Marc Ayoub | Friday, November 2, 2021
Energy, particularly electricity or fuel products, has proven to have the capacity to generate conflicts, and also play an important and under-recognized role in the dynamics of energy security in Lebanon.
Out of the several takeaways the crisis has taught us for at least the past two years, one could recognize one very important observation that the Lebanese people have experienced, especially during the last several months. Energy, particularly electricity or fuel products, has proven to have the capacity to generate conflicts, and also play an important and under-recognized role in the dynamics of energy security in Lebanon.
The latter has always been at the center of the policy discussions in the country, with diminished and unreliable energy supply continuously impacting the livelihood of Lebanese people. Severe and prolonged power outages have become common in recent months, and have exacerbated humanitarian challenges, impeded economic growth and impacted the operations of basic services, such as water, telecommunications, etc. in a country suffering one of the worst economic crises in history.
A major vulnerability
It would be fair to assume that energy security means different things to different countries or even different stakeholders within the same country. The scope of what energy security really means has shifted beyond the sole purpose of ensuring uninterrupted supply of fuels. Namely, there has been the introduction of the 4As: availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability.
The need to improve energy security with its modern-day meaning is paramount for countries like Lebanon. The sheer dependency on fuel imports for electricity generation and transport sector highlights a major vulnerability. While attaining complete energy security is beyond the realities of the energy sector of our day and the capabilities of developing countries, this need seems to be mandatory and should always be considered.
Severe and prolonged power outages have become common in recent months, and have exacerbated humanitarian challenges.”
A confluence of many energy crises
With the dwindling foreign currency reserves at the Central Bank (BDL), and its incapacity to maintain subsidies on basic needs, particularly fuel products, a gradual subsidy removal process has started between June and October 2021. Consequently, and with the continuous shortages in supply, energy played a major role in exacerbating community tensions and, at times, even violent conflicts.
Motorists have been queuing for petrol to fuel their cars for months. The queues stretched for miles, the wait for hours and days. In anticipation of further devaluation, and additional subsidy removal, fuel suppliers delayed or hoarded supply leading to long queues. Social unrest accidents started increasing on gas stations with increasing conflicts, most of which were accompanied by the use of weapons and guns, causing some of the stations to permanently close. By mid-summer, the majority of gas stations were under military oversight. It was until mid-august when the crisis has reached its peak. The Lebanese Army was drafted in to keep the peace and curb hoarding, as the Central Bank decided to fully halt fuel subsidies. Today, and as the latter is being completely removed, the queues in Lebanon suddenly disappeared. Everyone could go to a petrol station and fill up as much as they wanted, quickly and efficiently, just as before.
Another example of violent conflicts during the same period (August 2021) was observed at EDL’s substations. The lack of available funds to procure fuel products for EDL’s power plants has pushed supply to around 1-3 hours per day. Some residents in Beirut and the regions, supported by some political groups, have entered into around 9 of EDL’s substations and controlled electricity supply, benefiting some areas for around 12 hours per day while leaving others in complete blackouts. EDL announced these stations “out of its control”, and majorly impacting the electricity supply on the national grid.
With the absence of EDL’s power, citizens and businesses have had to rely on a secondary electricity service provided by expensive diesel generators, most of which were not able anymore to get the needed diesel supply at official market rates. They were thus obliged either to procure diesel from the black market, or to follow a severe rational program, leaving most of the residents with around 10 hours of blackouts. Several conflicts have risen in communities and villages between generators’ owners and subscribers, who were unable to support a very hot summer with no electricity, coupled with an incapacity to store food in the refrigerators.
There has never been a more important time to highlight the need for more inclusive, collaborative and connected conversations around energy (in)security. Can energy be used as a tool for peacebuilding instead of a cause of conflict? The short answer is yes, but not with the current form of sector management (or the lack of it). A transformative energy vision should be as inclusive as possible and leaves no one behind while creating peacebuilding opportunities through innovative, sustainable, cleaner, and greener energy projects.
There has never been a more important time to highlight the need for more inclusive, collaborative and connected conversations around energy (in)security.”
Post-conflicts and peacebuilding in the middle east: the role of renewables
Providing basic services, post-conflict or during crises, is perhaps the most effective tool for promoting and rebuilding peace, enhancing legitimacy, and speeding up economic recovery. Looking at countries of the region, one could identify examples of reconstruction periods in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen which came at the end of, or during, armed conflicts, and in which, energy was a priority. In Palestine and Yemen in particular, the consequence of the war was a remarkable boom in solar generation, accompanied by a surge in importation and sales of small-scale solar systems. Unable to obtain or to afford fuel, households in Sana’a and Gaza strip specifically, switched to the use of solar to provide at least a minimal provision of electricity for lighting, phone charging, and water pumping.
Therefore, the deployment of renewables in conflict-affected states offers an opportunity to deploy new technologies and ideas, and experiment with new policy models and distributed energy systems which are generally not used during peacetime.
While admitting that the old days of subsidized and available at any time products have gone far now, a greater transition to renewable energy would benefit the mission of both energy security and peacebuilding in several ways. It could reduce security and vulnerability exposure from fossil fuels, increase economic cost savings over time, and offer a dramatic reduction in diesel consumption for private generation. Such projects delivering local energy services offer new opportunities to contribute to peacebuilding, and support for peace-process implementation by catalyzing new jobs and economic stability.
Energy for peacebuilding should be front and center in future policy discussions, recognizing that energy transitions start with people and their needs. Energy transitions have always triggered societal disruption and current transitions are no exception. It is up to governments and communities to leave no one behind.
Post-Conflict Energy Planning in the Middle East, by Ali Ahmad, Philippe Chite and Jamal Saghir.
Queuing for petrol in Bath and Beirut – blog by Dr. Neil McCulloch.
Renewable Energy in Palestine: Opportunities, Barriers and the Way Forward, available on demand (not published)
This article was published on the Salam wa Kalam Platform, an online space dedicated to discussing development, inclusion, and diversity. This platform is launched by UNDP Lebanon, in partnership with IFI.
Click here for the Arabic version.
Marc Ayoub, Energy Policy and Security Program Coordinator at the AUB Issam Fares Institute.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.