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Lebanon's electricity crisis worsens, total blackout looming

Anti-government protesters burn tires and garbage bins to block the road during a protest against the power cuts, the high cost of living and the low purchasing power of the Lebanese pound, in front of the Lebanese Central Bank at Hamra street in Beirut, Lebanon, on March 15. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
Anti-government protesters burn tires and garbage bins to block the road during a protest against the power cuts, the high cost of living and the low purchasing power of the Lebanese pound, in front of the Lebanese Central Bank at Hamra street in Beirut, Lebanon, on March 15. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 1 (UPI) -- "Imagine your life without electricity, Internet, phones, hospitals or vaccines." This was a statement by caretaker Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar in March, announcing that Lebanon will gradually plunge into total darkness as cash runs out to buy fuel for power stations.

It's no longer left to the imagination: The state electric company, Electricite du Liban, has started rationing power to a few hours a day in an effort to stave off a total blackout.

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The decades-old electricity problem is a striking example of Lebanon's deep-rooted corruption, waste of public money, kickbacks, mismanagement and failure to reform.

The situation worsened May 14 when the Turkish Karadeniz firm shut down electricity supplies to Lebanon from two floating power plants over reported corruption allegations linked to its contract.

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People have become used to chronic power shortages since networks were badly damaged during the 1975-90 civil strife and continued over the years to suffer from increased demand, illegal connections and destruction caused by Israeli air attacks.

As Lebanese officials failed to fix the electricity problem -- whether because of incompetence, corruption or persistent political bickering -- consumers had no other alternative but to adapt and organize their life based on average 12-hour cut-offs a day.

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During the early years of the war, they used their car batteries to power small TV sets to follow the news. As the blackouts increased, they started to buy small generators for their homes and businesses to keep a few lights on and appliances running. In post-war times, they relied on huge costly diesel generators operated in the neighborhoods by private suppliers, called "generator mafias."

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The recent economic crisis, with cash-strapped Lebanese struggling with a shortage of U.S. dollars, the collapse in value of the Lebanese pound, hyperinflation and growing poverty and unemployment, only exacerbated the electricity problem.

This time, only few will be able to find affordable alternatives, such as buying expensive UPS (uninterruptible power supply) and battery backups to charge their cellphones, work with computers or save their food in the fridge.

"We stand in a very difficult position. We reached this point because of lack of governance, mismanagement, stubbornness and resistance to implement reform laws," Yassine Jaber, a lawmaker and head of the parliament's foreign affairs who has been following the electricity file for years, told UPI.

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Jaber said Lebanon could have avoided the electricity crisis a "long time ago" and fixed the ailing sector if it hadn't turned down offers from the World Bank, Arab funds, Germany and international companies to help solve the problem. The latest such offers were made by Germany's Siemens Co. during Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Beirut in 2018 and again last year.

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"We could have built and owned the [power] plants at no more than $300 million instead of paying more than $1 billion over the past years for 380 megawatts" supplied by the Turkish ships, Jaber said.

He noted that in Egypt, Siemens built three power plants producing 14,400 megawatts within three years at "$650,000 for each megawatt," a total of $9.4 billion.

Lebanon, which produces 2,334 megawatt-hours, including the 380 megawatts from the Turkish floating power plants at an annual cost of around $200 million (U.S.), needs 3,562 megawatts to secure 24 hours a day of electricity for the whole country.

Sameh Moubarak, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank, said Lebanon's power sector has been in "constant crisis mode" for decades.

"Thirty years ago, when the EDL was losing $100 million to $150 million, there was a problem then. Today, it is $2 billion. Lot of the same issues that caused the losses then are causing the losses today," Moubarak told UPI in an online video interview from Washington, D.C.

He referred to a 2010 plan to fix the power sector that tackled investment in power generation, increasing renewable energy, separating transmission, generating and distribution, as well as the use of Floating Storage and Regasification Units, using gas instead of diesel, one of the most expensive and polluting fuels.

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"We have been raising the alarm for almost four years now. The solution has been known, studies have been done, and it is not that financing isn't available, but the fact that decisions that need to be made are not being made. Or if they are made, they are the wrong decisions," Moubarak said. "We are certainly hoping that decision makers do not wait until the country falls apart to make the right decisions."

With Lebanon in dire shortage of hard currency, buying fuel or spare parts to maintain its power plants is becoming harder by the day. Moreover, the Turkish ships contract will expire in September.

"The current impasse can't last for much longer. I don't know how much more the sector can continue ... before it collapses," Moubarak said. "Things will get worse, power plants will start to break down because they cannot be maintained and so cannot generate power."

Some public utilities, including the finance and telecommunications ministries, are turning to the neighborhood private generators to secure power for their servers and Internet connections.

The director of Impact, a U.K.-financed platform to track COVID-19 cases and get vaccination appointments, had to pay $100 of her own money for the neighborhood generator to keep the platform active, Jaber said.

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Commercial centers, housing shops and offices are also struggling to keep their generators running and continue serving their clients.

"We are doing our best to provide electricity from our generators, but the problem is that we don't have the ability to stock diesel, which we are buying sometimes at the black market," Rachid Boueri, manager of Saroulla commercial center in Beirut's mainstream Hamra Street, told UPI.

Some tenants, whose businesses were greatly affected by the economic crisis, can no longer pay the generator bill, which increased four times this month, and asked to reduce their consumption and subscription.

"They are not earning enough money to cover their generator bill," Boueri said. "We suffered from severe power outages during the war, climbed stairs, spent evenings on candle lights but we had hope... Such hope doesn't exist today with this ruling class."

Most of the blame for the crisis is put on the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, who is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. For 11 years, Bassil and close associates held the electricity portfolio in the cabinets that were formed, but their strategy failed to reform the sector or build plants to generate 24-hour electricity as repeatedly promised.

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Instead, they opted for generating power from the Turkish ships, supposedly as a temporary arrangement, arguing that their political opponents prevent them from saving the sector.

"We wasted all the opportunities to fix the sector because the one who has been running the electricity ministry wasted 11 years without doing anything," Jaber said. "His very bad management pushed us to this point... We kept on turning into a vicious circle: either the ships or the blackout."

Ten years ago, a top World Bank official warned Lebanese leaders, "You are going to be destroyed by the electricity sector." Indeed, it is destroying the country and the lives of its people.

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