Lebanon News

Thousands in dark as politicians trade blame

A fuel ship sits near the Zahrani power plant, March 28, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Thousands of Lebanese were left in the dark Thursday after lack of fuel closed down a power plant and as politicians traded accusations over responsibility for the poor state of the electricity sector.

Many people have been suffering as much as a two-fold increase in power cuts after north Lebanon’s Deir Ammar plant ran out of fuel and was forced to cease operations.

It is the latest in a series of severe power disruptions to hit the country in recent months.

While a source from state provider Electricite du Liban told The Daily Star that the reduction in supply did not differ according to location, residents of Beirut and Tripoli told a very different story.

Nellie Khoury, who lives in Tripoli’s Azmi, said there was a marked difference in power supply when the Deir Ammar plant shut down partially, then completely.

“We are used to electricity cuts, but what happened over the last few days was not normal,” she said.

Tripoli usually receives 12 hours of state electricity every day, with power switching on and off in six-hour rotations.

“Electricity was cutting every half an hour,” Khoury said Thursday evening, adding that she and her neighbors had been forced to navigate by candlelight after sundown.

Kazem Kheir, former MP for Minyeh, where the Deir Ammar plant is located, said that since the shutdown, the area had received only two hours of electricity every 12 hours.

Residents in Beirut also complained of more cuts than normal.

“The problem is that we don’t have proper planning and no budgeting in this country,” Kheir said.

There are two reasons for the current shutdown.

First, the state failed to pay the fuel supplier in time, forcing the Deir Ammar plant to curb production on March 21 and totally shut down Wednesday morning.

By the time the payment was processed later Wednesday, strong winds and high waves kept a fuel tanker from docking, prolonging the outage.

The ship, which had been anchored off the coast since March 12, was able to dock at Deir Ammar and began unloading midafternoon Thursday, the EDL source said.

Another fuel ship started unloading fuel at south Lebanon’s Zahrani plant Thursday. As the unloading process takes around 10-12 hours, electricity supply is expected begin to return to normal Friday morning, the source said.

But the promise of a fix was not enough to calm politicians, who traded accusations over Lebanon’s long-broken electricity sector.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea told Radio Free Lebanon Wednesday, “What [the Free Patriotic Movement has] not been able to fix since 10 years with their approach, how can it be fixed today?” He was referring to the fact that the FPM has controlled the Energy Ministry since 2009.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a former energy minister and the FPM’s current leader, previously claimed that political interventions had prevented consecutive Cabinets from implementing electricity reform plans.

Geagea said that because the LF had not had any Cabinet posts from 2010 to 2017, his party couldn’t be accused of hindering the plans.

The FPM hit back Thursday.

Lawmaker Edgar Maalouf of Metn, a member of the FPM, told Voice of Lebanon radio (93.3) that his party did not want to get into a dispute with the LF, but would instead focus on stopping the damage caused by the current situation.

“The place to hold these discussions,” he said, is not in the media but “in the Cabinet session.”

Maalouf also told El Nashra news website Thursday, “Unfortunately, Geagea decided to [act] clever regarding the electricity issue instead of leaving it to the ‘all-knowing’ minister representing him in Cabinet.”

It was unclear which of the LF’s four Cabinet ministers Maalouf was referring to.

Maalouf’s response was the second wave of comments he made to strike back at Geagea. Alongside an image of watermelon, Maalouf tweeted Wednesday, “[Geagea] did not succeed in medicine or in strategic choices ... [or] in the refugee file. ... Now he’s giving theories on electricity.” His comments elicited strong responses from Geagea’s party allies.

MP Eddy Abillama of the LF’s Strong Republic parliamentary bloc said in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency, “It’s unacceptable for our comments on the electricity plan to be [understood as] a personal attack.

“We want actual steps,” he said, on a new plan to fix the sector presented to the Cabinet by Energy Minister Nada Boustani of the FPM last Thursday.

Abillama said his party thought an authority should be established to follow up on the plan if it is passed.

Boustani, a member of the FPM, had also weighed in on the issue in a tweet Wednesday.

“There are consecutive attacks on the electricity plan from some aiming to confuse the public and create a negative and inaccurate idea. [I] wish they would keep their comments and questions within the specialized ministerial committee instead of feigning heroism in front of the media.”

Boustani previously said the electricity plan has two basic goals: “Reduce the financial deficit of EDL and improve electricity services to citizens.” She said that these could be achieved by streamlining costs, increasing power production and raising the electricity tariff.

A ministerial committee to be headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was formed on March 21 and given a week to study the plan further. However, a heart procedure that Hariri underwent in Paris Monday resulted in the cancellation of Thursday’s session, and the committee’s deadline has been extended.

Improving the country’s crippled energy sector is one of the key reforms needed to unlock more than $11 billion pledged to Lebanon at last April’s CEDRE conference in Paris in grants and soft loans for finance investment and infrastructure projects.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2019, on page 2.

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