In the wake of the recent military crisis in Crimea, energy experts have been discussing whether Vladimir Putin will be tempted to gain political advantage by on the Russian natural gas pipelines that supply Ukraine and Western Europe. Regardless of whether this scenario is likely, such speculation raises the question: How would urban residents in a cold climate cope if the supply of natural gas were suddenly turned off?
Hollywood screenwriters have imagined various dystopic versions of a future economic collapse; these fictional accounts usually involve desperate citizens fighting over firewood and scraps of food. Most of these stories feature roving bands of armed, violent thugs. Unlike these screenwriters, however, I don’t believe that an energy crisis or economic collapse would necessarily lead to social anarchy.
Week-long electricity blackouts cause massive problems
Of course, many Americans have some familiarity with the consequences of short-term energy crises. We know what usually happens during electricity outages (for example, after an ice storm or a hurricane), and many of us remember the consequences of tight oil supplies during the 1970s.
During a blackout, many homes have no running water, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, and no heat; it can become quite unpleasant to live in such a home after just a few days without electricity. To limit suffering, authorities usually respond to these disasters by establishing emergency shelters, setting up gasoline-powered generators in public buildings, and distributing fresh drinking water.
In the U.S., these energy crises are usually solved in a matter of days or weeks. But what would happen to urban society if energy supplies were cut off for months or years?
The Armenian energy crisis of 1992
I lived and worked in Armenia for 18 months, off and on, between April 1990 and March 1992. I started as a volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee, as part of a six-month project to build medical clinics in villages devastated by the December 1988 earthquake. Once that project was complete, I returned to Armenia for another year, to build housing for earthquake victims in Stepanavan.
When I started my volunteer stint, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. By the time I left in 1992, Armenia was an independent country. These were turbulent years. While trying to address the needs of 500,000 homeless earthquake victims, Armenia was engaged in an on-again, off-again war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan. The war created hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled from Azerbaijan to Armenia for safety.
During these years, the country also suffered a trade blockade by two of its neighbors, an economic collapse, rampant inflation, and a full-fledged energy crisis.
When I left the country in March 1992, Armenians were still struggling through the coldest winter in decades with very little access to electricity or natural gas.
Before the earthquake, life in Yerevan was good
Armenia is a landlocked country that borders Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan. The climate of the capital city, Yerevan, is similar to the climate of Boston; winters can be cold and snowy.
Before the Armenian energy crisis of 1991-1993, the citizens of Yerevan lived a comfortable, middle-class existence. Most residents lived in multi-story apartment buildings served by elevators. Most families had a refrigerator, gas stove, and television. Apartments had regular electrical service and central heating. The city has a modern subway system, several art museums, and an impressive opera house.
Although the December 1988 earthquake devastated cities in the north of the country, the capital city was spared any significant damage.
During the winter of 1991-1992, the two major pipelines that delivered Russian natural gas to Armenia — one that passed through Azerbaijan, and one that passed through Georgia — were mostly cut off, due to the Azeri blockade and politically motivated sabotage. While gas was sometimes available from the pipeline through Georgia — a country that was undergoing its own political crisis — supplies were so limited that every Armenian suffered.
Electricity production was crippled that winter: the country’s nuclear power plant had been taken offline after the 1988 earthquake; hydroelectric production was almost halted when the water level in Lake Sevan dropped to record lows; and the disruption in natural gas delivery greatly reduced the output of gas-fired generators.
According to , Yerevan’s mayor declared in January 1992 that the city was in “a catastrophic situation.” The article noted, “As the temperature dipped to 10 degrees, … the supply of water to homes and power stations [was] interrupted overnight by frozen pumps and water mains. … Only 48 percent of public housing is being heated, and then only for a few hours each day. Hotels and restaurants are without heat or hot water. Hospitals have frequent power failures. … The mayor said only 2 million cubic meters of natural gas is coming in daily through neighboring Georgia, but Armenia needs 15 million cubic meters a day.”
Russian Natural Gas Exports
Russia is the world’s second largest producer of natural gas. Most of Russia’s exported natural gas is sent by pipeline to countries in the European Union, including Germany. In 2013, Russia supplied EU countries with 167 billion cubic meters of natural gas, equal to 34% of the countries’ natural gas usage.
According to a recent by Stacey Vanek Smith, “Europe (especially Germany, Europe’s biggest economy) is moving away from nuclear energy right now. The only viable alternatives are natural gas and coal, and coal comes with the greenhouse gas emissions issue. ‘That would tend to link Germany with Russian natural gas even more strongly,’ says Christopher Knittel, an energy economist at MIT. ‘That might be enough to give Russia the upper hand in terms of any negotiations.’”
The report continued, “But Russia isn’t the only country with natural gas. Why can’t Europe just get natural gas from someone else? Like the U.S., for example? Because, unlike oil, shipping natural gas is expensive and extremely labor intensive. It has to be liquified. ‘The reason that natural gas is primarily a continental market is because it’s pretty cheap to move it through pipelines, but it’s very expensive to liquefy it and ship it by tanker,’ explains James Bushnell, an economist at The University of California, Davis.”
Russia’s natural gas pipeline to Europe goes through Ukraine. ‘This is a high stakes game of poker and it does look like Vladimir Putin right now has a definite advantage,’ says Phil Flynn, senior markets analyst with the Price Futures Group in Chicago.”
During that difficult winter, the Armenian government was unable to provide much in the way of emergency aid to affected citizens. Most schools and factories remained closed.
