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Lebanon losing battle to keep the lights on
Sun Dec 7, 2008 9:06pm EST
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By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT (Reuters) - A candle flickering in her darkened home, Fouada Hawi rails against the daily 10-hour power cuts that Lebanon's ailing electricity utility inflicts on her.
"It's unbearable," said the headscarved mother. "No one has money to buy fuel for generators, so you have to live by candle light. You have to put up with everything in this country, you work and you are patient, but nothing changes."
Many developing countries have power problems, but Lebanon's go beyond mere technical issues, a World Bank report issued this year suggests, pointing to corruption and vested interests.
It says the electricity sector's woes are typical of countries where "there are multiple beneficiaries of the dysfunctional status quo ... ranging from corruption in payments flows or procurement, to buying of voters through free electricity, to profiteering from energy shortages."
Hawi, 33, lives with her husband and child in Ouzai, just south of Beirut -- where luckier residents have still had to endure three hours without power a day for the last two years.
Anger over the blackouts turned violent in January when army troops shot dead eight protesters in the mainly Shi'ite southern suburbs, fuelling wider political turmoil.
Tensions have calmed since rival factions reached a deal on a national unity government in May, but the chronic malaise gripping the electricity sector is not so readily cured.
Nor can the drain on the public purse be easily plugged. Subsidies cost the equivalent of 4 percent of Lebanon's Gross Domestic Product last year, the World Bank estimates.
Lebanon built two gas-fired power plants in 1996, but they still lack a gas supply and run on expensive diesel instead. Older turbines use the costliest grade of fuel oil.
State-owned Electricity du Liban (EdL) can meet only two-thirds of peak demand. More than a third of the power it does generate gets lost in distribution or is not paid for.
How to overhaul a utility whose 2,000 staff have an average age of 58, whose tariffs were fixed in 1996 when oil cost $21 a barrel, and whose last audited accounts were issued in 2004?
TOO MANY COOKS?
Lebanon's fiendishly intricate sectarian power-sharing system makes consensus on reform elusive, and dozens of reports proposing solutions for the problems are gathering dust.
The latest energy minister to try his hand acknowledges the scale of the task.
"Today we are able to generate about 1,500 megawatts and our peak requirement is estimated at 2,200, so we have a deficit of around 700," Alain Tabourian told Reuters. "That's why we see a lot of power cuts, especially in summer." Continued...
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