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Electricity in War-Torn Aleppo: A New Form of Urban Management

In Syria, electricity is one of the sectors most adversely affected by the war. New means of electricity production, provided by private individuals, are being developed to make up for the public sector’s shortcomings. In examining the case of Aleppo, Abboud Hajjar and Youssef Diab have analyzed the creation of a marketplace for subscriptions to neighborhood electricity generators and the involvement of city dwellers in the day-to-day management of this sector.

Management of the electricity sector in Syria: a traditional state role in a context of “new players”

In Syria, the Ministry of Electricity [1] regulates and manages the electricity sector. Two public institutions share the different responsibilities this entails: the Public Establishment for Electricity Generation (PEEG [2]) for the planning, development, operation, and maintenance of power plants and transmission networks; and the Public Establishment for the Transmission of Electricity (PETE [3]), which has similar responsibilities with regard to the distribution network. This organization of the electricity sector, which can be described as traditional, is based on the monopolistic role of the state in the production and distribution of electricity across the entire country, in both urban and rural areas. In the current context of the war, this organization has been weakened by the state’s inability to ensure the production and distribution of electricity for the whole of Syria: Aleppo, like other Syrian cities, was affected by electricity rationing measures. Power outages became widespread in 2014, when the Aleppo power plant fell into the hands of the Islamic State organization, Daesh, causing it to shut down. This power plant, located 30 km (20 miles) from Aleppo (see Figure 1), was the main source of electricity for the entire Aleppo metro area. [4]

Figure 1. Distribution of thermal power plants in Syria

Source: Google Maps; adapted by the authors.

In the face of widespread power cuts, individuals devised alternative solutions by installing electricity generators to serve buildings and neighborhoods, which has led to the development of a whole new business: generator subscriptions. The emergence of these “new players” in the electricity sector represents a challenge for the state, raising a number questions: is this sector a priority for central government in the context of the city’s postwar rebuilding? What action can it take to meet what are going to be growing consumption needs? Can a possible—or deliberate—marginalization of the state’s role in the energy sector be observed?

Analysis of the Aleppo case highlights the strong involvement of new actors, at local level, in the day-to-day management of the electricity sector to compensate for the failings of the public grid. However, action taken by the Syrian government has demonstrated a desire to preserve the state’s presence and management of this sector (in particular with the construction of a new 230 kV, 173 km-long high-voltage line to supply power to the city once again [5]).

A problem of demand outstripping production capacity

Electricity production in Syria primarily relies on 11 fossil-fuel power plants (oil and gas), while hydroelectric power is a limited source with just three dams located on the Euphrates (Tishrin: تشرين; Al-Thawra: الثورة; and Al-Baath: البعث). The fossil-fuel power plants are mainly located in the west of the country (Figure 1).

A World Bank report indicates that 99% of the Syrian population had access to electricity in 2007. The residential and commercial sectors accounted for the largest categories of total electricity consumption in 2007, at 47% and 37% respectively (World Bank 2009). Electricity demand between 2002 and 2007 increased considerably, on average by 7.5% per year—an increase due mainly to the economic growth that the country was experiencing over the same period. Electricity tariffs are also one of the factors that contributed to this increase in demand. In 2009, the average price of electricity was about US$0.04/kWh. This was significantly lower than the tariffs of neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon (Figure 2), which did not encourage the implementation of an energy-efficiency strategy. Other factors could also be mentioned, such as the fact that only 75% of electricity delivered was actually billed owing to both technical (15%) and non-technical (10%) issues such as fraud and illegal connections to the grid. Similarly, the unexpected influx of Iraqi refugees after the Iraq war in 2003 [6] also contributed to this increase in demand.

Figure 2. Average tariff per kWh in Syria compared with other countries

Source: World Bank 2009.

The public sector’s capacity to generate electricity was outstripped by demand. This situation generated an electrical load shedding that increased sharply from 2006 onwards (Figure 3). Electrical rationing measures were put in place, particularly during periods of high consumption (extreme cold and heat).

Figure 3. Unserved demand for electricity in Syria

Source: World Bank 2009.

