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An electrician fixes electricity wires in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 2012 after clashes between pro- and anti-Assad factions. Dimitar Dilkoff/ AFP
An electrician fixes electricity wires in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 2012 after clashes between pro- and anti-Assad factions. Dimitar Dilkoff/ AFP

Lebanon can't keep the lights on - that really is a scandal

It is that time of year again. When I got to the mountains and am reminded that many people living outside Beirut and its immediate suburbs receive as little as 10 hours of government electricity a day.

It's that time of year again. When I got to the mountains and am reminded that many people living outside Beirut and its immediate suburbs receive as little as 10 hours of government electricity a day.

In my village the power comes on or goes (depending on the day) at 10am, 2pm, 6pm and midnight, with unscheduled cuts in between just to add spice. This can make life particularly tiresome. My old 3.5 kVA Robin motor, which for 20 years gave me sterling service had a pull-cord starter and involved me having to go down to the cellar, often in the rain and at night to turn it off and on.

As you can imagine, one's sense of humour would be pushed to breaking whenever Électricité du Liban (EDL) - which is so inefficient it has to be propped up by the government to the tune of US$1 billion each year - decides to cut the power five minutes after restoring it and then repeat the same process at 10-minute intervals for the next hour.

The good news is that I have bought a new generator with a power switch that can be operated from the house.

But the fact that my mountain living has been made mildly easier does not in anyway detract from the fact that 23 years after the civil war, we still do not have round-the-clock government electricity anywhere in the country. It is the greatest scandal in our short history.

It has stifled our attempts to attract direct foreign investment and stunted economic growth for more than two decades. It has eroded the soul of millions of Lebanese, forcing them into the arms of unscrupulous blackmarketeers and it has without doubt affected the health of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people who have been forced to live with unregulated toxic emissions.

Economists recently estimated that private suppliers generate revenues close to $2 billion but it is a "sector" riddled with racketeering and intimidation. No wonder any move to address Lebanon's power shortfall would be met with stubborn opposition, not least from those politicians who have found themselves in the pockets of the electricity barons.

Last year, Gebran Bassil the caretaker energy minister - remember Lebanon doesn't have a government at the moment - signed a much-hyped and controversial deal in which Lebanon would rent two generator ships from the Turkish company Karadeniz Holding, at a cost of $370 million over three years. The ships, one of which, the Fatmagul Sultan, is already here, won't make up the shortfall but simply maintain current levels while routine upkeep was carried out on what functioning plants we had left.

The Free Patriotic Movement of which Mr Bassil is a member would have us believe it is the party of technocrats, the go-to people when things need to get done. But the bottom line was that after the fanfare nothing has changed and rehabilitation of Lebanese electricity has not advanced one iota.

The Fatmagul Sultan broke down for two months when it was discovered that the operators had used the wrong fuel. A Lebanese court exonerated EDL declaring it had abided by the specifications of the original contract. However, given that Karadeniz Holding had been involved in a similar dispute in Pakistan, Mr Bassil's judgement must be questioned.

And so we chug on. The national grid still operates at 60 per cent capacity; the private electricity suppliers continue to milk the shortfall at the expense of average citizen and now Lebanon has a million Syrian refugees all of whom need power.

My old generator lasted 20 years. When I bought it, a family friend told me not to waste my money. "The situation will be fixed within a year," he predicted. I am expecting similar exceptional service for my new Chinese 15KVA model. I really hope I don't need it that long.

 

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer

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