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Beirut blast: Restoring power is important, as is trust

The blast in Beirut has exposed Lebanon’s corrupt energy sector and therefore should be the starting point for a wholesale reform of a crippled political system to rebuild trust and ease rising public agitation.

It did not take too long after the deadly Beirut port explosion, which devastated the city’s most vibrant neighbourhood and transformed the lives of thousands of its residents, for grief to turn into anger. The criminal incompetence and “endemic corruption”, as Hassan Diab put it in the speech announcing the resignation of his government, has pushed the Lebanese public to their limits and is fueling rising anger against the political class.

A corrupt and inefficient energy sector

Few areas illustrate this better than the appalling state of the electricity sector.  For decades, Lebanon’s electricity sector has epitomised the image of a “failed state” in the eyes of the Lebanese public. Long, frequent and discriminatory power outages have become the norm, resulting in 90% of the households having subscribed to private diesel generator networks. A 2019 survey asked Lebanese people “What is the biggest problem facing Lebanon today?”, with the top three answers being electricity (24%), corruption (14%), and the economy (12%).[1] The three areas are linked: grand corruption in the electricity sector has bled public finances since the 1990s – the World Bank estimates that more than half of all of Lebanon’s huge accumulated debt results from losses in the sector. In turn, this has starved other sectors of resources needed to tackle healthcare, education, and rapidly escalating poverty.

Infrastructure damage, post-blast reconstruction and rebuilding trust

The catastrophe at the port has also had a major impact on Lebanon’s power infrastructure. The HQ of the country’s power utility, Electrcite du Liban (EDL), was severely impacted by the blast, as it sits only a few hundred metres away from the explosion’s epicentre. EDL’s national control centre has been identified by experts as the most critical facility within EDL that needs to be brought back online as soon as possible because of its role in managing the already strained service. Moreover, the blast seems to have badly damaged a nearby distribution substation in Ashrafieh, along with cutting off most of the distribution grid-lines in neighbourhoods close to the explosion site (which need to be reconnected quickly).

While Lebanese state institutions are still marginal on the street and in the recovery effort, communities and the Lebanese civil society have shown exceptional solidarity and taken on the early cleaning and damage-surveying efforts. In parallel, a concerted effort by the international community is geared towards recovery and reconstruction, including restoring power to the most affected parts of the city.  Such efforts are important – though controversial if they are to go through the official state channels.  However, equally important is the need to rebuild trust and integrity, particularly within the power sector. While the Lebanese people might tolerate a few days without electricity, they would not tolerate a return to the “business-as-usual” approach that brought them death and devastation.

Reforming the power sector

We believe the power sector should be the starting point for the wholesale reform of Lebanon’s corrupt political system, not least because of the sector’s symbolism and its direct impact on people’s lives. Lebanese politicians need to immediately take serious steps to signal their intention to reform, not just to the international donors, but more importantly, to their people. These should include:

  • Ensuring complete transparency and community participation in damage assessment and rebuilding efforts;
  • Supporting the affected local communities with emergency access to temporary power sources;
  • Ensuring public safety by fixing or installing adequate street lighting as soon as possible; and
  • Leveraging reconstruction to build better, more sustainable, and resilient infrastructure.

Beyond these immediate measures, it is essential that the new government rapidly undertake a wholesale reform of the sector. This must include:

  • Starting an open and honest public dialogue about the sector’s problems and the changes needed to create a clean, modern, and functional service for all of Lebanon’s people;
  • Ensuring energy planning and investments are based on sound scientific and economic analysis;
  • Establishing an independent regulatory authority with real teeth;
  • Opening tendering and publishing bids for all work; and
  • Opening recruitment for all positions and putting an end to sectarian appointments.

Even though reforming corruption in the power sector in Lebanon will not be easy (as it is deeply entrenched), research from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London shows that it is indeed possible.  The key is understanding the nature of Lebanon’s political settlement to find strategies that are both politically and technically feasible.  But today, as the port blast makes evident the devastating costs of corruption on people’s lives, Lebanon has a once-in-a-generation chance to change its political settlement for good and literally give power back to its people.

[1] The authors are happy to share more information about the survey upon request.

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