Lebanese dissatisfied with government services
Beirut - Abdullah is fed up with paying twice for electrical power.
“I pay two bills for electricity — one for the government and the other for the generator in our neighbourhood,” said the 51-year-old, who is married with two teenage children. “For water, it’s three bills — the government, the owner of a tanker who sells us water for everyday use a private company that sells us drinking water.”
Abdullah, who lives in an eastern suburb of Beirut where outages in government-supplied electricity can reach 18 hours a day, pays the equivalent of $80 to the government every two months and $60- $100 to the generator’s owner every month, although the government sets the latter rate at $54-$81.
“We’re subscribed to 5 amperes only in the generator, compared to 10 amperes in the regular service,” he said. “With 5 amperes you can barely turn on a fridge, a television set and two or three lamps at a time. Air conditioning is out of the question.”
Mansour, a 49-year-old Lebanese living in Beirut, is a little better off. Outages reach up to six hours daily in the financial and political hub. The widower who is the father of two young girls is subscribed to 15 amperes to both the government power service and a generator jointly owned by the occupants of the building where he lives.
“I pay around $150 to the government every two months and $30 for the generator,” he said. “The generator costs us only fuel, oil and maintenance. There’s no generator owner who wants to make money.”
Outages have plagued Lebanon since its 1975-90 civil war and the power crisis is a legacy of that conflict, which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. An ambitious reconstruction process was launched in 1992, led by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination in 2005 sent Lebanon to the brink of another civil war.
Lebanese households spent on average $1,300 on electricity in 2013, two-thirds on generators, in a country where the gross national income per capita is $9,800, according to World Bank estimates. Generation capacity falls more than one-third short of demand and about 45% of what is produced is lost in the network because of illegal connections, tampering with meters or technical reasons, says the organisation, which in a recent report blamed Lebanon’s sectarian political system for many of the country’s ills, including electricity supply problems.
The government spends $2 billion every year to purchase fuel for the Électricité du Liban (EDL), the government-owned power company that has monopoly on the sector and sells power at subsidised prices, said a parliamentary source. “This is almost more than 15% of public spending,” he said, admitting that political bickering and corruption have stopped solutions from coming into being, including a decrease or a full removal of subsidies.
“A major overhaul of the system to get 24-hour power would take $5 billion to $6 billion based on the government’s estimates. The plans are there and financing can be handled through borrowing or partnerships with the private sector,” the lawmaker said. “You simply need a decision to start the overhaul,” he added, arguing that a 15-year government plan, announced in 2010 to eventually provide 24-hour electricity across the country, could still be applied with some amendments if any.
The country is shackled by government paralysis and widely perceived corruption that put a brake on development. Public dissatisfaction has been fed by anger over rubbish being left to fester in the streets, widely seen as another sign of the political paralysis. Tensions have been exacerbated by the conflict in Syria, which has driven into Lebanon more than 1 million refugees who put more strain on infrastructure.
EDL’s problems arose from a lack of major investment in production, transmission and distribution from 1997 through 2013, complex laws and regulations dating from 1972 and staff cuts, a source in the Ministry of Energy and Water said. “Full or partial privatisation can be a solution but how to get to a decision on this seems even harder than solving the power problem itself.”
In the eastern city of Zahle, the local electricity company, a rare utility concession that buys power from the national grid, built its own power plant and sells electricity for unsubsidised prices. Many Électricité du Zahle (EDZ) installations have been subject to sabotage blamed by EDZ on owners of generators in the area now out of business.
MP and former prime minister Najib Mikati and MP Mohammad Safadi announced in September plans to end power cuts in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and their hometown, through the establishment of a private electricity company. In October, Byblos InvesBank announced that it had acquired a stake in an existing electricity company to provide around-the-clock electricity to Jbeil region.
“Électricité du Jbeil (EDJ) is a concession, similar to EDZ. The concession for Tripoli, the Électricité du Qadisha (EDQ) was similar, too, but was liquidated in 1986,” the parliamentary source explained. “In the current unfavourable political atmosphere, it would be hard to revive EDQ,” he said.