Powerless In Lebanon

The Lebanese are veterans at coping with chronic power cuts.

The wealthy rely on expensive, privately-owned generators to pick up the slack, while the poor just learn to live with the humidity.

But in both cases, residents of Lebanon are not easily fooled by gimmicks that promise to end the country’s electricity problems.

The energy minister, Gebran Bassil, is regularly subject to attacks and ridicule for failing to improve the country’s creaking infrastructure.

The country was left in ruins after the 1975-90 civil war and aside from superficial building redevelopment projects and urban gentrification, little has been done to improve the core infrastructure. The country has not built a new power station in more than a decade and poor management, corruption, conflict and the recent influx across the border of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has exacerbated demand.

So earlier this year, when the government said the country had made a deal with Turkey to moor a “power-ship”, essentially a floating power station, on Beirut’s coast to help boost electricity output, most were sceptical.

The ship, the Fatmagül Sultan, was expected to deliver 188 mega watts (MW) of electricity daily, easing demand during the hot months when demand for power reaches 3000MW.

Under the $370 million, three-year deal agreed between Lebanon’s government and a Turkish energy company, Karadeniz Holding, the power generated by the ship would have made for a nice supplement to the 1,600 megawatts Lebanon already generates.

But, sure enough, within weeks of launch, the ship suddenly stopped working. There was a mismatch with the type of fuel used in the generators of the ship and the fuel Lebanese authorities supplied, according to local reports.

Whatever the problem, economists agree that the government’s approach to the decades-old electricity problem has been too simplistic. Samer Abboud, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center and political economist specialist explains more:

Rather than addressing the structural weaknesses of the grid and the need to update its provisional capacities, the government has consistently either ignored the problem or come up with costly and inefficient solutions such as the Turkish “power ship”.

That the ship went offline, even if it was brief, during the summer months – the peak season for electricity if you will – just highlights how deep the problems in provision really are.  So while this may have been a creative way to address a major problem, all that it did was expose the weaknesses in the grid and the incapacity of the existing power plants.  What Lebanon needs is sound investment in power plants and a capable grid, not “power ships” whose capacity is dependent on its connection to a weak grid.

Politics has predictably taken centre stage.

Mr Bassil, the energy minister, has been accused of colluding with various political factions to provide a better electricity output to parts of Lebanon that support his political group, the Free Patriotic Movement.

Batroun, Mr Bassil’s hometown in northern Lebanon, probably has “plenty of electricity”, said Imad Salamey, professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Lebanese American University.

“Electricity is being played out politically and government resources [have become] political buyout,” he said.

Despite the critical response to the first ship, Electricite du Liban (EDL), the state-owned power company that brokered the deal with Turkey is stuck.

It is heavily in debt and dependant on government subsidies, but as demand for power balloons, it has resorted to a short-term solution for a problem that needs a much more holistic approach.

It is now pushing ahead with a second Turkish “power ship” which is expected to arrive off Beirut’s coast any day now. Judging by the first ship’s performance, the second barge is unlikely to make much difference to the country’s electricity problems.

The electricity crisis has instead become a symptom of an even more mammoth problem: a stagnant government that is holding the country hostage because it can’t create budgets, implement policies or take on major projects. 

And a powerless government makes for a powerless state. 

One Comment

  • Posted August 10, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hello Farah,

    This Farah Yousry, editor-in-chief of Egypt Independent. I wanted to get in touch with you soonest. Please email me or leave your email address in a comment.


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