Yemenis resort to burning firewood and rubbish to cook food

Saudi blockade has caused a chronic shortage of propane gas, forcing Yemenis to find alternatives to prepare food.

Yemenis turn to firewood as cooking gas crisis drags on
A Yemeni vendor (L) displays firewood for sale amid ongoing cooking gas shortage in Sanaa [Yahya Arhab/EPA]

Sanaa, Yemen – When Yahia al-Amari’s three gas cylinders ran dry, he scoured the entire Yemeni capital to find a place where he could refill them.

The 50-year-old walked to nearly every petrol station in Sanaa last month, hoping to find enough fuel to cook his family of seven their first hot meal of the week.

But he was turned away everywhere he went, either by the long queues or the announcements that tanker trucks had failed to arrive.

“Cooking [propane] gas completely disappeared,” he told Al Jazeera.

Since November, millions of Yemenis have been affected by a chronic shortage of fuel after Saudi Arabia tightened its blockade on Houthi-controlled ports and airports.

Attempting to force the Houthis, a group of Shia rebels who control large parts of the north, into relinquishing their grip on power, a major gas firm in Marib, a gas-rich region controlled by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, slashed deliveries to rebel-held areas.

The blockade, which has only been partially lifted, had a devastating impact on the civilian population, with only a sliver of goods entering the capital of 4 million people.

The shortage of fuel forced factories to lay off their staff, taxi prices to increase astronomically and hospitals, which rely on diesel to power their generators, to start closing wards.

Fuel imports in March were less than one-third, 30 percent, of the national requirement, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Power shortages have caused a burgeoning rise in demand for diesel and gasoline on the black market, and young men and boys have begun lining major thoroughfares, selling plastic water bottles filled with bright red or deep yellow fuel – at up to five times the normal price.

‘Primitive way of cooking’

Al-Amari said he could afford to pay $17 (YR4,300) to fill one cylinder of gas in rebel-held areas, the cost in government-run areas is only $3.8 (YR950).

But, in a country where more than half the population lives on less than $2 a day, he quickly realised that cooking gas, like diesel, was a luxury and an alternative was needed.

“We resorted to buying firewood because buying cooking gas became too expensive,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We now head to the market and buy sticks [firewood]. That’s how we’ve learned to cook.”

Al-Amri said cooking with firewood had become the norm for several families he knew, with burning embers a frequent sight on the city’s rooftops at night.

“My wife prepares food on a make-shift stove on the roof,” he said.

“She places two bricks slightly apart with a space between them. Then, the firewood is cut into small pieces and placed between the bricks and then a cooking pan is placed on top.”

It’s a primitive way of preparing food but it works, he added.

We keep protesting, begging the coalition to lift the blockade, but they have deaf ears.

by Abdulla Almatari, 50-year-old resident of Sanaa

‘Burning rubbish’

Standing at a busy interchange in front of a large pile of wood, Abdu Alghaili, a firewood dealer, said the gas shortage had led to a spike in his business, but left the poorest most vulnerable.

“Customers are looking for anything as replacement for cooking gas, and firewood is their best choice.

“I used to sell a bunch of sticks for $1.2 (YR300), but they now cost $4 (YR1,000).

“I have to fetch the wood from outside Sanaa. I go to Hajjah [120km north of Sanaa] or Tehama [200km west] and spend around a week collecting the firewood before hauling it back in the truck. It’s not an easy job.”

Shabia Mantoo, UNHCR’s Yemen spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that at a communal shelter for Internally displaced persons, Yemenis had resorted to “burning rubbish to bake bread.”

“There are two million people who have been displaced by the conflict, the vast majority have been displaced for more than a year, so they’ve exhausted all their resources and savings while in exile. Unsure of when the conflict will end, they are languishing in desperate conditions.

“Many of the internally displaced Yemenis are increasingly being driven to rely on humanitarian assistance, indebting themselves or resorting to other negative coping mechanisms such as begging to try and sustain themselves while in exile.

“Many are also drastically reducing their food intake as their purchasing power has reduced as a result of conflict and exile but food and fuel prices have also increased.”

‘Ruthless devils’

Abdul Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Shia rebels, has blamed the Saudi-led coalition for the worsening situation, accusing them of choking off supply lines and fueling the rise in black market trade. 

“There are traders who know how to benefit themselves and others reasonably, but then there are vampires who are only interested in achieving the biggest possible profit,” al-Houthi said in a lengthy televised speech on the Al Masirah TV network.

“The people that have disrupted the flow of gas are the same as the ones that turned it into an opportunity to make profit, they are vampires, ruthless devils.”

The Houthi-run Ministry of Industry and Trade announced on April 11 that it had ordered 200,000 gas cylinders to meet the city’s ever-growing demands, but it was unclear how they would source the propane.

“Lots of commodities are no longer available, and if they are, they’re very expensive,” said Abdulla Almatari, a 50-year-old resident of Sanaa.

“We keep protesting, begging the coalition to lift the blockade, but they have deaf ears.”

Hani Mohammed, a construction worker struggling to find work, said he resorted to “using cardboard” he found on the streets after giving up on cooking gas three weeks ago.

“I’ve had to adapt to the circumstance,” the father of three told Al Jazeera.

“When we tried firewood for the first time, it was strange. But now it’s normal.”

Outside the capital, the shortages are even more devastating, with more than 10 million people requiring immediate humanitarian assistance.

“I live in a war-torn country and have to accept these tough conditions,” Mohammed said. “Everybody does.”

Many Yemenis have resorted to buying firewood amid the chronic shortage of cooking gas [Faroq Moqbel/Al Jazeera]
Many Yemenis have resorted to buying firewood amid the chronic shortage of cooking gas [Faroq Moqbel/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera