Out of gas ending
As Egypt recovers from a crisis in the supply of butane gas cylinders, Ahmed Abu Ghazala learns why three days has recently been the average wait
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Fathi Mahmoud, 66, had to wait six hours to replace his empty gas cylinder in Imbaba, in front of the Kitkat warehouse
Eleven o'clock in the morning and two long queues of more than 500 people have been standing waiting since 5am. One queue consists of men ranging between seven years old to over 60 standing beside their empty gas cylinders, and the other of women dressed in black galabiyas mostly resting on theirs. Silence prevails.
This was the scene last week in the low-income district of Warraq in Giza. However, silence suddenly turned into shouts and screams when the crowd learned there was a journalist present.
"I've been standing in these queues for three days now. My father told me not to come back without a cylinder, so I left work and everything to get one. I haven't even changed my clothes or slept at home since then," 18-year- old Mohamed Atef, who works as a plumber, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
A woman in her 50s also came running to express her opinion. "My husband is dead, and I am raising my orphaned children alone. I haven't been able to go to work for more than three days because I've been waiting in the queue for a cylinder."
Such scenes have lasted since January, and until recently there has been no sign of their improving. Furthermore, the problem does not only exist in Warraq. Many of Egypt's governorates have seen similar scenes because of the current gas-cylinder shortage.
According to official statistics, natural gas is currently used in almost 3.5 million homes. However, this means that most people still depend on gas cylinders to cook and heat water.
A shortage of gas cylinders in winter is common every year because of the cold weather, but it has not in the past become the kind of crisis witnessed this year. The press has also had weeks to explain the reasons behind the crisis.
According to sources at the Ministry of Petroleum, one of the main reasons for the shortage was the closure of the ports for several days in January because of bad weather conditions, a situation that depleted strategic reserve of the butane gas used in the cylinders and impeded the import of the amount needed to cover the shortage.
Another reason given by some experts is that Saudi Arabia and Algeria have not been exporting gas to Egypt for the last two months due to the non-payment of bills.
In addition, the escalating prices of diesel have led hatcheries, brick kilns and other businesses to buy the cylinders, usually used for domestic purposes, in large numbers in order to use them either for heating or manufacturing.
A similar situation has occurred at restaurants and other businesses that normally use a larger size of cylinder. Because of escalating prices, such businesses are tending to buy the smaller, domestic cylinders, leading to further shortages.
The nature of the butane gas used in the cylinders is another reason for the shortage. "The gas liquefies in cold weather, so the cylinders do not always work. People should gently heat the cylinder to turn the contents into gas again," Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf, head of the supply committee in the Warraq district, told the Weekly, explaining that as many as two thirds of the cylinders returned to them still contain gas.
Another aspect of the present crisis is people's behaviour in times of shortages. "We as citizens are also responsible for this crisis. Whenever they hear about a shortage, people run out to buy and store cylinders. If you spread a rumour about a shortage in anything, it will eventually turn into a crisis even without the existence of a real problem," commented Ashraf Ghoneim, head of public relations at the Warraq council.
There has also been evidence of mismanagement in the distribution of the cylinders. According to Mustafa Othman, deputy leader of the Warraq council, the district received huge quantities of cylinders that were more than enough to cover residents' needs, but many people came from other districts and took the cylinders because the warehouses are located on the outskirts of Warraq.
One solution in his opinion would be to distribute the cylinders in residential blocks in order to guarantee their equitable distribution.
The shortage of gas cylinders has led black-market dealers to raise prices, buying and storing the subsidised cylinders in order to sell them later for higher prices. Sixty-year-old Hassan Taha told the Weekly that dealers had arrived on tok-toks, sometimes taking at least five cylinders at a time.
One woman in her 40s said that two cars full of subsidised cylinders had been seen selling cylinders on the Ring Road for LE15 instead of the LE5 the cylinders usually cost when distributed to Warraq residents. "I don't have a cylinder. What should the poor do in this situation?" she asked.
Ghasob Suleiman, a member of the local council, said the same thing. "Some lorries distribute cylinders secretly in the fields at one or two in the morning to dealers and the owners of restaurants or other businesses," he said.
Another resident, 15-year-old Hassan Omar, said that a lorry full of cylinders had refused to give them cylinders. He explained that the supplier had told them to go to the bus station to get the cylinders, but "when we went there we only found people waiting, and when we came back to the lorry, it was gone."
There are wide discrepancies in the prices of cylinders sold on the black market, these varying in price from LE20 to LE45, or more. According to Atef, 18, his sister had not been able to wait in the queues, "so she had been forced to buy a cylinder for LE50 from a dealer last week." Prices have reached as much as LE60 elsewhere.
Mustafa Salama, a student at the Press Institute, said that the locations of the dealers are known to local people. "You can find 15 to 18 dealers selling cylinders in one place for LE25 to LE35. They say, 'don't buy if you don't like the price.'"
