Gaza Unplugged - The electricity crisis in Gaza sometimes means life or death

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Daily power cuts in Gaza resulting from the Israeli blockade mean that Palestinians must now use cheap generators in their attempt to carry on with daily life. As the migraine-inducing sounds of generators overwhelm the Strip,

My colleague Karl Schembri discovers power cuts have caused much deeper disruptions, immune to quick-fix remedies, for many in the besieged coastal strip.

Wasfi Al-Nider sits motionless on a couch looking at a small screen. Whenever it goes blank, it is the sign of yet another power cut hitting Gaza. But while most blackouts deprive many fellow Gazans of working on computers or watching TV, the screen the 63-year-old is looking at is connected to his blood and a kidney dialysis machine.

"Whenever there is a blackout, I'm in Allah's hands," Wasfi says. "The machine just stops, blood stops circulating, I just cry."

Along with Wasfi, 200 other kidney dialysis patients frequenting Al-Shifa Hospital three times a week for four-hour rounds of treatment have watched their screens going blank. Over the last two months, blackouts have increased so much in Gaza they have rendered many of the hospital's emergency battery backups useless.

"Many of our battery backups need repairing, and the Israeli blockade makes it very difficult to get most spare parts; we've been waiting for a year for some of the items," says Dr Mohammed Shatat, the director of the kidney dialysis department. His colleagues at the cardiac and surgery departments work with the same trepidation of facing a blackout during critical surgery.

Gaza has witnessed a steep increase in blackouts since the European Commission handed over responsibility for buying industrial fuel needed to operate Gaza's only power plant to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah late last year. The entire coastal strip is now plunged in total darkness for up to 12 hours a day, disrupting the daily lives of Palestinians who are already living with hardships caused by the Israeli blockade.

It is critical that the Palestinian Authority urgently resolve the ongoing crisis transparently with international donors, mainly the European Union, to ensure that sufficient fuel supplies are delivered to Gaza's power plant and Gazan families have access to electricity.

While most of the shops and offices in Gaza were already equipped with generators, many Palestinians are now buying portable generators made in China for their homes. These are imported through the tunnels running under the Gaza-Egypt border and fuelled by cheap diesel coming through the same underground lifelines. The owner of a store selling generators in Gaza City said sales increased by 70% in the last month.

With the help of a generator, Gazan families can generate enough energy so that nights have the semblance of normality: they can switch on the lights and a television set, and recharge a mobile. However the generator does not give enough power to switch on a refrigerator, heater or a washing machine.

For many Gazans living in poverty, generators are still too expensive to buy, at roughly 135$ each.

"These days, I'm lucky if I can make 100 shekels (27$) in one month and I have 18 family members to support. How can I afford a generator, let alone the fuel and maintenance costs?" says 26-year-old Ibrahim who still supports his parents and other relatives as the only employed member of his immediate family. "We have to make do with a kerosene lamp. With no gas available, we cook on firewood in the back yard and huddle in one room whenever it's cold."

The energy crisis is also causing a ripple effect of problems beyond the sick and the poor.

"I would need a very powerful generator to be able to use my machinery, costing me over 5,000 shekels (almost 1400$)", says blacksmith Abd al Rahman Al Shurafa who is unable to work when electricity is unavailable. The idle time is costing Abd al Rahman up to 50% of his monthly income.

Keeping his fish fresh is Ihab Abu Hasira's biggest headache at Munir fish restaurant.

"During blackouts we pack our freezers with ice although even that is not always available," he says. "The worst is when we come in the morning and find there has been a blackout all night long, risking losing thousands of dollars worth of fish."

For Mohammed Hizeb, a young electrician who repairs home appliances, this has been a boom time for business, as the number of fridges and washing machines for repairs in his shop can testify. "The sudden blackouts do a lot of damage to these appliances," he says. "The last month has been the busiest."

The widespread use of generators is also claiming the lives of Palestinians through fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. Last month, 3 children were reportedly killed and 5 others injured in a blaze which started after the explosion of a generator at their family's home in southern Gaza. The same month, Oxfam employee Inam Abu Nada' and her 20-year-old daughter nearly died when both were left unconscious near a generator leaking carbon monoxide gas.

A total of 15 people have died and 27 have been injured since January in generator-related accidents at home, according to Gaza Director of Emergency Services Muawiya Hassanayn.

Last year, generator fires and carbon monoxide poisoning reportedly claimed the lives of 75 people.

"I can barely sleep with the sound of generators at night," said Mahmoud, a refugee from Jabaliya Camp. "You can smell fuel wherever you go in Northern Gaza, everyone's inhaling all sorts of crap."