Time Bombs

19 February 2024

Generators threaten inhabitants of Old Sanaa and its landmarks

By: Noura Al-Thafiri

One spring night in 2020 the inhabitants of Old Sana’a were woken by the noise of two explosions in close succession followed by a major fire, which burned for hours damaging ancient buildings in the Cattle Market district. The cause of the fire was an electricity generator and the fuel tanks next to it.

The impact of a fire in the old livestock market in Sanaa, resulting from a commercial power generator (May 2022).

Chaotic scene

Electricity generators sitting next to fuel tanks, with no regard for public safety measures, are a common sight across Old Sana’a. They are visible in the courtyards of homes and in streets, near cafes and restaurants, and in old markets crowded with street traders and shoppers.

Cables randomly snake along lanes and alleyways, and the generators have turned the usual calm of the city into an unsettling din that continues night and day. Black smoke pollutes the city air and makes it difficult to breath. This has all stoked fear among people that they could see a repeat of the fire and explosions in the Cattle Market, especially since the authorities have not managed to put any measures in place to stop such a thing happening again.

For want of any alternative source of electricity, generators have become a necessity for residents. And this has opened the way for exploitation by owners of generators to deliver power to homes and shops using poor-quality equipment and cabling. They do not employ any expertise to organise the supply network, since their sole concern is making a profit and gaining new subscribers.

This investigation reveals that in the old city of Sana’a there are 11 electricity stations, which are owned by merchants and “influential” people, and which fail to meet the most basic requirements of public safety. All that happens within a system of negligence and overlapping of powers between eight government agencies. The result is that residents face the risk of death, injury and material loss, from explosions or fires that could happen at any moment. Such dangers also increase the likelihood that Sana’a could lose its global status because of the increasing disfigurement of the city, which has caused it to be listed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Electricity generators and fuel tanks have become “time bombs” inside Old Sana’a. Below are some examples of these generating stations.

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Ahmed Al-Harmali and his partner Abdel Salam Hamza’s station

“Business” at a time of electricity crisis

“When the government gives up providing services, the private sector takes its place,” says the head of the electrical engineering department at Sana’a University, Adel Al-Shugairi. Since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015 the electricity supply to Sana’a has been completely cut off because of the bombing and destruction of all main generating plants. These include steam-powered stations, the Maarib gas station, and local diesel plants belonging to the government’s Public Electricity Corporation.

In 2017, private electricity generators began providing so-called “commercial electricity” as a substitute for that previously supplied by the government. These generators are owned by people engaged in commerce (with good connection to the organs of power), who connect electricity to homes with no regard for safety of the public, or of the city’s landmarks, which have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1986.

This new situation means that generator owners now compete to gain the largest number of subscribers. They have divided the 56 neighbourhoods of Old Sana’a between them and whoever has the most generators in an area can install the most distribution meters. This competition can sometimes escalate into conflict if one of the owners tries to “encroach” on another owner’s share by taking away subscribers in a particular neighbourhood.

For example, generator owner Ahmed Al-Harmali and his partner, Abdel Salam Hamza, control more than 18 city districts, and they share the Salt Market area – the oldest market in Yemen – with another generator owner, Ahmed Yahya Abu Al-Rijal. Al-Harmali and his partner have in total 3,650 electric meters (connected to their generators), a number that is likely to increase. Mohammed Al-Shaabani controls more than ten neighbourhoods, with a total of 1,600 electric meters, according to figures he himself provided. Generator owner Mohamed Hatem meanwhile, supplies electricity to five districts as well as the commercial thoroughfare, Electricity Street.

This carve up of the city has not only led to individual service providers, but also to the formation of “gangs”, to quote one inhabitant of Old Sana’a, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid any comeback from the generators’ owners.

Since generators started appearing in Old Sana’a, each owner has been setting the price of supply as he pleases. The cost of one kilowatt of electricity rose above 350 Yemeni riyals ($0.5 – 0.75), on top of the monthly subscription charges, which averaged three dollars. Then the Ministry of Electricity set the price in 2023 at 250 riyals per kilowatt (less than 50 cents), to put an end to the pricing chaos.

“Removal notices” not enforced

We found that legislation relating to the operation of electricity generators inside Old Sana’a actually prohibits placing them inside the city, according to the Law for the Preservation of Historical Cities, Regions, Historical Monuments and Urban Heritage.

In fact, these generators operate without licenses from the relevant authorities, i.e. The General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen and the Ministry of Electricity. Correspondence between the chairman of the Main Committee for Private Generators and the Minister of Electricity show that these stations have not obtained licenses and that the ministry has recommended that they be shut down.

