Lebanon losing battle to keep the lights on

Sun Dec 7, 2008 9:06pm EST
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By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A candle flickering in her darkened home, Fouada Hawi rails against the daily 10-hour power cuts that Lebanon's ailing electricity utility inflicts on her.

"It's unbearable," said the headscarved mother. "No one has money to buy fuel for generators, so you have to live by candle light. You have to put up with everything in this country, you work and you are patient, but nothing changes."

Many developing countries have power problems, but Lebanon's go beyond mere technical issues, a World Bank report issued this year suggests, pointing to corruption and vested interests.

It says the electricity sector's woes are typical of countries where "there are multiple beneficiaries of the dysfunctional status quo ... ranging from corruption in payments flows or procurement, to buying of voters through free electricity, to profiteering from energy shortages."

Hawi, 33, lives with her husband and child in Ouzai, just south of Beirut -- where luckier residents have still had to endure three hours without power a day for the last two years.

Anger over the blackouts turned violent in January when army troops shot dead eight protesters in the mainly Shi'ite southern suburbs, fuelling wider political turmoil.

Tensions have calmed since rival factions reached a deal on a national unity government in May, but the chronic malaise gripping the electricity sector is not so readily cured.

Nor can the drain on the public purse be easily plugged. Subsidies cost the equivalent of 4 percent of Lebanon's Gross Domestic Product last year, the World Bank estimates.   Continued...

<p>A woman inspects a generator for sale in Beirut in this December 6, 2008 picture. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir</p>