EAST GHOUTA — Here in the outskirts of Damascus, as fighters patrol the streets, Hazem S. is focused on more organic pursuits — finding alternative energy solutions. As hours-long power outages sweep this and most other cities across Syria, civilians like him are now looking for do-it-yourself ways to light and heat their homes, using materials from their environment to generate power.

Hazem, 32, shows off a giant fan that he set on top of his house, facing into the wind. He connected the fan to a locally built generator that transformed its movement into electricity.

“Many months passed with no electricity, and the fuel we had stored was gone long ago, so we had to search for alternative sources,” he says. “The fan is not an ideal solution because its productivity is connected to wind conditions. Our desires regarding the weather have changed: We used to look forward to warm and quiet days, but now we prefer high winds, especially at night.”

Electricity isn’t the only energy source that Syrians are looking to create. Propane gas is not available anymore in many areas, except in cases when propane tanks are smuggled in. But prices for this contraband can reach 5,000 Syrian pounds ($37) for a full tank, and in some cases, buyers find that the tanks are mostly filled with water.

Many civilians, like Naji, a 47-year-old farmer from Bet Sawa, have turned to more natural gas production. “The lack of energy sources forced me to seek alternative solutions. I followed the primitive method of transforming animal waste into natural gas.”

A rare sight — Photo: Jiang Tieying/Xinhua/ZUMA

Naji found a crater that a barrel bomb had left in the ground next to his house. He insulated it with layers of nylon. “After insulating the crater, we fill it up with animal waste and seal it up, after we have installed pipes that run from the crater to our houses. The breakdown of the animal waste produces methane, which we use for heat and cooking,” he says.

Taking its toll

Naji says he also found that the mineral calcium oxide can be used for heating and cooking food. “Our ancestors used to use calcium hydroxide [slaked lime] in painting their houses made from clay. They used to add water and salt to calcium oxide and stir the mixture,” he says.

The chemical reactions produce intense heat that lasts for long periods of time until the mixture turns to calcium hydroxide, which is then used for painting, Naji explains. “Today, in a big pot, we add water to Quicklime and use the heat produced by the reaction for heating and cooking food as an alternative to modern heating sources.”

Naji's wife Suad has learned simple methods to produce enough light for the room where she lives with her husband and three children.

“We transform oranges into lanterns,” she says. “We empty out the orange, making sure to keep the central column intact. We pour a little bit of oil in the bowl-shaped orange peel, and we light up the central column to make a lantern. It doesn’t last for a long time, but it works well, especially when we prepare plenty of them every day.”

Inevitably, there is a downside to these desperate searches for basic energy supplies. To keep warm in cities like Aleppo, many civilians have resorted to stripping parks and streets of their trees, reportedly even using the wood from house paneling to start fires. The excessive logging has taken its toll on Syria’s forests, whose many natural reserves have largely been destroyed over the past three years.