BEIRUT (AFP) – Zeinab’s refrigerator is more like a box than an ice box: the 29-year-old Lebanese civil servant cannot store meat, dairy products or fruits and vegetables for more than a day.
Like the majority of Lebanese who cannot afford a generator to keep things such as refrigerators running during daily power cuts, which in some neighbourhoods can last most of the day, the rhythm of Zeinab’s life is set by the hours she has electricity.
“At night during the summer I don’t manage to sleep very much because I don’t have air conditioning and I suffocate from the heat,” she said.
Even if she had air conditioning it wouldn’t do much good in her home in a southern Beirut suburb where power cuts sometimes last 14 hours a day.
Pregnant, she sometimes waits hours for the power to return so she can take the elevator up to her sixth-floor flat.
“I don’t understand why, after 20 years since the (1975-1990) civil war, we still don’t have electricity 24 hours a day,” said interior designer Liliane Khalifa.
“That is beyond my understanding,” says the 46-year-old in frustration.
“When I was small, I did my chores by candlelight. Today, I am married, I have children, and we still need a generator to survive 10-hour power cuts,” lamented the resident of Jounieh, a Christian city north of the capital.
But unlike Zeinab, who cannot afford the 50- to 100-dollar monthly fee to hook up to a generator, Khalifa is lucky.
In Lebanon, the haves and have-nots are defined by whether they have the financial means to hook up to a generator — a common practice throughout the country.
The whole nation seemingly runs on generators which, for a fee, power whole buildings or neighbourhoods.
Joseph Akiki, owner of a ladies’ hair salon, spends more than 600 dollars a month on four separate electricity bills: two for state-provider Electricite du Liban, one for a subscription fee to a generator for his salon, and another for his home.
“It’s my biggest expense,” he said.
The have-nots live every other evening by candlelight.
Frustrations over power cuts exploded last month in demonstrations, mainly in the impoverished north of the country and the capital’s southern suburbs.
Electricity is a constant concern for the Beirut government, which allocates the third largest slice of its budget, after debt servicing and salaries, to power supply.
This summer, said Energy and Water Minister Gibran Bassil, the government was able to supply 1,700 megawatts of electricity, while demand was closer to 2,500 megawatts.
“It’s a miracle that we are still able to keep producing electricity,” said Bassil, whose country’s infrastructure was also badly hit by the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
“Successive governments did not invest by building, for example, new power stations to meet demand,” which has steadily risen, said Violette Balaa, head of the economy section at An-Nahar newspaper.
She said that in large part blame for the electricity woes lay with “mafia in every area that refuse any reform of the sector.”
Most of the owners of large generators work hand-in-hand with politicians, for whom the current situation is lucrative and who prefer not to find solutions, she said.
In addition, in many poor areas where the government does not have full authority, electricity is often stolen by residents who connect illegally to an electricity pole, without a metre.
But when it comes to not paying the bills, politicians apparently figure among the biggest offenders.
Last June, Bassil announced that the total for unpaid water and power bills by officials and politicians over the years amounted to eight million dollars (6.5 million euros).
He warned it would now be lights out for anyone owing more than 3,300 dollars. “Yes, we have cut off power from some influential figures’ households,” the minister said.
After Electricite du Liban sent out its warning slips, only one in four politicians, officials and top businessmen stepped up to the plate and paid their dues.
“Some continue to argue that they do not owe that much, and then there are those who for some reason feel they just don’t have to pay,” Bassil added.
“Not only do they not pay their domestic bills but also those of companies or factories that they own,” according to Balaa, the journalist.
The government has finally approved a reform programme to guarantee 24-hour electricity by 2015, cutting economic losses due to power cuts, estimated at 4.5 billion dollars a year.
“That’s a pipedream,” scoffed Balaa.