The economic crisis in Lebanon has made fuel a scarce commodity, leading to blackouts across the country as the population adjusts to life without electricity. This economic crisis erupted in 2019 as the result of corruption, mismanagement, and sustained policy inaction. According to the World Bank, the crisis has become one of the three most severe economic catastrophes since 1850, with Lebanon’s currency sinking 90%. The lack of power also has had unprecedented implications for human security.
Imported fuel reserves have dried up, paralyzing life in Lebanon. To power the country, “Lebanon needs around 3600 megawatts,” said Diana Kaissy, a board member of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative and energy governance expert. “We are currently producing 700 megawatts,” she said – less than 50% the necessary amount.
With this output, state electrical company Electricité du Liban is only able to produce approximately two hours’ worth of energy per day, with electricity being totally shut off in some parts of the country. Privately run diesel generators are left to cover the remaining 22 hours.
The energy shortage has had devastating consequences for the healthcare sector. Suleiman Haroun, head of the private hospitals union, said, “Hospitals are going day by day, very few have enough [power] for 2 or 3 days.” The American University of Beirut Medical Center added that it was “facing imminent disaster due to the threat of a forced shutdown” starting on Monday morning. And if shutdowns become a reality, “forty adult patients and fifteen children living on respirators will die immediately.”
Hospital patients are not the only ones facing a bleak outlook. “We have only one hour of electricity a day, and six hours of generator cuts a day, so I don’t have anything in my fridge because I can’t stock food,” says Patricia Khoder, communications and media manager at CARE Lebanon. “I can no longer bear to go to the supermarket because I cannot see people crying because they can’t buy food.”
These are the short-term effects of Lebanon’s energy crisis: hospital and business closure, water shortages, and food insecurity as people are unable to use refrigerators. However, the crisis also comes with multi-faceted long-term effects. First, it has the potential to create an education gap, as students are unable to find transport to school or to access power-dependent online learning. (COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue.) Second, the inability to maintain supply lines and equipment may create an infrastructural deficit. This inability to reconstruct and rebuild poses an acute threat to Lebanon in the wake of the Beirut Port Explosion, which affected 163 public and private schools and rendered half of the city’s healthcare system non-functional, in addition to damaging the port itself, which previously handled 70% of the country’s imports. Third, the power failure will drive up wealth inequality. The rich can afford privately run energy services. The poor must go without.
The U.S.A. has backed a proposition to pump Egyptian gas through Syria and Jordan to Lebanon to ease the crisis. This proposal is not unprecedented. Indeed, according to Kaissy, “It’s not a new idea. From 2009 to 2010, gas was being pumped through Egypt to Jordan and through Syria to Lebanon.”
As per the current proposal, this gas would travel to a power plant in northern Lebanon to generate approximately 450 megawatts of power. This constitutes a significant increase in Lebanon’s capacity, but is still unable to meet demand.
A myriad of complications also accompanies the proposal. The pipeline which would carry the gas has suffered sabotage and high levels of damage during the Syrian war. The U.S.’s current sanctions on Syria’s Assad regime may interfere with operations – Lebanon has called on the U.S. to grant an exception so that the pipeline can run smoothly. But Israel also currently sells gas to Jordan via the same pipeline, requiring technical alterations to be made or an entirely new pipeline to be constructed before the project can go ahead. These technicalities bring with them a host of political challenges over Arab-Israeli relations and trade rights.
Hezbollah, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, has offered a different solution. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasralla, has strongly supported a plan to import energy from Iran. However, pursuing this solution would place Lebanon in violation of the US sanctions on Iranian energy exports.
Another alternative would be investing in alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Solar is generally considered the most accessible form of alternative energy. As such, those who can afford it should install solar panels. Excess energy generated by these households can then be harnessed in a buyback program, which should be run through an energy company. This structure acknowledges local concerns about government corruption while incorporating the resources necessary to account for the program’s complex logistics.
However, while this plan may constitute part of an immediate solution, it ultimately caters more to elite interests. Many middle- and lower-income households cannot afford solar energy themselves. To rectify this disparity, humanitarian agencies, foreign direct investment, and government programs should consider making investment in solar energy a primary concern. Doing so would meet the population’s short-term needs whilst bolstering Lebanon’s capacity. Ultimately, Lebanon’s energy crisis should be addressed with an integrated model, incorporating development thinking into relief strategies to build the country’s results.
According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2016, based on the current rate of consumption, Earth has approximately 115 years of coal production, and about 50 years of oil and natural gas production, remaining. However, the distribution of fossil fuels is uneven across the world, meaning that some countries will run out before others. (It must also be noted that this is a static measure, which does not necessarily account for population increase or development projects which may lead to increased fuel consumption.) There are no easy solutions to Lebanon’s fuel crisis. It is a complex emergency – one which paints a dangerous picture of what will happen to all of us when fossil fuels run out. Evidently, we are not doing enough to prepare.