Lebanon protests escalate over power outages

Overnight, protesters in Sidon, Tripoli, Beirut and other parts of Lebanon blocked major roads with burning tyres.

Thursday 30/07/2020
Demonstrators carry tyres to burn them and to block the main road in Ouzai, south of Beirut during an anti-government protest. (DPA)
Demonstrators carry tyres to burn them and to block the main road in Ouzai, south of Beirut during an anti-government protest. (DPA)

BEIRUT – Protests against Lebanon’s economic crisis and power outages in the country escalated Thursday amid widespread blackouts that saw the majority of Lebanese regions drenched in darkness amid an ongoing heat wave.

Protesters in Jounieh tried to storm the offices of the state-run Electricité Du Liban (EDL), complaining against power cuts. They chanted slogans against the government and the political elite and threatened not to pay their due electricity bills.

In the northern city of Tripoli, groups gathered on a highway blocking traffic with burning tyres in protest against the economic crisis and ongoing blackouts.

Overnight, protesters in Sidon, Tripoli, Beirut and other Lebanese areas also blocked major roads with burning tyres.

Various Lebanese regions have suffered from long hours of blackout due to diesel and fuel shortages.

In recent weeks, Lebanon has witnessed almost daily demonstrations against the frequent power outages.

Earlier in July, EDL board of directors told Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar that it might be impossible for the corporation to maintain production, transmission and distribution of electricity to subscribers.

On Tuesday, EDL said in a statement that a malfunction in the Jiyeh Thermal Factory affected the power stations in Jiyyeh-Bsalim, Zahrani and Deir Ammar.

Power outages lasting up to 22 hours per day in most Lebanese areas have crippled the country.

By a cabinet decision, Beirut used to be excluded from strict rationing being the hub for the state’s institutions, embassies and major businesses. But not anymore.

On social media, users wrote angry comments against the government and the Ministry of Energy and blamed them for the lack of production plants.

According to some social media users the government failed to construct new plants at a low cost, wasting about $45 billion on this sector without bringing in electricity.

On Wednesday, leader of the Future Movement Saad Hariri lashed out at the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, saying: “Where are the reforms? Beirut has been without electricity [for days],” in reference to the severe power cuts that swept the Lebanese capital and other areas.

Hariri also renewed his call for a forensic audit to cover not only the Central Bank’s accounts, but also all state institutions, including the ailing electricity sector, which is draining the state’s treasury of around $2 billion in annual subsidies.

Lebanon has not had capacity to supply 24-hour electricity since its 1975-1990 civil war, leaving many households reliant on their own generators or private neighbourhood suppliers who charge hefty fees to keep a few lights on or other appliances running during regular daily cuts that can last several hours.

The largely unregulated neighbourhood suppliers, responsible for a web of power cables slung across city streets, are popularly called the “generator mafia” for their supposed political clout. The owners say they simply offer a service that the state can’t.

Ageing power plants run by the state use expensive fuel oil that, along with exhaust from diesel generators, adds to the smog lingering over cities in the nation of 6 million people.

The government, World Bank and International Monetary Fund all say electricity reform is vital to cutting debt, now equivalent to about 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The accumulated cost of subsidising EDL amounts to about 40 percent of Lebanon’s entire debt, the IMF said in 2016.

The World Bank says electricity shortages rank second only to political instability in hindering business. 

Relying on fuel oil power plants and diesel generators also comes with a health cost: air pollution that can cause respiratory disease. Air pollution in Beirut was three times levels deemed a hazard by the World Health Organisation, according to 2014 data.

The main power plants in Lebanon have an average capacity of just over 2,000 megawatts (MW), compared to peak demand of 3,400 MW. For Beirut, the best supplied city, that means daily cuts of three hours a day. Elsewhere, it can mean outages for much of the day.

Distribution and revenue collection are also big problems.

EDL collects payments for only half the power it produces, with some power lost through creaking transmission network and other supplies siphoned off the system through unauthorised cables.

In 2012, the government appointed private companies to run metering, billing and payment collection for EDL, but it gave them little power to enforce payment.

Lebanon has made sporadic attempts to end power shortages for decades, but its efforts have been thwarted by conflict, political instability and the challenge of policy-making in a system of government that depends on a delicate balance of interests across that nation’s fractious sectarian groupings.

Earlier in July, Lebanon’s energy minister cited stockpiling as one of several reasons behind the shortages, with people buying subsidised fuel as a hedge against inflation.

Anti-government demonstrators burn tires to block a road in Beirut, Lebanon. AP
Anti-government demonstrators burn tires to block a road in Beirut, Lebanon.  (AP)

“Instead of buying gold, people are buying diesel,” Ghajar said.

Smuggling across the border to Syria is also a factor.

Private generator suppliers, who have long filled the supply gap left by patchy state provision, have also been rationing fuel, and many homes can no longer pay exorbitant fees.