Failed states have failed electric grids. Nowhere is that truer right now than in Lebanon, where the entire county is teetering on the edge of collapse and hospitals are so short of electricity that dozens of patients who are receiving care in Beirut’s intensive-care wards could be dead by the time you finish reading this article.
On Saturday, the American University of Beirut Medical Center warned that if it did not receive a shipment of diesel fuel by Monday to keep its generators running, “forty adult patients and fifteen children living on respirators will die immediately,” and another 180 others who are receiving dialysis treatment will die within a matter of days. In addition, the medical center, which is one of the oldest and most-prestigious in Lebanon, said that hundreds of cancer patients are also in danger of dying due to the lack of electricity.
The looming humanitarian crisis in Lebanon’s hospitals demonstrates, once again, the essentiality of electricity to modern society. Modern health care machines and buildings require dependable juice, and lots of it. Our most important buildings, all of our key networks — GPS, telecom, traffic lights — depend on low-cost, abundant, and reliable electricity. Electric grids provide near-perfect reflections of the societies they power. Countries with robust electric grids usually have strong civil institutions and robust economies. But as can be seen in Lebanon, Iraq, Nigeria, and other places where corruption runs unchecked, electric grids simply don’t work.
For decades, Lebanon’s tattered electric grid — which is actually a patchwork of generators and wires that includes the corrupt and inept state-owned utility, Electricité du Liban, and independent power producers known as the “generator mafia” – has struggled to provide reliable power to the country’s residents. But over the past two years, and in particular, since the deadly explosion at a port building leveled much of central Beirut a year ago, the Lebanese economy has descended into chaos, and as the economic slide has accelerated, electricity has become ever scarcer. According to Associated Press, Lebanese residents “currently get an average of two hours of electricity per day from the notoriously corrupt state company that has cost state coffers more than $40 billion over the past three decades.”
But due to shortages of fuel, the generator mafia has not been able to meet demand. According to one report, the private generator owners “turn off their generators for over 12 hours per day.”
In 2017, when I visited Beirut to report on the generator mafia and the country’s electricity woes, the place once known as the “Paris of the Middle East” appeared to be on the upswing. Yes, it had been hit hard by a huge influx of Syrian refugees, but the mood in the city was optimistic. New businesses, including E24 Solutions, which director Tyson Culver and I profiled in our documentary, Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, were starting up and Beirut’s restaurants, shops, and resorts were enjoying a burst of tourism. But as we did our reporting, we were warned about the systemic rot that was undermining Lebanon’s electric grid. While in Beirut, we interviewed Maya Ammar, an architect who gave us a stark assessment of the country’s electricity situation: “The one reason we do not have electricity in Lebanon, is corruption. Plain and simple.”
The economic collapse that began two years later was a direct result of the corruption, violence, and sectarian divisions that have riven the country for decades. The crisis, which began in late 2019, was caused by excess government debt, a bankrupt banking sector, and ineffective political leadership. The crisis, which was compounded by the port explosion, has flattened the Lebanese economy. In March, analysts at the Middle East Institute predicted that “When measured in US dollars, the Lebanese economy may end up shrinking from $60 billion in 2018 to $15 billion in 2021.” The same report found that “four out of every ten Lebanese are out of work.”
The economic crisis, and an inflation rate last year of more than 80%, have coincided with an energy crisis. Fuel shortages are rampant and hours-long queues to buy motor fuel are common. Last week, according to one news report, three men were “killed in brawls over fuel scarcity.”
The lack of motor fuel is further compounding the humanitarian and health care crisis. According to an August 11 article by Sunniva Rose in the Arab newspaper, The National, at one hospital, some 60 percent of the staff can’t come to work because they don’t have fuel for their vehicles. The same article quoted Faris Abiad, the director of Rafik Hariri hospital, the country’s largest medical facility, as saying “A hospital without electricity simply does not exist. It’s like a car without petrol,” he said. Even if Lebanon’s hospitals get enough fuel to run their generators, the machinery may fail due to overuse. According to Rose’s article, the generators at one hospital in the southern city of Saida, “shut down after working 36 hours continuously…a full half-hour passed before electricity returned.”
The Lebanese economy has long been on the brink of disaster. As the country’s crisis worsens, it appears the human suffering and dying – much of it due to electricity shortages — may be just beginning.