Yet, even at these high prices, black-market cylinders are not always available. "I have not been able to go to work for three days. Although I am a worker, and my daily wage is around LE30 to LE40, I have saved LE35 to buy a cylinder on the black market, but I still haven't been able to find one," 32-year-old Mahmoud Galal told the Weekly.
Recent press reports have revealed that the government has specified the price of unsubsidised gas cylinders at LE40-45, with instability in the prices of the unsubsidised cylinders now negatively affecting the subsidised ones.
According to Ashraf Sayed, an employee of the Ministry of Social Solidarity at the ministry's Kitkat warehouse in the Imbaba district of Cairo, people now pay LE5 for subsidised cylinders and don't ask for change because they are so glad to be getting a cylinder at all. People are buying the cylinders for LE5, and nobody tells them that the regular price is supposed to be LE3.
Meanwhile, people are also suffering in the queues for the cylinders, with women suffering from sexual harassment, for example. In addition, jostling and stampedes can occur when lorries arrive, and there is a lack of safe procedures in delivering the cylinders. Stealing empty cylinders from people in the queues is also a common occurrence.
When a lorry carrying 800 cylinders came to Warraq last week, the crowd of 1,000 people or more, consisting of poor and low-income people who need the subsidised cylinders and dealers who seek to buy them for later resale, shoved and jostled each other to get at the cylinders. In the ensuring confusion, the lorry left without giving anyone the cylinders.
Mahmoud Ahmed, 26, an employee in a private company, has been obliged to queue for two days in the hope of getting a cylinder, which has resulted in his losing 10 days of salary. Ahmed has not been able to get a cylinder because of the jostling of the crowd. When he did manage to get to the front of the queue, the supplier threw a cylinder down from the lorry, hitting Ahmed's leg and resulting in a huge swelling.
Hisham Hosni, 21, a mechanic from Imbaba, had been standing in the queue from 10am until 8:30 at night when the lorry finally arrived. The employee would not change his empty cylinder for a full one, and while he was talking to him Hosni's cylinder was stolen, meaning that he had to pay LE213 to buy a new one.
"Similar situations will continue to occur because the cylinders are very important to people," said Ashraf Abu Seada, a member of the Warraq council. "All parties are responsible for this situation, whether the suppliers or the owners of the warehouses who appear to benefit from the situation. The absence of adequate security adds to the problems." Abu Seada added that in his view the main fault lies in the distributors, who do not always do what they should to ensure that people get their cylinders.
One inspector for the Ministry of Social Solidarity at the Kitkat warehouse, who refused to give his name, said that the problem was that demand exceeded supply. The crisis had nothing to do with distribution, he said. "The solution is that inspectors should attend to the distribution process. When the supply increases, the crisis will end."
It seems that the crisis was beginning to wind down this week, after the government increased the number of subsidised cylinders available. In Imbaba, where problems over cylinder supply had been similar to those experienced in Warraq, relief came after an additional lorry filled with cylinders was added.
Problems had arisen when only a single lorry came every day, but these have largely disappeared now that two lorries arrive each day, said resident Sabah Seddik. Said Abu Zeid, a member of the Warraq council, also said that the crisis there had begun to end after the security forces began to provide the district with 2,000 to 3,000 cylinders on a daily basis.
However, people are still upset at the fact that they have to stand in queues in order to get the cylinders. "We have been waiting here from 6am until 11 in order to get a cylinder, and we have had to leave everything in order to do so," lamented 41-year-old Amelia Mahmoud.
Whatever the reasons behind the subsidised cylinder shortage, questions may now be raised about the timing of the crisis, which has come hot on the heels of news that the government intends to launch a cash subsidy system instead of the present direct subsidy system for goods.
Another question raised by the crisis is whether it indicates that the country is experiencing growing problems of energy resources, especially since the Ministry of Petroleum has announced that it will import cement rather than build new factories that use huge amounts of gas and diesel.
Abdallah Badawi, first deputy of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in the Giza governorate, told the Weekly in a telephone interview that the press was to blame for exaggerating the problem and turning it into a crisis.
He said that the press had a responsibility to reassure people and to prevent panic spreading. "What more can the government do?" Badawi asked. "Giza's supply is normally 22,000 cylinders, and we were distributing 35,000. What more can we do?"
Badawi added that the problem had ended when the weather became warmer, people now changing their cylinders every two to three weeks, instead of every two or three days, as at the height of the cold weather and the supply crisis.
People share part of the responsibility for the crisis, he said. "We have a behavioural problem. People who own two or three cylinders as reserves rushed to change their cylinders when they heard about the shortage. One million families live in Giza. Imagine what happens when each family tries to change two or three cylinders at the same time."