A floating electricity plant divides Lebanon
2 أكتوبر 2018
FOR decades Lebanon has failed to produce enough electricity. Some homes endure blackouts for 12 hours a day. The unstable supply makes it hard to do business—and frequently fries appliances. Many people use expensive generators to keep the lights on. So when Karadeniz, a Turkish company, sent Lebanon a floating power plant and offered free electricity from it for the summer, it seemed like a good deal. The firm is hoping that the government will extend a contract for two of its other power barges, which were already in place. The new barge was meant as a sweetener. But far from solving Lebanon’s electricity problems, it has highlighted the government’s chaos.
As the vessel chugged across the Mediterranean in July, a feud erupted among the country’s sectarian leaders. A Shia party, Amal, accused its rival, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, of using the ship to delay construction of a new power plant in the south, where it was first meant to dock. Critics countered that Amal’s leaders feared the barge would eat into the profits they make from their ties to the operators of diesel generators. Changing the vessel’s name from Aisha (a wife of the Prophet Muhammad who is reviled by many Shias) to the more Ottoman-sounding Esra Sultan had little effect. So the ship docked in Druze territory—until locals complained about pollution. It eventually sailed north, docking in a Christian-dominated area.
hat the barge is necessary at all is a result of the government’s incompetence. In 2010 the Christian-led energy ministry drew up plans to repair the country’s ageing power plants and build new ones. Power ships would make up for the temporary drop in supply. Karadeniz’s barges arrived in 2013. But the upgrades never went ahead, so the ships stayed. They have already cost the heavily indebted country $1.9bn. The government seems unfazed. It wants to double the fleet. Many believe the free barge, which is due to leave in October, will stay indefinitely.
The ruling elite sees more to lose than gain from reforming the energy sector. Over the past 25 years a whopping 9% of public spending has gone to prop up Electricité du Liban, the state power company. Most of the money has bought fuel from firms tied to current and former politicians. “This is really about their interests and those of their cronies, and how they benefit from all this at the expense of the people,” says Sami Atallah of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank.
The government could save money by raising energy tariffs and reducing theft of its electricity. Solar power is also an option for sunny Lebanon. Hiring two more power barges until 2022, as the government wants, would cost $2.25bn and supply about 825 megawatts. The same amount could pay for a 3-gigawatt solar plant, which would last 25 years, says Ali Ahmad of the American University of Beirut. “If we could show our politicians how to be green and corrupt at the same time, then maybe things would improve.”