Friday, August 27, 2010

Lebanon's blackouts

1979 cartoon by the late Mahmoud Kahil
Lebanon has been going through one of its hottest summers, with temperatures akin to Dubai’s. Imagine yourself sizzling in an ambient temperature exceeding 40 degrees centigrade without electricity to run your AC, cooler, ventilator, lift, freezer or fridge. The Lebanese have been going through this on-again off-again for the past 35 years.

They are now up in arms against the power shortages. Many have taken to the streets while others vent their outrage via the social media, including Blogs, Twitter and Facebook. All to no avail as nothing is likely to change near term.
Power outages, in the main, drove me out of Beirut in 1985 after enduring, surviving, working through and covering the civil war and the Israeli invasion. I settled in London but kept shuttling back for five years to visit my ailing mother, Vicky. And when Vicky’s health deteriorated, power outages left me no choice but to fly her to London as well.
Between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties, months would go by with total countrywide blackouts. It meant making do without lifts, water or gasoline pumps, running water, fuel, telephones, telexes, TVs, photocopiers, air conditioners, heaters, freezers, fridges and what not…   It became hard to choose between suffering the searing summers heat or the winters freeze.
It may sound surreal today, but the Internet did not exist. There were no mobile phones (let alone live landlines), no 24-hour TV, no digital cameras... Letting friends and family know you were still alive would take days or weeks. But that's another story. This is about electricity and the effects or the lack of it had on our lives, both past and present.
Going up and down stairs became second nature for me as I lived on the fifth floor. I had less fortunate friends who lived on higher floors, which meant many more stairs and greater exposure to stray shelling. The highest I climbed was to the 12th floor when visiting the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. He would laugh at the sight of me on reaching his door.
We had a basket dangling at the end of a rope from our balcony to haul up light stuff. But groceries, water (gallons of it), gas cylinders (for the oven), fuel (for the generator after it came about)… everything had to be carried up.
Showers and washing were done with a bottle or two of water. You couldn't spare more. These were lined up on the balcony in their tens ready to be refilled whenever the public electricity network was switched back on.
When electricity was switched back on (we never knew for how long), water pumps would come back to life. So frenzy would kick off forthwith -- first fill the empty bottles, wash any fruits and vegetables on hand, switch on the washing machine while keeping your fingers crossed you had time for a full cycle, mop the flat and balconies and take a shower.
I eventually saved enough money to buy a generator. But that meant carrying home two rubber canisters of fuel from the gas station, and then walking up to the fifth floors. Problem was that you could only light up so many watts on a small generator.
You wouldn’t buy perishables because you couldn't store any in a lifeless fridge that gradually metamorphosed into a cupboard. And the freezer could keep some ice cubes for a couple of days before melting away. I lived in Hamra, where our knight in shining armor was the Commodore Hotel, then owned by the Nazzals. It was the second home for us journalists. I was lucky to always get a bowl of ice to take home for the evening drinks. And drink we did... if only to get some sleep and drown out the sound of gunfire, bombs and explosives. Most people resorted to paper plates and plastic cutlery to save on dishwashing. But Vicky, Queen Victoria as she thought she was, disdained the practice, which meant more wasted water!
At one point, some ingenious "entrepreneurs" decided to sell water. They would go around in mini trucks with a water tank, a hose, a pump and a small generator sitting on the truck beds… but you had to catch them. You would run around the streets trying to find one of these enterprising people to come and fill your bathtub or water containers. I would ride the mini truck’s side step, holding on to the driver’s window for fear of losing my catch to someone else. The mini truck’s long hose would be thrown up from floor to floor until it got to the level of the intended flat.
Blacked out evenings made for a good social life with the neighbors. In-house gatherings featured mezze, drinks and card games. Two factors determined the venue: the intensity of shelling and the availability of a generator. That's when we weren't huddling in the basement, many a time for 18 hours during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut.
On top of being deprived of electricity and water, we had to cope with the scarcity of fresh food supplies during the invasion. We simply had to make do with tuna and Kraft cheese tins. A courageous friend used to scout the streets very early in the morning to try and find some "entrepreneur" who had managed to “smuggle” some fresh fruits or vegetables from the mountains. Most of what he found would go straight to our sixth floor neighbor who happened to be pregnant.
When I left in 1985, it was because I couldn't take the misery of power outages anymore. I kept spending time in Beirut every Xmas and the electricity problem would hit me in the face again.
Until this very day, irrespective where I happen to be, there is not a single time when I would switch on the lights without remembering the blackout days.
Last November, when I flew to Beirut, it was a gray, rainy day. I got to the flat where I was staying and there was no electricity. I climbed the stairs, the flat was dark and cold and 20 years of trying to forget those moments came flooding back. But as the sun came up the next day and I walked the streets and saw the familiar corners, shops, bullet-ridden walls, and especially the people who greeted me as though they had seen me the day before, I fell in love with the city again – with electricity or without electricity!
The electricity problem in Lebanon is too technical and complex for me to even begin to address in a blog post. And I am certainly not qualified to do so.
But it seems to me that the country’s electricity ills and remedies have already been clearly expounded. For instance, an 88-page World Bank report (titled "Electricity Sector Public Expenditure Review" for the Republic of Lebanon and released in 2008) presents a wide-ranging analysis of possible demand and supply scenarios for the future, lays out options for the Government to consider in improving service delivery and reducing the overall costs of the electricity sector and increasingly introduce private sector participation to enhance efficiency, improve governance and ultimately meet the sector’s significant investment needs in the medium term.
Doesn’t such an authoritative, diagnostic and advisory document offer the government an authoritative A-to-Z road-map to seriously start tackling a problem that has been plaguing the country for just about 35 years?