Lebanon has been plagued by chronic electricity shortages for since the country’s civil war that ended in 1990, but in recent weeks the situation has gotten exponentially worse, in what some fear will become the new normal.
In Beirut, the power provided by the state utility, Electricite du Liban (EDL) – which runs a deficit of around to $1-2 billion every year – is usually cut off for three hours a day. In areas outside the capital, daily power cuts can be much longer.
But over the past couple of weeks, EDL power has been provided for as little as two hours a day, while the diesel generators that normally fill the gap have been unable to handle the extra load.
The crisis has left food rotting in refrigerators, people sweating through sleepless nights without fans or air conditioning, and has increased the issues already faced by elderly, sick, and disabled people.
Shadi Nizam, 31, who has been wheelchair bound since a car accident in 2012, is now a prisoner in his house in one Beirut neighborhood. About a week ago, he went out to take care of some paperwork at the Health Ministry.
“When I came back, I sat for six hours under the building because there was no electricity,” and therefore no elevator, he said. “I kept saying, ‘It will come now, it will come now,’ and it didn’t come.”
In the end, four men from the neighborhood carried him in his wheelchair up three flights of stairs to his apartment.
“Before, you knew, for instance, that from 3 [p.m.] to 6 [p.m.] there won’t be electricity, so I would do my errands before 3 or after 6,” he said. “Now I don’t know what time the electricity is going to cut off, so I’m sitting in the house all the time because if I go out, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back in.”
Even so, Nizam noted that he is better off than others with more serious conditions whose lives depend on oxygen tanks or other electrical devices.
Crisis could be ongoing
Officials have blamed the blackouts on delays in new fuel shipments and a tainted fuel shipment from a subsidiary of Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil company that Lebanon contracts for fuel imports.
Following the arrival of a fuel shipment in Lebanon last week, Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar said Sunday night that the fuel had begun to arrive at EDL and that the electricity situation would improve beginning Monday, although he did not say by how much.
He projected that upon the arrival of two more shipments in the coming weeks, the situation would go back to the previous, normal level of electricity cuts.
But others warn that the problems may continue and even worsen due to the country’s economic and currency crises.
“We’re not at the stage of total blackout yet,” said energy consultant Jessica Obeid. “But the electricity situation now is directly linked to the entire financial and economic situation of the country and unless there is a solution, these blackouts are going to be more persistent and longer.”
Obeid noted that even before the current crisis, there had sometimes been delays in fuel shipments due to “political bickering” between the finance and energy ministries and the central bank that led to delays in opening lines of credit to purchase fuel.
Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert and Middle East and North Africa director of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, noted that given the country’s well publicized dollar shortage and lack of serious economic reform efforts, as well as the country’s default on its eurobond debt, the government is likely to face increasing difficulties in getting fuel shipments on time.
“Since we defaulted a couple of months ago it became really harder to get any shipments before we pay them,” she said. “There is no trust anymore in the country, [or] in the government being able to pay.”
Further, Haytayan said the government is moving too slowly to secure a new vendor to replace Sonatrach, whose contract to provide fuel needed for power plants expires at the end of the year. Instead, officials are focusing on a supply of diesel oil needed to power generators.
“For me, what I see as a worst-case scenario is EDL shutting down completely because of lack of fuel oil, and [then] because of [a] lack of money, [we’ll] then be hostages of the generators,” she said.
The “generator mafia”
Many residents rely on a subscription to a diesel generator service shared by a building or neighborhood to power their houses when the EDL electricity is off. The generators are run by a network of private operators who are often dubbed “the generator mafia.”
Before the current crisis, according to a recent World Bank report on the sector, generators were supplying approximately the 37 percent of electricity demand in the country, despite the fact that it is technically illegal for any entity other than EDL to sell power in Lebanon.
It’s a lucrative market, and not only for generator owners.
The report estimated the subscription-based generator market size at $1.1 billion in 2018, with an additional $2 billion market composed of fuel imports and distribution, generator sales, and maintenance services.
Now, with the extended cuts in government electricity, generators have been unable to cope with the wear and tear of running nearly non-stop, and with diesel fuel also in increasingly short supply, now many generator owners have restricted the hours that they run them, leaving many families facing hours of total blackout.
Meanwhile, a Human Rights Watch statement on the electricity crisis noted that “generator owners, now struggling to find fuel themselves, have hiked their prices, making them unaffordable for families already suffering from the economic crisis.”
Some families are rushing to purchase small generators to put on their balconies as a backup, which Haytayan noted is a throwback to the coping mechanisms people resorted to during the country’s civil war.
Reem Madhoun, a 22-year-old architecture student, is too young to remember the war, but recently her family bought small diesel generator to put on their balcony in their home in the Beqaa and another one for Madhoun’s apartment in Beirut.
The generator isn’t powerful enough to run all the household appliances, but it can at least provide light for Madhoun’s grandmother at night and power for her laptop so she can attend online classes and do her university work, she said.
“The less we use it, the better because of the smell, the sound, the money that you’re paying for fuel, everything, so we don’t really keep it on all night,” Madhoun said. “We turn it on whenever something is urgent.”
Analysts pointed to multiple missed opportunities to strengthen the electricity sector before the current financial crisis hit the country, including failures to invest in solar power and other renewable energy sources that could have offset the current fuel shortages.
Among other factors, Obeid noted that the government has not built a new power plant in 21 years, has not made investments in the electrical grid or moved to reduce power losses – including those due to people receiving power without paying for it – and has not made an effort to decentralize the power system to reduce EDL’s monopoly on legally supplying power.
Even in the current crisis, she said the government had failed to act with seriousness, instead focusing on minor reforms like appointing a new board for EDL – through a process that many criticized as lacking transparency and following the usual sectarian quota system.
“The government is continuing in their business-as-usual scenario, as if nothing has happened,” she said.
Meanwhile, “The clock is ticking and we’re running out of time.”