Light, water, heat a lux­ury for mil­lions in Spain

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Pe­dro and Mo­hamed await ev­ery util­ity bill with much angst. To re­duce the money they have to pay, they live in the dark, with­out heat­ing, or shower just once a week-vic­tims like mil­lions in Spain of energy poverty. Wel­fare as­so­ci­a­tions have for years warned against this sit­u­a­tion, but the death ear­lier this month of 81-year-old Rosa in a fire caused by a can­dle she used for light has brought the is­sue firmly to the fore.

So­cial­ist law­maker Pi­lar Lu­cio asked the rul­ing con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment to im­me­di­ately im­ple­ment a “win­ter truce” on com­pa­nies cut­ting power to those who can­not pay-a mea­sure with ma­jor­ity sup­port in par­lia­ment and en­cour­aged in a 2009 EU di­rec­tive. Last year, ac­cord­ing to Spain’s Na­tional Sta­tis­tics In­sti­tute, 10.6 per­cent of Spa­niards were un­able to prop­erly heat their homes-or more than four mil­lion peo­ple-com­pared to just 5.9 per­cent in 2008, when an eco­nomic cri­sis kicked off. At fault are the eco­nomic cri­sis and widespread loss of jobs it caused, as well as a 30- to 50-per­cent rise in util­ity prices since 2006.

‘Lux­ury items’

Pe­dro Martinez, 48, has been in this sit­u­a­tion for sev­eral years. Un­em­ployed since 2013, when the fur­ni­ture com­pany he was work­ing for closed, he sur­vives on a pen­sion of 426 eu­ros ($450) a month, and what re­mains of the com­pen­sa­tion he re­ceived for be­ing fired. Di­vorced, he lives with his 20-year-old son and 23-year-old men­tally im­paired daugh­ter in a work­ing-class district of Barcelona, with­out heat­ing and us­ing elec­tric light only when ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.

“It’s tough in win­ter. We just have an elec­tric heater, which we rarely switch on for fear of the bill,” he says. “The cold chills you to the bone. We wear coats and at night we use all the blan­kets we have.” Tere Ber­mudez, spokes­woman for the Ro­man Catholic char­ity Car­i­tas, says that “for many fam­i­lies, water, light and gas are lux­ury items.” She says that from 2007 to 2015, the or­ga­ni­za­tion mul­ti­plied by 30 the num­ber of util­ity bills it helped pay.

One of its ben­e­fi­cia­ries is Mo­hamed Chairi, a 37-year-old Moroc­can. Un­em­ployed, his fam­ily lives off the monthly 250 eu­ros from his wife’s clean­ing work as well as help from char­i­ties. “We shower once a week, on Fri­days, so that the kids are clean at the week­end,” the fa­ther-of-three says. In the cor­ner of the liv­ing room of his small flat in Badalona near Barcelona, his youngest son plays with a bro­ken elec­tric ra­di­a­tor. Chairi has just re­ceived his elec­tric­ity bill - 24 eu­ros for the month, a small sum for Spain but huge for him. “The rent alone is 440 eu­ros,” he says. “If I have to suf­fer from hunger or go with­out light or water, I don’t care, but the kids...”.

Burn­ing can­vas shoes

Ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, Spain’s gas and elec­tric­ity prices were the third and fourth high­est re­spec­tively in the Euro­pean Union last year. “We are above the Euro­pean av­er­age (in terms of fuel poverty) de­spite hav­ing much bet­ter weather,” says Jose Luis Lopez, spokesman for the As­so­ci­a­tion of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence.

There is no na­tion­wide law on the is­sue, but sev­eral re­gions have im­ple­mented mea­sures to try and ad­dress it. In the north­east­ern re­gion of Cat­alo­nia, for in­stance, a law stip­u­lates that util­ity com­pa­nies must no­tify so­cial ser­vices be­fore cut­ting elec­tric­ity or gas, and if the fam­ily or per­son strug­gling to pay is clas­si­fied as vul­ner­a­ble, they are banned from do­ing so. But the law is not al­ways re­spected, as was the case for Rosa, with util­ity firm Gas Nat­u­ral ac­knowl­edg­ing it had not con­tacted so­cial ser­vices. Lopez es­ti­mates that some 7,100 peo­ple die ev­ery year due to fuel poverty.

Fire­fight­ers in Cat­alo­nia have also warned of the se­cu­rity risks in­volved. “We have come across peo­ple heat­ing them­selves with small fires made from news­pa­pers or even can­vas shoes,” said union spokesman An­to­nio del Rio. Spain may be emerg­ing from the cri­sis, but at least 600,000 house­holds saw their elec­tric­ity sup­ply cut off last year, ac­cord­ing to the Facua con­sumer as­so­ci­a­tion. “There’s a lot of talk about re­cov­ery, but on the street you don’t see it any­where,” said Pe­dro Martinez. —AFP

BARCELONA: ‘El Banc dels Ali­ments’ (Food Bank Foun­da­tion) vol­un­teers clas­sify food to be dis­trib­uted among the poor, at a ware­house in Barcelona dur­ing a na­tional char­ity cam­paign to fight hunger. —AFP

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