Lebanon's rising power cuts add to gloom of economic crisis

Lebanese are buying candles in bulk, turning to traditional kerosene lamps and throwing away rotten food because of prolonged power cuts that plunged the country into darkness this week, adding to the gloom of a deepening economic crisis

BEIRUT -- Lebanese are buying candles in bulk, turning to traditional kerosene lamps and throwing away rotten food because of prolonged power cuts that plunged the country into darkness this week, adding to the gloom of a deepening economic crisis.

The country's electricity company and the powerful operators of generators had been rationing power since late June as fuel supplies dwindle amid uncertainty over the next shipment.

“At home I can live with the candle, but in my clinic what can I do?” said Salim Abi Saleh, a gynecologist and the head of the physicians union in the northern city of Tripoli.

Lebanon has been shaken by a severe economic and financial crisis, made worse in recent months by the coronavirus and lockdown restrictions. The financial crisis features a collapse of the local currency, which lost more than 80% of its value, and severe shortage of dollars — dramatically impacting the country’s ability to import basic goods.

Fuel imports are subsidized, but lack of foreign currency was making it harder to secure resources. Government officials have promised new fuel shipments, including one due to arrive Tuesday.

But residents in parts of Lebanon reported nearly 20 hours of power cuts since last week. Some main streets have been lit only by commercial billboards, while others were left in pitch black. Flickering lights from candles were seen from windows, and Beirut's bustling nightlife has been cut short because of power outage and a dire economic crisis.

In a worrying development, private hospitals in Lebanon on Tuesday said that they would reduce operations to emergency procedures, including kidney dialysis and cancer patients, because of dwindling resources, including fuel.

A day before, Lebanon's main hospital treating coronavirus patients, Rafik Hariri University hospital, said it was turning off air conditioning units in its administrative area and in certain corridors to reduce power use and ensure patients remain a priority. The hospital said it was operating at 85% capacity.

The summer months in Beirut are known for high levels of humidity, so no electricity meant more people were sleeping on balconies and cool floors.

People have stocked up on candles, buying in bulk. Some artisans told local media there is a rush on buying traditional kerosene lamps.

Lebanon has for decades struggled with power cuts and a huge public debt for the national electricity company that racks up a deficit of nearly $2 billion a year. The country's electricity infrastructure has been in shambles since the end of the 15-year civil war and conflict with Israel.

Lebanon has largely relied on fuel shipped in on floating boats from neighboring countries and imported diesel for the powerful generators cartel that provides for the incomplete national grid.

But the rationing has been so severe that residents reported only a couple of hours of electricity per day in some neighborhoods. Generator providers shut down their machines to ration existing fuel.

“There is no electricity. And the generator runs for two hours and then cuts for an hour. We have to throw out half of our products,” said Rabie al-Kardali, owner of a traditional beans and Hummus restaurant.

Saleh, the gynecologist said he stored fuel that could last him for days, a habit learned from days of power cuts during the civil war that ended in 1990. “We are now living week by week but how long can that last?”

Government officials are marred in corrupt fuel deals and a much-coveted reform of the electricity sector has been evasive.

Meanwhile, generator providers have hiked their prices while some of the fuel was smuggle into Syria because it is more lucrative there.

“Lebanon’s electricity policy has been inefficient and ineffective for decades — always on the brink of collapse, but staying afloat with last minute patchwork solutions," said Kareem Chehayeb, a Lebanese journalist and Nonresident Fellow at Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“The economic crisis has made fuel imports more expensive causing a shortage, with external generator providers hiking their prices or seeking business in neighboring Syria," he said. “It is a wake-up call to decades of overspending and poor planning of a basic public service.”

Normally, Lebanon's electricity company can provide no more than two-thirds of the summer power demand. Lebanon's dire economic meltdown is rooted in decades of systemic corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling elite, who critics say refuse to reform despite an uprising that erupted last October.

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Associated Press writer Fadi Tawil contributed to this report.