Plunged into darkness

As I finished this post, I was suddenly plunged into darkness. This is an often occurring phenomenon in Lebanon, with the capital suffering three hour electricity cuts a day, and some other parts of the country getting by on as little as 9 hours of electricity. It is an extremely relevant issue, in which progress or setbacks are felt immediately, and thus a favourite political subject, and tool. Another spectacular drama unfolded over the weekend, with dark results, literally.

I was, unknowingly, close to the action as I spent some time in Sur (aka Tyre, but that’s a different post) in the South of Lebanon. I suffered several power cuts when there, but this was only a small indicator of the mayhem suffered in the rest of the country as Lebanon lost 35% of its electricity supply.

The facts are that a 40 MW transformer was transported from the Zahrani power plant in Sur to Sidon. Following the incident, however, workers at the Zahrani plant went on strike. They cited threats made by municipalities and residents who worried the transport would affect their electricity supply.

The reasons for this remain murky. Lebanon’s lack of an independent press makes it to discern facts, and thus a middle road must be cobbled together from various, often contradicting, accounts. Electricite du Liban (EDL) stated the reason for the transport was that the Zahdani plant can function with a 20 MW transformer, which it possesses. Although the official statistics of EDL may be correct, it is a public secret that many residents tap electricity illegally from Lebanon’s central grid, thus increasing requirements. The reasons for the workers’ strike are also unclear. There was no appeal to security services to protect the plant, and some reports speak of a security cordon set up by Amal supporters preventing security services from reaching the site and restoring electricity. Other voices have blamed Hezbollah and Amal grievances over the recent funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The crisis was solved by the speaker of the House, Nabih Berry and the Prime Minister Najib Miqati on Sunday. Under the deal, Zahdani’s capacity would be restored to 40 MW.

Over the summer a political fight over Lebanon’s electricity was fought by politicians, over the $1.2 billion dollar scheme hatched by Energy minister Gibran Bassil. He pleaded for an energy plan to provide 700 MW of electricity, but without any parliamentary oversight. This naturally drew ire from the opposition, who have failed to solve the electricity problem over the past 10 years, one must add . Michel Aoun, who heads the cabinet’s largest bloc and provides a third of his ministers, also threatened to have the ministers from his Freedom and Patriotic Party, including Bassil, boycott the cabinet if his demands were not met unconditionally. It is worth mentioning here that Aoun is also Bassil’s father in law. Eventually, a deal was struck; the money would be delivered in 4 rather than 1 instalment, and an oversight committee was to be formed. Whether this remains the solution remains to be seen; more oversight just means more corruption according to some.

The only way to avoid the blackouts emanating from this mess, is to be hooked up to a generator. I now thankfully have this privilege (I did not during the sweltering summer months, nor did I have AC, meaning that 6 am power cuts after nights out dancing were particularly gruesome). But this is not possible for all Lebanese, and a significant financial burden to many. Furthermore, generators generally lack capacity for larger appliances such as heating, or in some cases even to boil a kettle. With winter setting in, it is to be hoped that we will not see another repeat of these antics. As Bassil said: “Even in the [1975-90] Lebanese war, water and electricity supplies were not deliberately cut off,”

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