The war considerably weakened production capacity. According to the PEEG’s 2015 annual report, Syria’s electricity production capacity in 2015 was 5,590 megawatts, while the total possible capacity of Syrian power plants was 7,994 megawatts (PEEG 2016). The EEPG balance sheet shows a “zero-megawatt” power generation capacity for three power plants. These were Aleppo (حلب), Zeyzoun
(زیزون) and Al-Taym (التیم). As for distribution networks, they were also affected by the war: 50% of high-voltage lines were destroyed [7] and 100 electrical transformer substations (230/66 kV) among the 480 distributed throughout the country. The press reported on the blackout of a few hours on March 3, 2016, throughout Syria, caused by a blackout. [8] Sylvy Jaglin’s analysis of the different situations of access to network services in cities in the South (Jaglin 2004) shows a diversity of local conditions and the existence of a continuum of conditions that transcend whether or not households are connected to the network. Based on this analysis, it can be considered that the majority of Syrian users, both urban and rural, are connected to the electricity distribution network, but poorly served.

Electricity management in Aleppo during the war: a specificity not shared by other Syrian cities

Electricity rationing has encouraged users to find alternative back-up solutions through the installation of individual uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units, batteries to power LED bulbs, individual generators, etc. The use of alternative alternative solutions concerns Aleppo as well as other Syrian cities (Damascus, Lattakia, etc.). In the case of the city of Aleppo, there are some similarities with the development of the market for electricity generator subscriptions in Lebanon. Indeed, power outages have been widespread for many years throughout Lebanon (Gabillet 2010). In both cases, it is a collective response to power cuts while offering a complementary offer to that of the public sector: the EDL (Electricité du Liban) for the Lebanese case and the PETE for Aleppo.

This recent electricity marketplace in Aleppo is based on a system of weekly subscriptions provided by private individuals. The contract between the owners of the generators and the consumers is in the form of an “oral agreement.” The ampere, a unit of measurement of electrical intensity, has been transformed into a unit of consumer billing. Thus, since early 2015, Aleppo’s streets and gardens have been occupied by large generators with an electricity production intensity of 900 to 1,000 amperes. Subscribers can choose the number of amps according to their electricity needs. Subscribers to the electricity generators interviewed specify that 3 to 4 amperes are required to cover their basic electricity needs (LED lighting, refrigerator, washing machine and the drinking water pumping unit to correct low pressure in the water distribution network).

The gradual establishment of parallel networks: what form of organization?

Today, the city of Aleppo is marked by the development of parallel supply networks based on district generators (Figure 4). These parallel networks remain illegal and are not institutionalized. However, they are tolerated because they are essential to deal with the crisis in the public electricity service. This informal organization has developed before the eyes of government officials and often in agreement with them.

Figure 4. Installation of generators in public spaces in Aleppo

© Abboud Hajjar, 2015.

Generator owners install sub-junction boxes (Figure 5), which are connected to the generators, in areas with high potential for electrical demand (residential density, presence of businesses). Each sub-junction box (40 to 50 amperes) is capable of supplying electricity to several customers. Generator owners are developing their networks using the principle of “islanding” to ensure proper management of electricity distribution in the neighborhoods. They bear the necessary costs of installing and connecting the sub-junction boxes to the district generator, while the subscribers themselves finance their connection to the junction box and the circuit-breaker to switch from one type of supply to another (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Sub-junction box serving a residential block in the Al-Sabil district of Aleppo

© Abboud Hajjar, 2015.

The analysis of the neighborhood generator system in Aleppo revealed the management practices of generator owners that allow for better financial performance. Each generator owner performs a “primitive” diagnosis to estimate the electricity needs by supply perimeter of each sub-junction box. It changes the electrical intensity of the sub-junction boxes according to the number of subscribers per island. Thus, these parallel networks are regulated at the micro-urban level, that of the islet. Although the context is totally different, these management practices have shown similarities with smart neighborhoods that are developing in European cities (diagnosis of energy needs, regulation of networks at the local level).

Figure 6. Development of parallel networks of district electricity generators in Aleppo

Source: authors’ own work.