No more space heat
I was building homes in Stepanavan, in northeast Armenia, that winter, as part of a relief project supported by the Armenian Diocese in the U.S. About twice a month, I would travel to Yerevan on weekends to visit my friends Susanna Galstian and Melik Karapetyan — as long as enough gasoline was available for the shared taxis to be operating.
Like everyone else in Yerevan, my friends were living in unheated apartments. If they were lucky, they had 4 or 6 hours of electricity a day. During that winter, the residents of Yerevan had three main energy-related concerns: obtaining water, staying warm, and cooking food.
Since many areas of Yerevan depended on electric pumps to pressurize the water mains, water supplies were irregular. For most residents, the solution to this problem was simple: whenever pipes delivered water, every available bottle, pot, and washtub in the apartment would be filled.
Staying warm was trickier. When pipelines stopped delivering natural gas to Yerevan, most buildings went cold. Indoor temperatures dropped (and in many buildings, water pipes froze). Of course, people dressed in multiple layers of clothing, and many people spent the day in bed.
Sheet-metal wood stoves
As the winter dragged on, sheet-metal workers began selling simple home-made wood stoves in outdoor markets. These stoves became common, and were even installed in 6th-floor apartments. The usual method of installation required a pane of glass to be removed from a window, so that a piece of sheet metal could be installed in its place. Then a horizontal stove pipe was extended through a hole in the sheet metal.
Many of these stoves included small fuel tanks to hold kerosene or used motor oil. The tanks were elevated, and connected to short lengths of small-diameter copper tubing controlled by a valve. The tubing terminated inside the stove’s firebox; the idea was to adjust the valve so that oil would drip slowly on the wood fuel in the firebox.
The main advantage of the oil-drip system is that the stove could burn all kinds of fuel, including cardboard, punky wood, or miscellaneous scraps.
For fuel, the citizens of Yerevan scrounged on the streets. At first they gathered twigs, boxes, and discarded packaging. As the crisis worsened, they went out at night with saws and began cutting limbs from street trees and the trees in Yerevan’s parks.
Another favorite fuel that winter was books, especially the inexpensive Marxist-Leninist school books that every Soviet citizen had acquired in high school. Tens of thousands of unread Marxist tomes were burned that winter in Yerevan, aided by the drip-drip-drip of used motor oil.
Cooking food became tricky
Apartment dwellers who had installed a wood stove were able to use the stove for limited space heating and cooking. But during the early months of that difficult winter, these wood stoves were rare, and many families had to use considerable ingenuity to cook their food.
Once gas service was cut off, kitchen ranges because useless. At that point, everyone went out and bought an electric hot plate. But electricity was supplied for only a few hours a day, and the service was totally unpredictable. On some days, the electricity might come on between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.
The Armenian Earthquake
On December 7, 1988, northern Armenia was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed between 24,000 and 45,000 people. The worst-hit cities included Spitak, Leninakan (Gyumri), Stepanavan, and Kirovakan. After the earthquake, only about 25% of the buildings in these cities were still habitable. Over 500,000 Armenians were left homeless.
According to engineering teams who visited the country after the earthquake, the main reasons for the high death toll were inadequate local construction standards and the bitter winter weather.
After the earthquake, Armenian authorities worried that the earthquake might have affected the safety of the Metsamor nuclear power plant, and therefore ordered the facility to be shut down. The nuclear plant remained closed for six years, contributing to the country’s subsequent energy crisis.
Here’s the way most families coped: before they went to bed, they cut up their potatoes, cabbage, and onions, and perhaps a little meat if they were lucky, and put the uncooked food in a stew pot. Then they turned on every light in the house. (Of course, the entire neighborhood was dark.) When the electricity came on in the middle of the night, the lights would wake somebody up. At that point, it was important to rush to the kitchen and cook the stew, stirring as necessary. Once the stew was cooked, it was placed on top of the biggest pillow in the house, and then a pile of pillows and quilts was arranged around the stew pot as insulation. At that point, the cook could go back to bed.
The next day, the family ate stew. For the first meal of the day, the stew was warm; as the day wore on, of course, the stew gradually cooled off, making subsequent meals less satisfying than breakfast.
Navigating dark corridors
As energy supplies dwindled, public transportation became irregular. Buses were infrequent and overcrowded. When electricity supplies were short, the subway didn’t run.
We did a lot of walking that winter. When I visited my friends in Yerevan, I followed the local practice of always carrying a candle and matches. When I arrived at an apartment building, the entryway was always dark. Of course, elevators weren’t working. When you entered a building, you lit your candle and walked up the stairs (often to the fifth or sixth floor) by candlelight.
The social fabric stayed intact
During the winter of 1991-1992 (as well as the subsequent winter), there was a lot of suffering in Armenia. The weak and the elderly were most affected by the cold, and death rates rose. But there was no breakdown of the social fabric. There were no gangs of armed thugs breaking into homes and terrorizing the innocent.
Although the crime rate may have risen, I saw no disturbing signs of criminal activity, and I felt perfectly safe in Yerevan. It was clear from my conversations with Armenians that the typical response to hardship was the strengthening of existing networks of friends and family. Those who had a vegetable garden shared potatoes with those who lacked food. There were countless examples of cooperation and mutual aid.
My experiences that winter in Armenia left me with a hopeful outlook on how people respond to hard times. Here’s what I learned: when times get tough, you don’t want a bomb shelter and a rifle. What you want is to be surrounded by neighbors you know on a first-name basis.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “All About Washing Machines.”