Lebanese swelter in summer as long-term power cuts continue

As the heat grows, Beirut's residents are finding it difficult to cope without electricity at night.

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BEIRUT // Rabiaa Aziz can almost cope without electricity during the summer days. It is at night that she finds the situation almost unbearable.

"We have no air conditioning, not television, nothing works. We just sit and look at the walls," she said. "We are suffering."

The 27-year-old lives with her husband, Ali, and their two children in the south Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh. Hundreds of thousands across Lebanon struggle with limited access to electricity in the summer heat.

At most, Mrs Aziz's modest apartment gets about six hours of electricity in a 24-hour cycle. The family cannot afford a generator. which cost individual households in the tens or hundreds of dollars extra each month.

"It's very difficult, but we can't do anything about it," she said about the electricity problems. "Unfortunately we got used to this."

Mass power outages last week that left much of the country in darkness prompted people to take to the streets to demand something be done to address the power crisis. The blackouts were triggered by a fault at a power plant undergoing maintenance in the north of Lebanon.

Some fear the electricity crisis will only get worse over the summer months. Lebanon generates only about 1,600 megawatts of the 2,600 megawatts of power it needs every day during the summer, according to a ministry of energy official, Cesar Abou Khalil.

The issue is expected to be discussed at today's cabinet meeting but efforts to resolve the long-standing problem have been mired in political bickering.

"There is a political crisis and a situation of division among the elite in the government," said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. "People are fed up and going down to the streets and exerting more and more pressure on the government. If the political divisions continue we should expect a worse situation and more protests."

Hizbollah and its fellow Shia party Amal have urged authorities to resolve the problem and also called on people not to protests, arguing that it only causes more problems in areas struggling with limited access to electricity.

Businesses and households that can afford them rely on generators during the blackouts - something that is estimated to cost the Lebanese public approximately US$1.7 billion (Dh6.2bn) a year, Mr Abou Khalil said.

Lebanon's energy ministry insisted it was doing what it could to try to alleviate the shortage of electricity. Last year, a US$1.2 billion emergency energy bill was passed aimed at tackling the spiralling crisis.

The main stopgap plan has been to rent power barges - ships that would provide electricity to help bridge the shortfall. The idea would be to rent two ships that would generate an additional 270 megawatts of power.

"These are power plants that are mounted on barges or ships that can be rented and linked to the network very quickly because we have a sheer demand or deficit in power supply," Mr Abou Khalil said. "The power ships will stop the deterioration of the supply and the increase in power cuts, but it will plateau the situation."

The contract is likely to be awarded to a Turkish company with which the government is still negotiating. If everything goes as planned, the first power ship could be linked to the network in the "coming few months", according to Mr Abou Khalil.

The proposal has also generated controversy, branded by some as overly expensive and not the best solution to solve Lebanon's electricity woes.

Mr Abou Khalil defended the plan, stressing that the power barges were a short-term intervention and that other electricity projects were in the works - such as plans to add 700 megawatts to the grid and the rehabilitation of ageing power plants.

Back in Dahiyeh, plans for electricity improvement do not inspire confidence in Nazik Dergham.

"Sometimes we get four hours of electricity, or maybe six, out of 24 hours," she said. "This is a disaster and it's getting worse all the time."

The 70-year-old uses a generator to run a few appliances including a refrigerator. Sometimes she switches to battery-powered lights in the evening. She laughs as she explains the household has also resorted to antique oil lamps used last century by her mother.

"We are forced to go back to those times," she said. "Everyone is very nervous and anxious. I think there will be more and more protests because we don't see a change anytime soon."