A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
For six years now, Yemen’s ongoing war has spared no-one. The longer this war goes on, the more people suffer in every aspect of daily life. Among the most pressing crises that impact Yemenis is the rising prices of fuel subsidies, by between 100 and 300 per cent over the past 5 years. As a result, Yemenis have not been able to afford the oil and gas they need, nor the rise in the cost of transportation, medication, food and electricity generation. Also, sectors such as agriculture have been deeply impacted by this crisis.
The gas crisis in urban areas
Before the war, particularly in 2014, a gas cylinder cost 1,200 Yemeni riyals (approx. US$4.50). Today, the average cost of a gas cylinder has reached 5,000 riyals (approx. $8.00), depending on the location. Obtaining cooking gas in Yemeni cities is an extremely difficult and exhausting process. Women, men and children wait for days in long lines without any guarantee that they will get what they came for given the limited number of cylinders allocated for each neighborhood. It has become very common to see empty cylinders rolling on the ground, in front of their owners, making sounds like a tragic melody, echoing on the way to houses without food.
Receiving the intermittent supply of cylinders depends on registering one’s name on the long list the neighborhood representative keeps. Only he has the power to decide how the distribution will go, and all you can do is wait for your turn, which comes once a month on average. During the waiting period, most families will have consumed around two cylinders. Those who can afford it end up buying a cylinder from the black market at around 10,000 riyals (approx. $17.00). This sum may seem very little to those who do not know the Yemeni context: that public servants have not been paid their wages for four years now, while large numbers of public sector employees have been laid off. The rising cost of rent, food and drinking water have made them unaffordable for most Yemenis.
The gas crisis in rural areas: The case of al-Ja’ashi village, Ibb governorate
Central bakeries in Yemen are not common in villages, which makes the need for cooking gas higher than in cities. In the village, gas cylinders are distributed by the mayor of the village as well as local authorities. Most of the time, the friends and relatives of those in power have priority during distribution of the limited number of cylinders. Here in al-Ja’ashi village, Ibb governorate, at the center of Yemen, the rural community suffers from severe shortages in cooking gas. Al-Ja’ashi is located on top of Ba’adan mountain, connected to Ibb city by a steep slope and a bumpy 12 km road. This main road has not been repaired for over six years, and the asphalt that is damaged by constant floods adds to the many dangers of this route that al-Ja’ashi residents have to take in order to obtain their basic needs from the city, including gas cylinders. Most villagers are granite rock miners or livestock and crop farmers, while many others, especially young men, have moved to cities to make a living as construction workers.
Abdul Hafeeth al-Aroumi’s initiative for gas production in his village
As the gas crisis did not appear to be coming to an end, the people of al-Ja’ashi’s searched on the mountain for firewood for cooking. Abdul Hafeeth al-Aroumi, however, could not bear the idea of his elderly mother carrying out such hard labor in a society that considers the task of firewood gathering a woman’s job. Al-Aroumi is a farmer in his village as well as an accountant with a BA degree and a job in the Public Office of Finance in al-Thehar district, Ibb. In his late thirties, he is the only provider for his mother. He became preoccupied with the same question everyday: How can I produce cooking gas locally?
One evening, al-Aroumi found the beginning of the answer to his complicated question while watching a television program featuring the process of generating biogas from manure. Intrigued by the idea, al-Aroumi went to the city’s libraries, bookstores, and internet cafes to find out more about this method so he could start a similar project in his village. He consulted with academics and specialists at the University of Ibb to create a plan for his project, and despite the discouraging responses, he was determined to move forward with his plan. The idea had never been explored in his village, governorate or perhaps even in Yemen: “I was fully aware of the difficulties, but we can never achieve anything without trying even if we do not succeed at first.”
Like most civil servants in Yemen, al-Aroumi’s main income was the salary he used to get from his public sector job – which ceased to pay employees for the past four years. His farming income could barely feed his large family. But the surrounding community did not show any support for his innovative ideas. When he told his mother that her cow could produce milk and generate gas, al-Aroumi was not joking. Although he did not know for sure if this was achievable, he tried to convince his mother of his idea, but she rejected it entirely, afraid that her only son had gone mad.
