Tackling Egypt's Energy Crisis With Online Consumer Tools

As electricity costs climb in the face of energy shortages and a steep reduction in government subsidies, a new website helps consumers track their consumption and calculate costs.

Dealing with power cuts in Cairo
Dealing with power cuts in Cairo
Passant Rabie

CAIRO — When the lights come back on after a lengthy power outage, it's almost tradition in Egypt to utter cheers of el-noor geh (the lights are back).

It's a bit of a game, or at least it used to be, until power cuts became more frequent and severe over the past year, peaking last summer. These cheers have since been muted, replaced with mounting frustration.

But two website developers are giving new meaning to the phrase with a new online platform called "El-Noor Geh."

The website aims to raise awareness about electricity usage by using interactive tools to help people track consumption at home or at work.

Like many entrepreneurs that pride themselves on finding opportunity amid crisis and dysfunction, Essam Maged and Mostafa al-Khouly were inspired to address Egypt's persistent energy problem. Recent graduates of the German University in Cairo"s engineering department, both have been working at a web design agency for a little over a year now and have parlayed their experiences to develop the platform.

Consumption is tracked using three online calculators. One adds up the electricity bill based on the number of hours of consumption by electronic devices such as laptops, phone chargers, air conditioners, television sets and light bulbs. The second assists users who are looking to purchase a generator by calculating their energy needs and suggesting products according to their wattage and capacity. The third adds up how much consumers are paying in electricity bills for each electronic device based on official prices.

In addition to the calculators, the website also offers content on energy consumption, such as tips and tricks to conserve electricity and suggestions for energy-efficient products.

Maged says they want the website to be "an essential tool for anyone starting a new home or business on how to purchase household items," helping buyers through the decision-making process.

Rising prices, falling subsidies

Electricity has become a dreaded issue in most Egyptian households as prices increased amid regular power outages during the summer season's high consumption. In July, Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker announced new tariffs for household and commercial entities that would decrease the state's subsidies for electricity by 67% over the next five years. With the government plan to gradually lift energy subsidies, the price of electricity will continue rising.

Power cuts are still occurring in several areas across the country because of a reported fuel shortage, and this makes citizens acutely aware of the national energy problem.

The El-Noor Geh developers say their core mission is to reduce energy consumption to the benefit of consumers.

"We are tackling the electricity crisis by aiming to decrease how much the average consumer spends on electricity, thereby reducing the consumption of energy at large," Maged says.

Khouly adds, "We're saving electricity for individuals and creating a more environmentally friendly society in the process."

At the height of the energy shortage last summer, the government created an electricity consumption meter that popped up on television screens to alert viewers to reduce their consumption. More often than not, the meter teetered between the critical levels of orange and red.

Some argue that providing citizens with subsidized energy for decades has made them less accustomed to thinking about conservation. But the problem lies deeper still, with high poverty and unemployment levels, compounded by stagnating economic growth over the past three years, making higher prices a highly contentious issue both socially and politically.

Power in the hands of the people

The website is also a way for consumers to be more aware of their energy burden, especially after complaints of faulty meter readings or inexplicably high bills have become more frequent.

May al-Naggar says that her electricity bills have more than doubled over the past year, and she now pays close to 950 Egyptian pounds ($132) per month. When she asked the man who collects the monthly electricity bill about it, he simply told her that there are new prices. But when she and her husband tried to decrease their consumption, "it didn't make any difference," she says.

Mohamed Khallaf, a resident of Cairo's Maadi neighborhood, says his bill increased from 350 Egyptian pounds ($48) to 850 ($118) in the past year. Even though he has made three separate complaints for faulty readings, the amount remains more or less the same.

Other complaints include defective meters, inept bill collectors or simply an accumulation of overdue bills due to inefficient collection. Often they are compiled into one bill that is due immediately, creating a lump sum that is burdensome for most people to pay at once.

These are all issues El-Noor Geh attempts to address by allowing people to calculate their own bills to avoid being potentially cheated by the meter reading, or to enable them to understand why they are paying as much as they are for electricity.

Their bigger focus remains changing consumer behavior.

"The solution is for us to amend our bad habits," Khouly says. As an example, he says it's wasteful to charge mobile phones overnight, which he says can cost millions in electricity consumption nationwide, as well as being harmful to the battery.

"Because we're a large country, when our little bad habits accumulate, they actually make a huge difference," he says.

You can't tell people not to turn on their air conditioners in the summer, Maged notes, but you can "tell them to buy energy-saving air conditioners instead."

The duo are optimistic that they will be able to deliver their message because they have the advantage of a background in website design. When an important message regarding a new initiative is lost, it is often because of the way it's presented, they claim.

They believe their website is both aesthetically appealing and user friendly. And it needs to be to attract people and convince them of its potential benefit, on both personal and national levels.

"There are people who are already interested in changing their habits, so we're giving them the tools to do so while trying to convince those who are not interested to also change their habits," Khouly says.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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