Electricity restored in Lebanon, as army supplies emergency fuel

Most Lebanese rely on private generators for electricity, but many have been forced to cut back on that. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - Lebanon's sputtering national electricity grid went back online Sunday (Oct 10) after the army provided emergency fuel supplies to the government, temporarily easing a daylong outage that served as the latest ramification of the country's economic collapse.

The two main power plants, chronically short of fuel, had been providing only a few hours of electricity per day before Saturday, when they ran out of fuel and stopped working completely.

Walid Fayyad, the energy minister, said in a statement Sunday that the army had supplied fuel from its reserves to the power plants, Zahrani and Deir Ammar, and that the network had resumed "normal" operation - suggesting it would go back to producing a few hours of power per day.

Even so, the emergency supplies are expected to last only a few days. Fayyad said that Lebanon's central bank had freed up US$100 million (S$135.5 million) to be used to import fuel, which would help raise electricity generation by the end of the month.

He thanked the defense minister, the army commander and the leaders of Electricité du Liban, the national energy company, for their "rapid response to reconnecting the electrical network."

The outage Saturday had little immediate effect on the lives of most Lebanese, who have grown accustomed to blackouts and fuel shortages as the country suffers one of the gravest economic crises in recent history. The government has struggled to import fuel as the national currency has shed 90 per cent of its value in the past two years. Prices for many goods have tripled.

"We have forgotten what electricity means," said Abdul-Hadi al-Sibai, a 70-year-old taxi driver in southern Beirut.

He lives with his sister, who decided to cut off her generator connection after a bill of 1.8 million Lebanese pounds, which is about US$100 on the black market but more than the monthly salaries of many Lebanese.

The currency crash and resulting inflation have forced the family to give up refrigerated foods, so they eat mostly lentils and grains. Al-Sibai charges his cellphone using his car's battery.

The crisis has presented an opportunity for Iran, and its proxy in Lebanon, the militant group Hezbollah, to portray themselves as stepping in where other powers have failed.

In recent weeks, Iran has sent fuel by tanker ship to Syria, where Hezbollah organized caravans to drive it into Lebanon. The whole operation defies sanctions by the United States on the purchase of Iranian oil and has occurred entirely outside of the Lebanese state.

Visiting Lebanon last week, Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said Iran was ready to build two new power plants in Beirut and southern Lebanon able to meet a third of the country's electricity demands.

Critics say Iran and its allies are more interested in media stunts than in real aid, that the fuel it has sent is little in comparison to Lebanon's needs and that the proposed Iranian power plants are unlikely to ever be built.

The United States has thrown its support behind plans to have natural gas sent via pipeline from Jordan through Syria to Lebanon, or to have electricity generated in Jordan transmitted to Lebanon.

But many details of those plans have yet to be worked out, including who will pay to fix the necessary infrastructure, so any benefit for Lebanon is at best months away.

Most Lebanese rely on private generators for electricity, but many have been forced to cut back on that, too, or give it up altogether, as fuel costs have soared.

Fatima Baydoun, a 50-year-old mother of three in Beirut, said her family had not been able to afford electricity from a generator because her husband, a security guard, has been out of work for more than a year. Without government-supplied electricity, she can't use the washing machine, and her family's taps have run dry because the water pump relies on power.

"We try to sleep as early as possible," she said.

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