By Nafisa Eltahir and Issam Abdallah
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s worsening fuel crisis has reached a painful crunch point, with bakeries, businesses and hospitals either scaling back operations or shutting down completely, making life even harder for Lebanese already enduring a financial meltdown.
As the fuel oil that powers Lebanon has disappeared from the market, Lebanese have sweltered at home in the summer heat without light or AC, routinely tossing out the contents of fridges while having to set aside hours to fill up the car – if increasingly scarce gasoline can be found.
Many say living conditions are worse than during the 1975-90 civil war.
It marks a new low in the financial crisis that erupted in late 2019, the result of decades of corruption and mismanagement by a ruling elite that has failed to find solutions as more than half the population has sunk into poverty.
In the latest policy failure, the government is sparring with the central bank over its decision to end fuel subsidies, a step that would spell sharply higher prices.
While the stand-off continues, importers told Reuters the country faced a huge shortage of fuel.
“During the civil war, even with how horrible it was, there weren’t any power cuts,” said Hassan Khalife, 50, who owns a small barbecue joint near parliament in Beirut.
“The state, which is supposed to take care of its people, is doing the opposite, it’s trying to humiliate us as much as it can,” he said.
Khalife has downgraded from three refrigerators to one, which he powers via a line from a neighbor’s generator that whirrs loudly across the street. “We’ve become used to the sound, it’s like hearing birds or something,” he said.
On Wednesday, Lebanon’s electricity minister told reporters that the country needs 3,000 megawatts of power but only has enough fuel to produce 750. People say they get one or two hours of electricity from the grid per day, if any.
The shortage of fuel, known as mazout, means people can’t run their own generators to fill the gap.
“In the last three days I can’t find mazout at all, neither black market nor white,” says Metri Flouti, who manages generators for buildings in the upscale Ashrafieh neighborhood, and is forced by the heat at home to sleep in his air conditioned office.
Key businesses are having the same problem.
Ali Ibrahim, head of the bakeries union, said some bakeries had been forced to pause this week. “This is people’s food, you can’t play around with it,” he said.
“Hospitals are going day by day, very few have enough for 2 or 3 days,” said Suleiman Haroun, head of the private hospitals union, adding that medical supplies were low and staff lacked petrol to get to work.
Souad Akl, general manager of Alfa Laboratories which produces saline solution and other medical essentials, told Reuters her factory shut down for the first time in almost 50 years this week.
In a city known for its nightlife, Beirut’s downtown and corniche are plunged into darkness, but still draw some escaping the heat at home. “I feel my home is dark, and it gives you depression,” said homemaker Manar Yassine.
She has emptied her fridge and waits to do laundry in the precious hour of electricity from the grid, trying to cut back on generator costs.
Her husband’s once comfortable salary now only covers their generator subscription, internet, and satellite TV. “I look at my kids, and their futures,” she said. “If someone gave us the means to emigrate, of course we would.”
(Additional reporting by Imad Creidi, Writing by Nafisa Eltahir, editing by Tom Perry and Giles Elgood)