Why are power outages paralyzing Lebanon?

by Maya Gebeily | @GebeilyM | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 October 2021 09:45 GMT

Unlit buildings are seen during a partial blackout in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2021. Picture taken August 11, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah

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Lebanon's power outages are leading to water shortages, rotten food, and an imminent "humanitarian catastrophe." How did it get so bad?

By Maya Gebeily

BEIRUT, Oct 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Frequent power outages in Lebanon caused by a shortage of fuel have spilled into every aspect of life: empty bakeries; hospitals pushed to crisis point; family businesses struggling to survive. 

On October 9, Lebanon’s national power grid went entirely offline for 24 hours – meaning no state-provided electricity was available for the second time in two months.

With both government power grids and privately-run generators faltering, here's what you need to know about the power crisis hitting Lebanon amid a financial meltdown:

How are outages impacting people?

Rampant power cuts are disrupting everyday life.

Water stations without electricity aren't pumping water into people's homes and the United Nations' children's fund warned in August of a looming "worst case scenario" where four million people could be cut off.  

Bakeries devoid of power are unable to fire up their ovens, leading to shortages of the staple pita bread.

In people's homes, meat and dairy products have started to rot during hours-long outages.

Hospitals are on the brink of life-threatening shutdowns with some including the Rafik Hariri University Hospital running for days entirely on diesel-guzzling generators.

"We received diesel from international donors, from the army, and from other donors, but it's running out fast," said the hospital's director, Firas Abiad.

It's even impacting telecommunications, with the internet and phone lines down in several northern areas, the state telecoms agency said Thursday.

Are people finding workarounds?

People are flocking to cafes just to charge their phones and laptops, while exchanging information on where to buy solar panels or car batteries.

Others have turned to Instagram to share tips on how to keep refrigerated food safe, including transferring food to the freezer instead of the main compartment.  

The American University of Beirut's Medical Center – one of the country's premier private hospitals – said in August it had scraped together enough fuel to keep its generators on for another week, after having warned dozens of patients on respirators would "die immediately" if its power went out.

Hasn't Lebanon always had power cuts?

Lebanon's public electricity infrastructure was devastated by a brutal 15-year conflict that ended in 1990.

Post-war governments kept gas-guzzling, polluting thermal power plants running and heavily subsidized their operations instead of switching to sustainable energy solutions.

To make up for the gap in power production, it opted for short-term fixes, including renting electricity-producing ships.

Even then, swathes of the country were left without 24-hour power. Those who could afford to subscribed to private generator networks that switch on when the state grid turns off, but others in remote areas had to cope with hours of cuts.

According to the World Bank, the average twin cost of state electricity and private generators was estimated at 16.8 cents per kilowatt hour - higher than the world average price of around 13 cents.

What sparked the latest blackouts?

Lebanon's Central Bank has subsidized imports of fuel for both the state electricity company and diesel traders providing to private generators – but that drained its foreign exchange reserves to below its mandatory minimum.

As the money ran out, so did the fuel. Lebanon's state provider began feeding neighbourhoods with progressively less electricity – with residents outside Beirut reporting just 20 minutes a day from the public grid in August.

At first, private generator owners ramped up their hours to make up the difference, but had to begin rationing as their own diesel supplies dwindled and as machines risked overheating from being on in the summer heat.

On August 15, Lebanon's state electricity provider announced it had been forced to cut off power to the entire country, and a similar blackout hit the country for 24 hours from October 9 until the following day.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Faced with dwindling state coffers, Lebanon’s financial authorities are approving payments for fuel imports on a case-by-case basis. October’s one-day blackout ended only after the Central Bank granted Lebanon $100 million in credit to issue fuel import tenders.

Security forces are also carrying out raids to recover diesel illegally hoarded by traders, redistributing millions of recovered litres to hospitals, bakeries, and some power stations.

Lebanon is also exploring options to import gas from Egypt, electricity from Jordan, and heavy fuel oil from Iraq, which it could then trade for fuel compatible with its generators.

But these quick fixes and new deals may not make Lebanon’s energy sector sustainable.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi has urged stakeholders to collaborate on "a sustainable and equitable solution that serves the needs of all and protects the health and safety of communities."

Otherwise, she warned, thousands of Lebanese families could face a "humanitarian catastrophe."

"The risks are simply too great," Rochdi said.

This story was updated on October 11 with additional details on a new blackout and alternative solutions Lebanon is exploring.

Related stories:

Lebanese rediscover local flavours as crisis hits food imports

Lebanon's migrant pump attendants feel the pain of fuel shortages

Iraq's power cuts show privilege of staying cool in a heatwave

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily @gebeilym; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)