The area of al-Ghouta in the rural suburbs of Damascus is one of the places hardest hit by government blockades. Eastern Ghouta, for example, has been under government siege for nearly two years now, and restrictions were severely tightened over the summer of 2015.
Despite the blockade, nearly 800,000 people still live in al-Ghouta, relying on their ingenuity and creativity to survive. Do-It-Yourself projects in al-Ghouta run the gamut from electricity and solar-panel installations to rooftop gardens.
One project, run by a non-governmental organization called the Union of Free Syrian Doctors, has set out to increase awareness and knowledge in connection to developing alternative energy sources in the besieged town. Syria Deeply met with Osama Abu Zaid, a medical equipment engineer in al-Ghouta, to discuss the creative methods residents are using to overcome the siege.
Syria Deeply: When exactly were the electricity and fuel cut off in al-Ghouta?
Osama Abu Zaid: The electricity cutoff was gradual, but it was completely shut off by December 2012. The fuel supply, on the other hand, wasn’t cut off until June 2013. Since then, fuel prices have soared, which has triggered inflation in everything else as well.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Union of Free Syrian Doctors?
Osama Abu Zaid: The Union of Free Syrian Doctors is a medical organization that is active on the ground across Syria. We are concerned with the management of medical projects, ambulances and other health care-related services.
Syria Deeply: How did the alternative energy idea in al-Ghouta get started?
Osama Abu Zaid: Residents of al-Ghouta were the ones who inspired us. Revolutionary entities and organizations were able to get what they needed, despite the high prices, but normal people did not have many options. Alternative energy sources were a must.
The residents started by charging batteries using bikes. Young men would pedal bicycle wheels in order to charge batteries, and were paid $1 per battery they charged. But it was a long and tiring process – charging a 14 ampere battery, for example, requires about 40 minutes of constant, quick pedaling, and such a battery is only enough to turn on the lights in a small house for about one day.
Then the problem of securing water came to the forefront because the lack of electricity caused the water pumps to stop. Pumping groundwater requires a significant amount of electricity, so people went back to hand water pumps. They built these pumps by hand, and they are still used all over the town.
The next step was biogas generators. A number of chemists in al-Ghouta worked on the project. They fermented animal waste in a big pit in the ground that was insulated with plastic – it measured 3 x 7 x 1.5m. The gas produced was piped into a handmade moisture filter and then into a generator. This method, which cost nearly $5,000, provided up to 5,000 watts of electric power for five hours per day in summer time, but its productivity fell by 80 percent during the winter.
The method was later commercialized, and small storage tanks were invented and installed on roofs. Although less effective and still expensive—nearly $1,000 per tank—the new method was very popular.
The big pit method was used, for example, to generate electricity in al-Zahraa central women’s hospital – a clinic in al-Ghouta. It helped decrease fuel expenses, but it was not sustainable because of the constant bombing – we were always having to repair it. One small piece of shrapnel was enough to harm it, and the cost of repair was very high.
There had also been attempts to use wind turbines, but the energy generated was very low and irregular – we just don’t get enough wind in al-Ghouta. People also tried hydropower, but, due to the severe drought, the river’s flow was not strong enough. They did generate regular energy, but it was too low, only reaching 220V/3A. In the meantime, however, in late 2013, the price of diesel reached $12 [per liter] and the price of gasoline reached $15 [per liter].
People then turned to plastics to make diesel fuel. This method was very popular at the beginning, and there was remarkable decrease in fuel prices; the price of diesel fell to $1.50 per liter and the price of gasoline to $3 per liter. People in al-Ghouta managed to live on plastic waste fuel for nearly one year, until all plastics in the area had been used.
Syria Deeply: When did the solar panels project start?
Osama Abu Zaid: It started back in September 2014. One solar panel cost $600 in al-Ghouta, while it cost only $100 in the city of Damascus. However, despite the high price, it was a good solution, since one panel generates enough energy to charge a 100-ampere battery on a daily basis.
Syria Deeply: Who is in charge of the project?
Osama Abu Zaid: A group of renewable energy engineers oversee the project and estimate the amounts that are needed, and a team of technicians is in charge of installing and maintaining.
Syria Deeply: Does the project provide electricity across sectors, or only to particular ones, like the medical sector?
Osama Abu Zaid: Lights are the primary need in al-Ghouta. Anything else is considered a luxury. At the beginning, installing a solar panel was too expensive for many families, and even the revolutionary entities could not afford to install one in more than a few offices. However, a few months later, the prices decreased to $250, and tens of families were able to benefit from the service.
Syria Deeply: How are the panels installed?
Osama Abu Zaid: A metal base with a moving engine is installed first, and then the panel is installed, directed toward the south at an angle of 45 degrees, and connected with cables to the control system and to the batteries with the use of 12V to 220V inverters. For larger systems, a smart control charger is installed to regulate the current received from the battery. The smart control charger is used in many medical centers, where electricity is needed 24/7, like the central lab, the Usama al-Baroudy hospital and the blood bank.
Syria Deeply: How do you secure the panels and the equipment?
Osama Abu Zaid: As you probably know, the regime maintains a tight grip on al-Ghouta, especially with regard to energy and fuel, but there are cracks through which we can slip some things. It is very complicated, and high bribes are usually paid in order to secure the panels and smuggle them in. This is the primary reason for their inflated prices.
Syria Deeply: Are there any attempts to manufacture the panels in al-Ghouta itself?
Osama Abu Zaid: It is impossible to manufacture them here. It is a very precise process that requires expertise and materials that we do not have. Some of our technicians tried, but they failed.
Syria Deeply: What are the initial results of the project?
Osama Abu Zaid: The use of solar panels decreased people’s use of traditional fuel. The medical centers, for example, used to consume 3,000 liters of fuel per month, but today, with the use of solar panels, they only use 120 liters. Our teams are working on developing circuits that would increase the effectiveness of the panels by 40 percent, which should help during winter.
Syria Deeply: Who funds this project?
Osama Abu Zaid: This project is funded by the Kaanni Akalt (“As if I Ate”) campaign, a project led by a group of Syrian youth. They raise money from volunteers within Syria and abroad, and they allocate part of the funds to support hospitals and medical projects in the opposition-controlled areas of Damascus and Qalamoun. The campaign has caught the attention of many celebrities and expatriates, and a large portion of the donations goes to support projects like the solar panels in Eastern Ghouta.
Top Image: A recently installed solar panel sits on a roof top in eastern al-Ghouta just outside of Damascus. (Syria Deeply / Osama Abu Zaid)