Black Ramadan

The blackouts which have affected many regions of Algeria during this holy month of Ramadan are unprecedented in the history of independent and colonized Algeria, ever since electricity has become an essential part of urban life that is. Energy consumption has boomed in recent years, in particular during the summer months where temperature rises up to 46 degrees Celsius in many internal cities (not even the desert). It is not unusual to see one air conditioner per room in any one flat and people tend to use them all simultaneously on hot days or everyday during the summer. Sonelgaz has been warning against excessive use of electrical appliances, as this has been identified as the main cause of the recurrent blackouts of recent years. But this was hardly a reasonable solution as housing conditions and energy prices in Algeria are not conducive to optimal energy consumption.

For example, many people in Algeria still live in overcrowded small flats. Sometimes, you’d find several families cohabiting in a three- or four-room flat: the parents, one or two married sons with their families and sometimes also unmarried daughters. In this configuration, each family would occupy a room and acquiring a separate set of electrical appliances would be a major step towards autonomy.

The same case is observed in instances where people build houses. For many years, Algeria has suffered from an acute housing crisis, so people pursued the option of acquiring land and building communal houses for the entire family. So you’d find three- or four-, sometimes more, storey houses and each floor would belong to a married son. To solve the equally acute employment crisis, resourceful Algerians have come up with the ingenious solution of dedicating the ground floor of the houses they build to commercial activities to sustain their families.

How do ‘poor’ unemployed people pay for their energy consumption? Easy peasy, all you have to do is steal electricity from surrounding agglomerates. In recent years, there have been disputes between Sonelgaz and its customers regarding erroneous electricity bills. Many people were shocked to discover astronomical electricity bills which clearly did not reflect their consumption. This has resulted in many financial problems in Sonelgaz which, sought ways to recover funds by spreading costs on many of its ‘regular’ customers (much to the displeasure of those) and found it increasingly difficult to remain competitive and offer good services.

However, there is also one emerging category of Algerians which takes pride in showing off its wealth (read social ascension) by exhibiting extremist consumerist behaviors, such as equipping each room of their houses (or flats) with an air conditioner.

So in a sense, each Algerian has one ultimate goal: becoming fully acknowledged as a human being and autonomous from the useless State. But there’s only so much you can do before realizing that you can’t go far, as the State still controls the energy sector which represents the livelihood of this country. These factors have given rise to the society we have today. So when Sonelgaz comes along and urges people to effectively keep their energy consumption constant so as not to exceed the existing capacity, one cannot help but wonder if these people are as Algerian as you and me.

Many people have suggested that this crisis is completely planned and aims to bring people to revolt. It always amuses me to hear these conspiracy theories. But I don’t blame them, such incompetence and apparent coordination of utter uselessness really does make one wonder if there isn’t a hidden hand guiding all this chaos in order to achieve a sinister purpose. It’s the way the human brain is wired: when things show a repetitive pattern, we start perceiving them as intended.

Having a somewhat scientist inclination, I prefer to keep to the simplest possible explanation. And in this case it is that our government is so completely and utterly incompetent in all domains conceivable that everything is collapsing around our ears. It is inevitable, they are incapable of facing up to upcoming challenges such as demographic boom, climate change, looming food and energy crises. They simply don’t have the required competence and the system wherein they’re incrusted doesn’t have the structural properties which would promote the emergence of such competencies from the popular base. It is a deadly deadlock.

It annoys me to hear blame directed at the people, even though I admit they behave in completely uncivil ways which contribute to escalating the problem. For example, during the blackout which lasted for several days in some regions of major cities such as Algiers and Constantine, many people took to the streets and blocked major roads by burning tyres and even electrical cables as a way of expressing their despair and fury. Some people in disadvantaged areas even burnt their fridges in the streets!

An external observer would certainly see in these actions a touch of madness. But when you consider the living conditions of these people, the unbearable heat of the past days and the fact that you cannot even store food or have cold water to drink after breaking the fast, you would realize that this madness is natural as these people have basically been pushed to their limits. What is worse is that water supply has also been disrupted in some regions.

Now electricity has been restored in most parts of the country and the government plans to expand power capacity (or so it claims through the mouth of current Energy and Mines Minister, Youcef Yousfi, who spoke on the radio in order to appease people). Having read the press of the last few days, I was not surprised to find no official statement from any high official of the State on the recent problems. The Interior Minister has been going on about the local elections which are due in November. The same way they dealt with the extreme snow wave which had hit the country earlier this year. Only Sonelgaz has been publishing alerts on its website and sending Martian-sounding SMS messages such as:

Only use one air conditioner, especially between 13:00-16:00 and 20:00-23:00, and do not use your washing machine and iron simultaneously.

According to a recent press release by the company, energy consumption has hit a record peak the past month (9 233 MW on the 11th July 2012). The press release is signed by a woman, which has led a few commentators on articles published on the subject by the national press to explain the calamity of the blackout by the fact that more and more women are occupying leading positions in government. As this is against what the Prophet (PUH) has recommended, we are only paying the price of our own failure to observe our religion (see comments below).

Other people have seen in this a divine retribution directed at the greedy merchants and cartels who are responsible for the soaring food prices and fail to pay their Zakat. The blackouts have meant that their merchandise has perished in the heat thus resulting in huge financial losses. The problem with this explanation is that it overlooks the important fact that most ordinary people have also lost much of their food stocks. This was an amusing aside to lighten up what is otherwise a very depressing post.

Going back to the energy consumption figure reported by Sonelgaz, I’ve no idea how it compares with other countries at the same development stage as Algeria. However, I am not sure if the suggestions advanced by Sonelgaz are a workable option for the foreseeable future where the heat wave is predicted to persist. The problem is compounded by many other equally failing sectors, so on its own, Sonelgaz cannot do much. It is worth noting for example, that due to the fact that Algerian forests are concentrated in the mountainous regions, the ongoing fight against the remnant terrorist factions has resulted in many incidents of forest fires, in addition to spontaneous fires caused by the heat during the summer months. Deforestation and the lack of an efficient reforestation policy (and an encompassing environmental preservation policy), have affected Algerian climate which was more clement in the distant past, even in the summer. Algeria has a serious environmental degradation problem that it needs to address as soon as possible to achieve sustainability.

Sometimes I wonder if this land is not cursed, for here, even trees have become treacherous, needing to be burnt down.


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