Experiments on the road to success
In April 2016, al-Aroumi paid his mother 60,000 riyals (approx. $100.00) as insurance for her cow and the cow’s pin in case his experiment caused any harm. His idea was to gather the cow’s waste in a deep hole or cylindrical containers covered with plastic lids from the inside. By adding water to the waste along with extreme heat, his aim was to cause chemical reactions that could produce methane, biogas, as a result of the anaerobic digestion of the manure.
At first, al-Aroumi used metal containers to insert the waste into to create the desired pressure. Unfortunately, the containers soon went rusty and the first experiment attempt failed. In the second attempt, he used plastic containers, which also did not work. For his third attempt, he resorted to an old storage hole that his great grandparents had used to store grains. However, the hole did not handle the pressure and so this attempt failed, too. These failed attempts were disheartening, especially as they drove his family and friends to ridicule him further.
Al-Aroumi decided not to give up and began trying again, with more detailed and revised steps. This time he dug a space in his yard to create a cylindrical storage room made of asphalt, the material he also used to create a dome covering the storage. The idea behind his use of asphalt was to ensure the use of material that could handle the heat and speed of the anaerobic digestion. Furthermore, he used cement and metal to guarantee that the storage room did not allow air in. To avoid any potential leak, he would insert the cow’s waste through a symmetrical pipe that went as far as one side of the underground storage room and without the need to open the covering dome. From the opposite side, he installed pipes that were extended from the storage room all the way to the second story of his house where the kitchen is.
Harvesting the outcome of effort and patience
Around 90 days later, al-Aroumi, who worked alone on the project from start to finish, from digging and building to plumbing, finally came to see the results of the time, effort and money he put into it. With a lot of suspense, the people of the village impatiently waited for the results while not sparing him the mockery. At times, they made fun of the storage cover and told him that it looked more like a religious site than a gas generator. Al-Aroumi said: “Before starting the project, I had mixed feelings. I was partly afraid and anxious, not about the potential of wasting my efforts and savings for nothing, for I am content with the honor of trying. What worried me, however, was failing before my family and the people of my village after challenging all of them to prove that we are no less than others anywhere in the world. I truly believe that armed with knowledge, hard labor and determination, we can do anything and remarkably improve our lives.”
Women in the village gloated the most at the failed attempts and did not miss a chance to incite his mother against him. On the day al-Aroumi announced he was to reveal the results of his latest attempt, they came to witness what they thought would be inevitable failure. As soon as the gas flowed all the way up to the stove in the kitchen, mouths dropped. Shortly after, news spread with the same speed as the gas flow. “People were racing to my house and some of them would even touch the flames on the stove and almost burn themselves before eventually believing that my project succeeded. I have never been this happy to see a fire until I saw the one my project started”, said al-Aroumi. His promise to his mother was fulfilled, and indeed her cow produced milk and generated gas – and he began to use the remnants of the waste used in methane generation as agricultural biofertilizer.
People of al-Ja’ashi have changed their idea of al-Aroumi and begun to see him as a creative and innovative man. They now seek him out to learn from his experience and use his help to conduct the same project in their houses, and save themselves from the exhausting process of firewood gathering. A few others remained skeptical and warned people about the dangers of gas storage explosions in the neighborhood. Yet al-Aroumi has demonstrated that he made sure the storage room is secure with concrete from all sides to guarantee safety.
Al-Aroumi’s future projects
The people of al-Ja’ashi who once ridiculed al-Aroumi have chosen him today to be their mayor. For many years now he has regularly engaged with young people in his village to find innovative solutions for the absence of basic services and infrastructure. Between 2019 and 2020, al-Aroumi and al-Ja’ashi’s young people paved a number of roads, secured transmission of clean water to houses and installed electricity solar networks on the village’s streets. They have also expanded drinking water tanks, repaired the village’s playground and graveyard, painted old houses and cleaned the streets. These projects illustrate how Yemeni youth have very promising potential and the ability to responsibly build cooperative communities with very little or limited resources.
Recently, Abdul-Hafeeth al-Aroumi began thinking of solutions for the electrical power cuts in his village which have been going on for a number of years. This comes especially in light of insufficient solar panels, so electricity cannot cover the entire village which experiences many rainy seasons with limited sunlight. All this has led him to think of looking into the idea of wind electricity generation. To date he is doing research and continues to relentlessly work towards cooperative and cost-effective solutions for the daily problems his people encounter.