Interviews with subscribers to generators in different neighborhoods show new practices in the use of electricity. Indeed, in 2015, generator owners organized themselves to provide electricity for 10 hours a day. Families claim that they organize their household tasks according to the arrival of electricity, or the “arrival of the ampere,” a term commonly used by Aleppines to designate the parallel supply of district generators.

Subscription management is carried out directly by the owners of the generators or, in some cases, by intermediaries who manage a specific sub-junction box (grocery stores, prepaid phone card stores, etc.). Intermediaries agree to install the junction boxes in their stores and collect the packages from subscribers while benefiting from a few “free amperes.” The subscription fee does not depend on the actual consumption in kilowatt-hours but on the number of amperes. The owners of the generators sell an “ampere” for 1,000 Syrian pounds (about US$2 in 2016) per week and for 10 hours of supply per day. The price per ampere is based mainly on the market price of fuel oil.

A local electricity supply marked by corruption and inequalities

The subscription trade for electricity generators in Aleppo remains informal and non-institutionalized, although it is tolerated. An Executive Council, chaired by the Governor of Aleppo, was held on 30 October 2014 in the presence of the owners of Aleppo’s generators. An agreement was adopted, at the end of this meeting, to propose a single ampere rate of 750 Syrian pounds (about US$1.5) per week and 10 hours of supply per day. Thus, the local authorities have undertaken to provide the fuel oil necessary for the operation of the generators at favorable prices, since this is the official rate, while fuel prices have increased considerably with the emergence of a parallel market that has developed due to the shortage of fuel oil. But this agreement was not respected by the owners of the generators, who justify the rate increases by the lack of fuel oil provided by the local authorities to ensure the operation of the electricity generators.

The Aleppo population has called for a strong and transparent intervention of the state services in the management of the crisis in the electricity sector in Aleppo (Biessy 2014). Several subscribers mentioned the lack of control, which encourages generator owners to abuse this corruption-prone situation. The dramatic increase in ampere prices had led to the exclusion of certain categories of the electricity population and inequalities in access. In some high-income neighborhoods in the western part of the city, the average number of amperes per subscription is higher than in middle-income neighborhoods. In this context, low-income families denounce a “discrimination that contributes to reinforcing social inequalities.” [9]

The postwar electricity sector in the city: what approach to intervention?

After intensifying its military offensive on East Aleppo at the end of November—with the support of its allies—the Syrian Arab army announced, in a statement broadcast on the national channel on December 22, 2016, the full recovery of the city [10]. The destruction of the public electricity sector is one of the consequences of this urban war.

Deprived of electricity during the war, Aleppines began to benefit from the project’s spinoffs in May 2017. Electricity is partially restored in Aleppo, between two and four hours a day. This situation does not yet make it possible to put an end to the market for district generators. On the other hand, the Syrian state is aware of the importance of the electricity sector. The prompt intervention of the Syrian authorities to restore electricity in Aleppo reflects a desire to restore this sector as soon as possible.

All the actions taken by the Syrian government show that the prospect of privatization of the sector is not being considered by the political class. This reassures the Aleppo population, which is demanding state intervention in the management of the electricity crisis. But the weight of some of these new local electricity supply actors in managing this crisis still needs to be taken into account. The Lebanese example shows how the market for private generators survived, even after the end of the civil war. This market benefits from the lack of solutions that makes the public sector inefficient.

In Syria, the context is different. Certainly, the owners of the generators are trying to maintain a market that will allow them to make significant profits in the short term. But the government wants to protect its monopoly position in the electricity sector at all costs. However, this divergence of interests may generate future urban tensions. The sector is currently very profitable, but the occupation of public space by alternative solutions in terms of electricity supply cannot last. The reconstruction and development of the future Aleppo should be able to rely on a reliable network and probably less polluting centralized power production.


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To cite this article:

Youssef Diab & Abboud Hajjar & translated by Oliver Waine, “Electricity in War-Torn Aleppo: A New Form of Urban Management”, Metropolitics, 23 November 2018. URL :

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