x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Shops still paying the price for blackouts

In a repeat of last summer, power cuts have proven to be a major burden for Sharjah merchants, with businesses keeping expensive generators on standby for future setbacks.

The Atiq Laundry, in Sharjah, was forced to close for three days last month due to power cuts.
The Atiq Laundry, in Sharjah, was forced to close for three days last month due to power cuts.

A bead of sweat rolled down the Indian engineer's face as he stepped out into the Sharjah sunlight from his ramshackle workshop. It was an unbearably hot and humid day in the heart of Industrial Area 1, where Saber Ahmad and his two colleagues sat around for hours at Al Shoul Engineering Workshop. The temperature inside the shop was worse than outside, with no air conditioning or fans to provide respite from the searing heat. But what was even worse than the heat was the total lack of business.

"With electricity I am OK to work, but when there is none I cannot," Mr Ahmad says, explaining how several days of power cuts last month affected his operation. He adds that the business has suffered outages several times during the past few weeks in one of the year's hottest months for the UAE. Temperatures often soar to between 40 and 50 degrees from June to September, leaving people without power to swelter in the unforgiving heat.

At a time when business is already slow, Mr Ahmad says blackouts make an already difficult situation even harder to bear. The cause of the problem lies with the Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (Sewa), which has experienced technical difficulties during the summer. When apologising to customers late last month, the agency attributed the outages to a "sudden glitch" in the natural gas pipeline that feeds Sewa's main power station. It added that an increase in consumption, particularly with air conditioning as people try to stay cool, had contributed to the blackouts.

On July 25, local media reported that the power outage had led to one person's death while hospitals were inundated with cases of heat exhaustion, mostly involving construction workers. In the statement reported by the UAE news agency WAM, Sharjah's electricity authority also said it was doing its utmost to prevent "repetition of the glitch". Sewa wasn't available for comment when contacted by The National.

To avoid similar experiences, some business owners have either bought or rented generators, the latter option costing about Dh100 per day - a considerable expense for these small business owners. While their electricity is currently working, the fear of being cut off at any time keeps them from offloading the generators. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford this back-up power supply, however.

Chiraag, a 26-year-old shopkeeper from India, had to make do with hand fans when his electricity recently cut out. He and his employees at the Mohd Rezk sanitary store on King Faisal Road were without power for three days. Chiraag, who asked his last name be withheld, has lived in the UAE all his life. He has run the store for the past eight years, and says his landline phone service was also down during this period.

"It was completely miserable because we couldn't sit inside all day, but we also couldn't shut the business down for two to three days because people would think we'd run away," he says. "I have my people [employees] living in this same building as we work and they had no electricity at home for those three days. "We had the same thing last year for three hours a day every day for 18 days. There is still a problem now; if you go down the road you will find generators everywhere."

During those three days without power, Chiraag estimates that his daily takings were down between 20 to 30 per cent compared to the same period last year when the electricity was working. "It affects your business because if you don't have sales, how can you pay back your suppliers?" he says. On a personal level, Chiraag says the power cuts couldn't have come at a worse time. His wife had just brought the couple's new-born daughter home when the blackout hit their apartment.

"I had a small baby at home and she was only 12 days old, so it was pretty terrible for her," he says. "She was crying all night, especially from 11pm to 8am the next morning because of the weather." The experience has left a bitter taste for Chiraag, who says he regularly pays between Dh1,200 and Dh1,300 a month on electricity. "There are no concessions and we can't do anything about it," he says. "It's difficult, but what can we do? Sewa should have sent a letter saying the electricity would be off for so many hours, which isn't so bad because we could have adjusted."

A few doors down from here is the Atiq Laundry, where Mr Ramkumar has worked since 1984 after moving from India to Sharjah. Business is brisk now, with clothes piled high all around the store as Mr Ramkumar works his way through a huge stack of ironing. It's a far cry from last month when he was forced to shut up for three days from July 19 to July 21 because of the outage. Unable to converse in English, Mr Ramkumar, who also preferred to withhold his full name, asks his friend Ibrahim to translate. "For three days continuous there was no electricity and he could not work. I was without work and not earning for those days, so I lost Dh2,500 to Dh3,000 over the three days."

Last month, Ramkumar received his highest Sewa bill this year, up from a usual fee of about Dh1,200 to Dh1,900. Additional consumption during the summer months has bumped up his monthly electricity costs, with no compensation awarded for the recent power shortages. Other local traders say they have also received increased electricity bills, despite experiencing blackouts last month. But despite these grievances, Eric Ohanian is one businessman who has few complaints.

"If I have the bill, I will pay whatever it is. I can't ignore it," he says. The Lebanese owner of Markarian Auto, a car repairs shop set on a dusty back street in Industrial Area 1, says his business was affected during the last week of July.But, far from losing his temper, Mr Ohanian not too concerned about the recent problems. "I was affected a little bit because I have a small business, but it happens and we trust Sharjah government to make the power come back as soon as possible," he says.

"If there is a problem they can solve it. I am Lebanese and we can have this problem at home, but they [government] don't know how to solve it or they don't want to. Here, they can solve it always after one, two, three or four days." Mr Ohanian said his business lost a small amount of income during the blackouts, although he says his workers were still able to carry out some minor repairs. "Who cares about money? It comes and goes - one day you make a profit one day a loss. Sometimes we have electricity but no jobs; we can wait two days and not have any work, so it doesn't matter if we have no power then."

Thoughts of calling Sewa to complain have never been entertained, according to Mr Ohanian. "I don't get angry and I hope others don't either," he says. While Mr Ohanian may be resigned to more power failures in the coming weeks, like all merchants and residents in Sharjah, he admits that he also lives in the hope that he has seen the last of these summer blackouts. @Email:pf@thenational.ae