“No license shall be permitted for the establishment of any investment activity in registered sites without the approval of the Organisation and its confirmation that the activity accords with and is related to the nature and character of the building or historical landmark at the registered site in general; and the Organisation has the right to halt any work or activity that would harm its nature or character.”

Article 56 of Law 16 of 2013 on the Preservation of Historical Cities, Regions, Historical Monuments and Urban Heritage.

Document – Disclosure of violations at old stations in Sanaa issued by the main committee for Private Electric Generators (May 2023).

Correspondence

Despite the legal wording being clear, the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities has been unable to put a stop to any of these generating stations, despite issuing orders and notices for several of them to be removed.

For example, the organisation took several measures against generator owner Mohamed Ali Hatem, including issuing nine notices, orders, and judicial rulings at difference times for him to dismantle his generating station. None of these measures succeeding in forcing him do so, and he continues to cause damage to the northern wall of the old city of Sanaa with the generator and fuel tanks he has placed next to the wall, along with three other generators placed in the ‘Bustan Muammar’ garden in front of the wall.

Files show that, in 2019, the tourist police made complaint to both the minister of culture and the undersecretary for the antiquities sector, that the then vice president of the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities, Aqeel Al-Nassari, had obstructed the implementation of removal orders for generators.

Once these illegal electricity generators became a fait accompli, the Ministry of Electricity issued a bill to temporarily regulate the activity of owners of private generators in supplying energy to consumers. The text of Article 5 of this law states: “No person has the right to generate and distribute electrical energy and sell it to consumers on a temporary basis without first obtaining a temporary license.” Based on this text, all the generating stations inside Old Sana’a are in breach of the law and should not be operating, since none have a license.

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Documents – The file of the owner Mohammed Ali Hatem includes removal decisions that have not been implemented.



Nor do the generators in Old Sana’a meet the conditions and technical requirements set down in law to regulate the temporary generation, distribution and selling of energy from generators.

Article 28 makes clear one such condition: “The licensee may not subcontract the supply of electrical energy to consumers using distribution and selling points belonging to others.” In fact what happens is that generator owners, like Ahmed Al-Harmali, Abdelillah Allous and others, do distribute and sell energy through other people.

Chaos in the installations of generators in Sanaa

The Civil Defence Authority is responsible for monitoring and, if needs be, closing down any enterprise that fails to meet conditions for public safety. These stations are still operating, however, without the Civil Defence Authority being able to put the law into practice. Instead, it has put the onus on the Ministry of Electricity, as the body responsible for granting licenses to generator owners inside Old Sanaa, according to authority’s director general for public relations and media, Khaled Al-Shirahi.

The activity of any institution, facility, factory, establishment or farm will be halted and buildings, industrial and construction installations and any other projects will be evacuated and their use in whole or in part will be banned in the event that safety conditions fail to be met in these facilities in violation of planning and construction conditions, or in the event of the immediate danger of a catastrophic incident. The ruling on halting, evacuation or prevention of use must be put in writing and the reasons made clear. The relevant authorities shall be notified directly of such an event and the executive regulations shall indicate the method of implementation.

Law 24 of 1997 concerning civil defence – Article 13

What makes this “generators powered electricity station chaos” even worse, is the overlapping of powers held by eight government agencies involved in decision making for the city. These are: the General Authority for the Preservation of Historic Cities, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Endowments, the Public Works Office, the Capital Secretariat, Sana’a municipal council, and the judiciary. When it comes to generators, the Ministry of Electricity is also involved.

Legal cases related to national heritage are referred to non-specialised courts to deal with, i.e. the capital Sana’a East Secretariat Court, and West Secretariat Court. And rulings by these courts tend to favour those who are violating the principle of safeguarding the capital city. The court whose responsibility covers archaeological cities is the Public Funds Court.

The records of the generator owners show conflicting decisions made by these different agencies. So, when the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities issues a ruling to remove a generator, another agency or individual comes along and prevents the ruling from being carried out. Such a case appears in the files of generator owners Mohamed Ali Hatem and Ibrahim Al-Fransi. Although both these men made a commitment in writing to the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities to end all violations and remove their generators from Old Sanaa, their promise remains a dead letter.

The undersecretary for technical affairs, at the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities, Rashad Al-Maqtari, ascribes the failure to implement decisions on removing generators to “a lobby of influential people, Community Committees, the local community itself, and residents who strongly oppose moving the generators outside the city.”

