The outage marks the latest milestone in the unraveling of Lebanon, which is undergoing what the World Bank has described as one of the world’s three biggest financial collapses of the past 150 years.
The electricity grid ground to a halt after the country’s two main power stations, Deir Ammar and Zahrani, ran out of diesel fuel, leaving the nationwide network without the minimum amount of power required to sustain it, said Energy Minister Walid Fayyad.
The government is working to secure emergency fuel supplies from other sources, including the army, to bridge the shortfall until a shipment of Iraqi oil due to arrive Saturday night can be offloaded and distributed into the network. At most, he said, the total outage can be expected to last only a couple of days, and he hoped to find a stopgap solution faster.
But the collapse is a reminder of the dire state of Lebanon’s electricity sector, which has been unable to provide 24-hour power for decades. In recent months, its capacity has been further eroded by the lack of money and by corruption, with smugglers diverting state purchases of fuel to sell at a profit in neighboring Syria.
A recent deal struck with Iraq to supply 80,000 tons of fuel a month still falls short of the minimum amount required to ensure a stable grid and at most will be able to keep the power on for about four hours a day, Fayyad said.
“It is drastic, and it has been drastic for a while,” he said. “With a few hours a day people can go about their basic needs for a couple of hours, and of course it is better than nothing, but the situation is dire and we need more than a few hours a day.”
The shortages have had a profound effect on almost every aspect of life. Businesses and factories have faced soaring costs or have been forced to shut down altogether because of the expense of procuring fuel to keep generators going. Cafes and restaurants have closed because they can’t keep the lights on for customers — or chill their drinks or heat their coffee.
Hospitals have been forced to suspend operations or halt vital procedures because they don’t have enough fuel to run generators. Food poisoning is rampant because of the lack of adequate refrigeration. In some areas, water supplies have stopped because there isn’t enough electricity to power the pumps.
Most Lebanese are connected to some form of privately generated power, but the costs are high, and only the wealthiest can afford to run large generators capable of providing electricity round-the-clock. Most neighborhood generators provide only a few amperes of power, leaving citizens waiting for state-supplied electricity to power heavy-duty appliances.
Soltan Husseini, a student living in south Lebanon, said his family typically waits for the electricity to come on, even if it is late at night, to use their washing machine and heat water, and only buys food on the day they plan to eat it. Without any electricity at all, “of course suffering will increase,” he said.
Fayyad said Lebanon’s best hope of securing electricity lies in a proposal backed by the United States to import gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan via Syria with funding from the World Bank. But that could take several months to put in place, and in the meantime, Lebanese can still expect to receive very limited supplies of electricity.
Lebanon will need a lot of goodwill from the world for the gas deal to come through, including funding and an agreement from the United States to waive sanctions on Syria so that the gas can reach Lebanon, Fayyad said.
But if it works, the gas supply will prove cheaper and more efficient than the current system, which relies on pricey fuel imports, enabling a big improvement, he said.
“Even if we have a short period of crisis, we hope we can overcome this,” he said.
Sly reported from London. Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.