by the Palestinian Authority have remained irregular, leaving the power plant operating on one turbine. Only yesterday, the power plant warned it was about to shut off completely as its fuel supply was running out.
At the moment, the plant cannot meet up to 40% of electricity demand, forcing it to cut off power for up to 56 hours weekly, with each area getting eight-hour cuts every day.
Even if applied fairly, the cuts do not discriminate according to need, affecting essential services such as hospitals.
“We don’t have dedicated lines to hospitals and schools, so when we cut off an area everyone is affected,” Jamal El Derdisawi, a spokesman for GEDCO says.
In the current situation, the market of portable generators imported from the tunnels has flourished as households equip themselves to provide their own share of energy. Fuel for these generators also comes through the tunnels – an option that is not available for the power plant given the official nature of the PA’s contractual agreements. Yet the power of these generators is too weak to provide for heating in the current freezing temperatures, or even to keep fridges going. In houses, people mainly use it for lighting, charging mobile phones and watching TV.
The widespread use of generators in households has also proved tragic in the last weeks. At the end of January, three children died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their sleep and two others were hospitalised after a generator was left running outside their bedroom. Faulty generators have also caused deadly fires in homes, most of which have amounts of fuel stored unsafely. The most recent fire claimed the life of a wheelchair-bound person and left two young people seriously injured.
Unless the Ramallah-based Finance Ministry buys and transfers the fuel to GEDCO, the situation is bound go get worse. Around 70% of users have not paid their bills since 2000 in what is estimated to amount to around $2.7 billion in due bills. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human rights criticised the EU’s aid method for encouraging “thousands of civilians not to pay their power bills”. On its part, the PA found it more expedient to give a 5% salary increase to its employees than to put Gaza’s energy needs on its priorities.
“It’s a difficult land,” Bassam says, as he climbs down another pylon. He has been doing this job for the last five years, and now it seems to be only getting worse. “Our abnormal situation has become everyday life.” source
10 hours ago