Al-Maqtari revealed that, in a bid to neutralise the pressure exerted by the “lobby” and by Community Committees, the Organisation discussed with the Ministry of Electricity a plan to supply Old Sana’a with government electrical power at a nominal price, as an alternative to commercial generators. According to Al-Maqtari, however, the proposal ran into opposition from “common interests between the Ministry of Electricity and generator owners.”

Al-Maqtari also accused the Civil Defence Authority of not fulfilling its role in monitoring security and safety. As evidence of this, he said that the Organisation had notified the Civil Defence Authority, after the fire at the Cattle Market involving the generator belonging to Ibrahim Al-Fransi, and had asked it to close down this generating station, which had caused the explosion, and move it outside the city. But the Civil Defence Authority, lacks enforcement powers to respond to such request that should be initially addressed to the security forces not the civil defence.

صورة التزام المالك إبراهيم الفرانصي

صورة التزام المالك محمد علي حاتم

Mere ink on paper: Written commitments to remove violations from generator owners in Sanaa

Moreover, the multiplicity of official bodies with the right to issue licenses to set up and run a for-profit facility in Old Sana’a, has led to many abuses of the city. Something that might be regarded as an “investment”, by the Ministry of Electricity, and the Public Works Office could be seen by the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities, as damaging to the city. As a result of such conflicts, violations of laws have been exacerbated, especially Law No. (16) of 2013.

Generator owners also seek to circumvent licensing procedures by starting the process of applying for a license and making payments, but without completing the licensing procedures. Generator owner Mohamed Al-Shaabani paid the Ministry of Electricity to renew his temporary permits, so he could continue operating his station, but without actually obtaining a license, despite more than three years having passed since he had made the initial payment.

Bonds that document the payments made by owners at different time periods without completing licensing procedures.

In addition to all of this, there is a lack of coordination between the relevant authorities. The Ministry of Endowments rents out properties inside Old Sana’a to stations owners, without consulting the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities, in disregard for the state of the urban environment. The result is that the operation of generators has made some of the city’s garden areas barren. This is noticeable in the case of three generating stations located inside garden areas belonging to the Ministry of Endowments, which had been rented to Mohamed Al-Shaabani, Mohamed Ali Hatem, and Mohamed Abdullah Jamal.



As well as this conflict and overlapping of powers, there is a suspicion of corruption over the disappearance of files from inside the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities, which relate to removal orders made against owners of generating stations. This investigation has found that some of these files have been sold off, and “disappeared” by staff within the Organisation for the benefit of generator owners, based on testimony from a source within the Organisation, who wished to remain anonymous. Our investigation has documented two such cases – one concerning generator owners Ahmed Al-Harmali and his partner, and one involving Ahmed Yahya Abu Al-Rijal. This adds one more factor to the obstacles that are placed in the way of implementing decisions to remove illegally installed generators.

Vibrations, fumes and noise

The non-stop roar of generators motors and the accompanying round-the-clock vibrations threaten to cause fractures in the historic landmarks of Sana’a, with its close-packed buildings. Correspondence between the Organisation and the Sanaa Directorate shows evidence that a generator belonging to Abdul Bari Al-Habouri caused cracks in one of the ancient buildings, not to mention the breathing problems its emissions triggered in local residents. The Organisation recommended the generator be removed, but that did not happen.



The Ministry of Electricity also issued two directives in 2021, telling owners of private generators operating inside Old Sana’a to rapidly move them out of the city “to ensure that the vibrations caused by the operation of these generators do not damage historic buildings or cause their collapse.”

Vibrations are not the only danger. The black smoke given off by generators has disfigured the stonework of the old city and caused erosion in its ancient wall, according to a report on Mohamed Ali Hatem’s generating station by Amin Khasrouf, an inspector in the Public Works Office.

Report issued by the Office of Works Inspector in Sanaa highlighting violations at Mohammed Ali Hatem’s station.

The explosion and fire at the Cattle Market last year, has sparked fear among the residents of Old Sana’a, especially since there are eight generations stations located in the courtyards of homes and various neighbourhoods and market areas. Some have complained about the noise, smoke and proliferation of fuel tanks. But their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

Even recommendations by the Civil Defence Authority to the Ministry of Electricity to regularize the situation of these generating stations and bring them into compliance with security and safety procedures have not been implemented. Mohamed Al-Shaabani’s station is a case in point.

This investigation was carried out with the support of ARIJ.