Power in the wrong hands can corrupt

Lebanon has been plagued by electricity shortages but work is underway to end them

Smoke billows from one of the chimneys of Lebanon's Zouk Mosbeh power plant, north of the capital Beirut, on April 9, 2019. The Lebanese cabinet has approved a plan to restructure the country's ailing electricity sector vowing to provide power 24 hours a day from a grid notorious for blackouts. / AFP / JOSEPH EID

Since the 15-year civil war, Lebanon has suffered power cuts of up to 20 hours a day. Energy minister Nada Boustani has vowed to tackle this power shortage as early as next year with a package of reforms, which aim to provide round-the-clock electricity by 2020. If she is successful, it would end decades of power cuts and a beleaguered system, as the sector is bogged down by endemic failures such as poor infrastructure, corruption, fraud and an inability to produce enough electricity. Her proposal involves three key stages: it aims to reduce the amount of electricity wasted – amounting to a shocking third of the total supply, either from poor distribution or by illegal activities such as residents fraudulently hooking up to power supplies. Secondly, the government would increase production with temporary power plants and build six permanent ones. Thirdly, authorities would reduce their debt burden by cutting subsidies, aligning prices to the oil market and regulating privately generated electricity. The state organisation Electricite du Liban is propped up by $2 billion a year in subsidies. Price hikes will undoubtedly be unpopular, as residents already pay two electricity bills – both public and private – and in many cases still lack full coverage, but they are much-needed to cut off the head of the hydra.

This is not the first time Lebanese residents have been promised a solution but nefarious behaviour from officials, mismanagement and disagreements among the powerful political parties that control the country have undermined previous attempts. However, there is reason for cautious optimism this time around. In a rare show of unison, the cabinet unanimously agreed Mrs Boustani's plan, although it still needs to be ratified by parliament. However, the truth is that Lebanon is simply running out of options.

Beirut must implement economic and financial reforms to unlock $11 billion in donor aid, pledged at the Cedre international development conference in Paris last year, starting with an "overhaul of the electricity sector", in the words of Farid Belhaj, the World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa. Today, however, the public sector not only relies on private generators for electricity; it is also dependent on foreign energy. In 2017 and 2018, Syria sold electricity to Lebanon, a questionable choice given that Syrians still suffer from severe power cuts, among a host of other issues. That source might alleviate Lebanon's problems in the short term but it also makes the Lebanese government beholden to Syria, as Beirut must obtain Syrian permission before it can buy electricity from other countries such as Jordan, which has a surplus to sell. With some factions in Lebanon campaigning to normalise relations with Syria, the issue of who supplies the power has become even more deeply politicised. In many ways, the electricity issue is a microcosm of the corruption that has plagued Lebanon for too long. Politicians must set aside their differences and personal agendas to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and allow Lebanon to become truly self-reliant. Only then can its government claim to take responsibility for providing one of its people's most fundamental and basic needs.