Residents toiling with rolling outages suggest living conditions now worse than during civil war
Not for the first time in recent months, the power has gone out in Lebanon.
Already contending with what has been described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 år, the country is also facing rolling blackouts – which have further disrupted daily life for millions and have threatened Lebanon’s water supplies and health system.
In the latest collapse, notable for its severity, the country’s two largest power stations, al Zahrani and Deir Ammar, were forced to shut down, reportedly as a result of fuel shortages.
With energy production at the national grid falling to 200 megawatts, down from the 3,000 megawatts said to be required, the system failed. One government official warned it would be unlikely to restart for several days.
According to broadcaster LCBI, officials at the state-run electricity firm Electricite du Liban have been left scrambling to rebuild the grid manually, with its national control centre having been destroyed in the explosion last August that devastated Beirut and plunged the country – and its government, which collapsed shortly afterwards – further into turmoil.
The grounds for the current crisis can arguably be traced back decades, to the end of the civil war, since which point successive governments have piled up one of the highest debt burdens in the world, amid accusations of chronic corruption and mismanagement.
The crash came in late 2019, when the government resigned in the face of mass protests, sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp but fuelled by anger at government corruption and the looming financial crisis.
With US dollars draining from Lebanon and the inflow of foreign currency drying up, the country’s banks closed their doors – and restricted customers’ withdrawals. As a black market foreign exchange opened up, the national currency’s value tanked. It is now estimated to have lost 90 per cent of its value, although its exact value is now hard to ascertain.
i mellomtiden, inflation, unemployment and poverty have soared, with the cost of food reported to have increased five-fold and supplies of medicine running low, even as the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Then came the blast at Beirut’s port, dreper mer enn 200 mennesker, displacing hundreds of thousands, wrecking countless homes and business, and disrupting transport and sewage systems in the capital city of a country already struggling to develop and maintain its basic infrastructure.
And with its foreign currency reserves running dry, Lebanon has found it harder to pay overseas energy suppliers, leaving its power plants without the necessary fuel to operate. I august, the country’s former electricity minister lamented that while the country required 3,000 megawatts of power, it had only enough fuel to produce 750.
Som et resultat, residents have reported having access to just one or two hours of state electricity per day, hvis noen.
While rolling blackouts have been a feature of life in Lebanon for decades, meaning a a significant number of residents have access to private generators, the scarcity and soaring costs of the fuel needed to run them have rendered them an increasingly inaccessible lifeline.
Not only have the shortages impacted businesses and left residents sweltering and unable to properly refrigerate food, they have also threatened to disrupt clean water supplies, while hospitals – in the midst of the pandemic – have been forced to close wards and reduce services, at points warning that they would have to turn off ventilators and dialysis machines.
The Central Bank has blamed petrol shortages on hoarding and smuggling to Syria because petrol is so heavily subsidised at great cost to the state which is running low on foreign reserves, Den uavhengige’s Middle East correspondent Bel Trew reported in September.
But in a move seen as a phasing out of these subsidies, the government has repeatedly raised fuel prices in recent months – further hitting residents in a nation where the UN estimates more than 80 per cent of the population live in multi-dimensional poverty.
The severity of the current outages have prompted some civilians to suggest that living conditions are now worse than during the 15-year civil war which ended in 1990.
“We are heading to a social explosion and an increase in living costs that Lebanon did not witness even in the war,” Bassam Tlais, the head of Lebanon’s Land Transport Union, reportedly told the Nidaa Al-Watan newspaper while discussing the scrapping of fuel subsidies.
Hassan Khalife, a 50-year-old who owns a small barbecue joint in Beirut, told Reuters in August: “During the civil war, even with how horrible it was, there weren’t any power cuts.”
It’s not only citizens that are affected. Even as the new government was approved by parliament, the session was marred by power cuts and broken generators, with the country’s new prime minister Najib Mikati asked by the speaker to cut his speech short in case the electricity cut off.
“From the heart of the suffering of Beirut … our government has emerged to light a candle in this darkness,” Mr Mikati told those at the session, adding that the shortages that day “[paled] in comparison to what the Lebanese people have been suffering for months”.
All eyes are now on his government to act where their predecessors have failed in pushing through long-awaited reforms, upon which a potential International Monetary Fund loan and billions of dollars of withheld foreign aid depend.