As temperatures begin to drop in Lebanon, the country’s massive economic collapse means an increasing number of families will not be able to afford enough fuel to keep warm this winter.
It used to be Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees who faced the very worst living conditions, particularly in the depths of winter. But today, with Lebanon among the world’s worst financial crises since the 1850s, more and more people are in dire need of help to run heaters or private diesel generators that supplement the state’s atrocious electricity coverage.
Lebanon simply cannot afford to keep the power on, leading to one dramatic almost 24-hour blackout in state-provided electricity last month, and regular power cuts in some parts of the country that last 22 hours a day.
In the short term, there is no silver bullet. As is the case most years, international organisations will likely step in with band-aid solutions, such as cash aid and fuel distributions. In the longer term, however, it is time to invest money and political leverage in addressing the root cause of fuel poverty in Lebanon.
Even before the economy crashed, the country’s energy grid was in bad shape due to years of mismanagement and corruption. To help Lebanon overcome its chronic energy woes, the most pragmatic move now is to pave the way for a transition to renewable energy.
The cold weather – bringing snow to some areas of Lebanon – is arriving amidst a staggering rise in poverty levels.
The dramatic devaluation of the Lebanese lira, soaring inflation, and years of government inaction on poverty have exacerbated families’ coping mechanisms, leaving many with nothing less to sell off.
Meanwhile, fuel prices have risen more than 10 times since last year, following the progressive lifting of fuel subsidies without any alternative support for the country’s vulnerable. Forty litres of driving fuel – about a car tank – is now worth almost the unchanged national minimum monthly wage of 675,000 Lebanese lira (the equivalent of $32 on the black market, which most people use). The price of diesel, used for heating, has also spiked.
Out of these four million poor people, about 34 percent are living in extreme poverty. Across the country, around 650,000 homes don’t have access to state electricity. All parts of Lebanon are subject to prolonged power cuts.
In Beirut, many residents have still been unable to repair their homes since the catastrophic August 2020 Beirut port explosion, leaving them even more exposed to winter weather. Stéphanie Bassila, executive director of Be Beirut, an organisation helping families affected by the blast, estimates that 10 percent of homes damaged in the explosion remain open to the outdoors in some way, and a total of 70 percent do not have proper appliances, such as heaters, to keep them warm.
“We really need solutions, because people can no longer pay for their generator bills,” she says.
The risk of worse to come
The shortage and expense of fuel used for heating is already exacerbating longstanding tensions between Lebanon’s Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts.
A source inside the Ministry of Social Affairs, who requested anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media, says there have been regular disputes between Syrians and Lebanese over electricity and fuel in the eastern Beqaa Valley – home to many informal refugee camps.
Nine out of ten Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, with legal opportunities to work extremely limited. More than half live in overcrowded and dangerous shelters. These are often flimsy, plastic tents that flood or catch fire in winter.
Some are at risk of being left out in the cold altogether: As far back as 2018, Human Rights Watch documented mass evictions of Syrians by Lebanese landowners, and the source said that around 20 to 25 families are evicted each week in the Beqaa because they can’t pay rent.
There have long been tensions in the Beqaa, and other places, related to who receives aid from the UN or NGOs. The source said that in some parts of the eastern valley, mayors have threatened to kick out Syrian refugees if local Lebanese families do not start receiving equivalent assistance.
Poor access to fuel for heating risks further straining these tensions, in a country where peace is already fragile. The ministry source added that the government is considering providing winter aid to Lebanese families this year.
If this comes to pass, international actors need to step in and make sure that government ration cards or cash transfers are fair and not manipulated by political patronage networks.
This would help set a precedent that the Lebanese government cannot just ask the international community for money when the situation is desperate, and then allow the kind of corrupt practices that got Lebanon here in the first place to continue.
Tackling the root causes
Money for fuel and repairs to homes and shelters – what aid groups call “winterisation” – is greatly needed now. But with Lebanon’s electricity sector on the verge of total collapse, international aid agencies need to phase out this sort of programming in favour of more sustainable solutions.
Lebanon needs a major overhaul of how its national energy sector is run, especially its grid. Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, argues that it is time for Lebanon to shift towards renewable energy.
“We cannot continue considering renewable energy as a luxury,” Ayoub says. “It used to be a luxury before. Today, it should be a centrepiece of policy and energy planning.”
With 300 days of sun, Lebanon is a good place for solar power. There’s potential for wind and hydroelectricity, too.
Building a renewable energy grid takes money and time, but aid agencies, local civil society, and municipalities can start now by supplementing community energy needs using solar-powered micro-grids that are separate from the government’s electricity network.
Lebanon already has an informal electricity sector: Most people who can afford it pay for diesel generators that kick in when the state power goes off. Aid groups could turn this already thriving business green by incentivising generator operators to switch to renewable energy.
A large-scale transition to renewable energy will be costly, but a real investment – in money and leverage on the government – will pay dividends, eventually providing access to cheaper and more reliable power for everyone. That’s not to mention cleaner air, new job opportunities, and the opportunity for people to take ownership over local electricity infrastructure.
People need heat and power now, and the same old band-aids can’t be avoided. However, international aid agencies can and should also be leading the way towards the future by helping Lebanon transition to renewable energy. Otherwise, the same old problems will keep repeating themselves each winter, tensions will grow, and millions will continue to suffer.
Edited by Annie Slemrod.
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