Lebanon’s Power Barges Pay a Heavy Environmental Price

Leila MOLANA-ALLEN | France 24's website | 27-08-2018

Lebanese people outside Beirut spend 18 hours a day without electricity. To solve the energy crisis, the government hires Turkish fuel-burning barges at a heavy environmental cost. FRANCE 24 reports from the coastal town of Zouk Mikael.

Lebanon’s government has moored a second power-generating barge at the coastal town of Zouk Mikael, sparking outrage among residents already concerned about high pollution levels from the local power plant.

“When there is a wind, we cannot work. We cannot walk. We cannot breathe,” local doctor Michel Aziz, who serves on the municipality’s Health and Environment Committee, told FRANCE 24. “It’s very, very, very dangerous. Even more than before.”

The fuel-burning barge provides electricity to supplement that created by Zouk Mikael’s power plant, installed in the 1960s. Due to a longstanding monopoly, only the government-owned Electricité du Liban is licensed to produce power in the country. But since the end of the Lebanese civil war almost thirty years ago, it hasn’t been able to keep up.

30 years of electricity shortage

The barges are supposed to tackle Lebanon’s resulting chronic power shortages, which see residents outside the capital Beirut face outages of up to 18 hours a day. The situation worsens in the summer, exacerbated by the use of fans and air conditioners. For those who want to keep the lights on, the only option is extremely costly generators, run by local gangs.

Zouk Mikael already hosts one Turkish power barge, the Fatmagul Sultan, which arrived in 2013 and boosted government-supplied power from six to between 14 and 18 hours daily. The arrival of the Esra Sultan, which has now been up and running for four weeks, is intended to provide round-the-clock power for Zouk and the surrounding areas. Along with two others already in place along the coast, the barges now account for a quarter of the country’s power generation capacity.

The barges are supplied by Turkish company Karadeniz and are known as power ships. The Lebanese government supplies heavy fuel oil and diesel and pays the company at a per kilowatt hour rate for the conversion into electricity. “We accepted it here because they told us it will give us 24-hour power,” says Zouk Mikael Mayor Elias Baino. “It’s been successful, but with more pollution.”

Residents are delighted at the power increase, but furious that the government ignored their long-standing complaints about the environmental damage from the existing plant and barge, and installed another.

Some locals say they haven’t even seen the benefits from the second barge, thanks to zoning. “I live 2.5km from [the barge] and I barely have power,” says Marcos Brundy who lives in the neighbouring district of Zouk Mosbeh. “You know how frustrating this is, that I’m getting all the toxic air and not getting anything in return?”

‘It’s hard to breathe when you reach the Zouk area’

Those who do enjoy the additional electricity fear they might soon suffer the consequences. The barges sit on the seafront and belch out black smoke, visible to anyone looking out of their window. The lower down Zouk Mikael’s hilly terrain you walk, the thicker the air becomes.

“We have the smell, first. And sometimes it’s hard to breathe when you reach the Zouk area,” complains Sacha Dia, a local resident who says she developed asthma after moving to the area. “It’s heavy when you arrive there, you breathe heavily. You have the taste of the carbon, and the smell of it.”

“The pollution in our area, it’s one of the highest in Lebanon,” says Baino. “We have big problems. Cancer problems, breathing problems. The hospitals in our area report that every day they receive people having problems with breathing.”

Statistics collected by the local Notre Dame Hospital show that at the end of the 20th century, thirty years after the power plant was built, nearly half of admissions to the hospital were caused by respiratory problems. Since then reliable statistics have been hard to come by, but Baino and his colleagues have been collecting new figures since the first power barge docked in 2013; they’re certain the barges have made the situation even worse.

Short-term thinking

They plan to send these to the government, but say they don’t expect a response; the community has petitioned the government for decades with little result. “Every day we are writing. Problems of health, of breathing. Of our life here,” says Baino, his eyes downcast. “Every day we are claiming that. They know.”

Policy experts say the situation is unlikely to change because of the government’s short-term thinking.

“The Ministry of Energy, for the past ten years or so, their criteria for getting electricity was never efficiency; they never wanted the cheapest electricity, or the least polluting, or the most fit for the country. Each time they made the time horizon the most important part,” says Patrick Mardini, founder and president of the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies. “So each time they say ‘Oh, we want it immediately!’ And you know, only barges can provide electricity within three months.”

One more layer of smoke to inhale

The barges are not uniformly unpopular: many residents were delighted when the government decided it would dock in the area, bringing almost 24/7 power with it. In a country plagued by traffic pollution, regular rubbish disposal crises and the constant toxic emissions of local generators, this is just one more layer of smoke to inhale – and it keeps the lights on.

“I’m with you that pollution is important, but would you rather live with no power?” Brundy admits.

Dia, however, is sure of her priorities: “This isn’t the electricity I want. If I’m going to get this electricity and then after twenty years I’m going to die, I don’t want it.”

Even as locals debate the questionable benefits, the government is debating a tender to install two further barges as early as next year.

Electricité du Liban were unable to provide a representative to comment when approached by FRANCE 24.

Click here to read the official article on France 24’s website