Power Cuts and Development: Following the Wires in Post-war Beirut

Power Cuts and Development: Following the Wires in Post-war Beirut

Beirut in development - TapaniTT. Creative Commons License: Attribution

By Dr Dana Abi Ghanem (researcher at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester), Dr Daniele Rugo (Lecturer in Film at Brunel University London), and Dr Maria Kastrinou (Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University London).

Fifteen years of civil war and subsequent conflicts in Lebanon have rendered the ailing electricity infrastructure in the country unable to cope with the growing demands of its population. Efforts to rebuild and develop the country after the civil war ended in 1992 have not been successful in ensuring 24-hour electricity services to homes and businesses, creating a protracted crisis with reverberating impacts on the country’s residents. Our PaCCs project, Following the Wires, combines perspectives from filmmaking, sociology and anthropology to articulate the impacts of electricity disruption on everyday life. The focus of the project on the electricity situation will inevitably highlight the many failures of post-conflict rebuilding in Lebanon.

The country’s focus on growth and re-entry into financial markets since the early 1990s – led by the late prime minister Rafic Harriri, meant that a concerted and planned effort of post-war development with clear physical and social benefits was abandoned in favour of quick capital gains projects promoted by the government through its Council for Development and Reconstruction.

Until 2001, investments in electricity totalled $1.8 billion US dollars aimed at increasing capacity. However, an energy deficit continues. In 2009 for example this reached 3478 Gega Whr (gegawatt hours), largely due to a mismatch between production capacity and transmission capacity. As a result, electricity outages continue in the country and vary between 3 to up to 14 hours in some cases, depending on the region. Meanwhile, the push for increased growth and real estate developments has put further pressure on what is essentially an inadequate system for electricity provision.

Notable in the story of power cuts in Lebanon is its unequal share of the burden created from the scheduled power cuts. Within metropolitan Beirut, these outages are mostly 4 hours per day, making its residents’ reliance on private generators (which are costly as well as environmentally hazardous) limited to an extent. However, as one leaves the capital city and heads towards the suburbs and Lebanon’s other cities on the coast, the length of power cuts extends to an average of 8 to 10 hours per day. The result is a financially onerous situation where the average Lebanese household has to pay excessive amounts of money every month to expensive private generator services, in addition to the formal electricity bill. The social implications of power cuts, particularly elongated ones generally affecting middle to lower-income households are numerous, from directly felt impacts such as lack of lighting needed for children’s school homework to health implications for those relying on home-based medical care technologies.

As such, the power cuts in Lebanon further exacerbate rising inequalities in terms of access to basic infrastructure services, otherwise vital in post-conflict situations where peace building goes hand-in-hand with equal development and growth. The results are dark neighbourhoods and towns that are that odds with the well-lit streets of the city centre and an ineffective infrastructure that hampers further decentralized growth and development. From an international development perspective, it is important to facilitate social development in Lebanon through improving access. In this context, Following the Wires will shed light on the everyday hardships experienced by Lebanese households to bring to the fore the infrastructure development needs of the country.

Dr Dana Abi Ghanem is a researcher at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester. She is interested in the intersections of technology and society, specifically energy technologies, infrastructure and electricity consumption. Her research engages with scholarship from science and technology studies, sociology, theories of practice, and cultural geography.

Dr Daniele Rugo is Lecturer in Film at Brunel University London. His main research interests are in documentary practice, film-philosophy and world cinema. He is currently exploring the visual cultures of energy, with a specific focus on the interaction between energy infrastructures and landscape. He is the author of two books: Philosophy and the Patience of Film (2016) and Jean-Luc Nancy and the Thinking of Otherness (2013).  

Dr Maria Kastrinou is Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University London. Her research focuses on sect and state relations, energy, and Syrian refugees in the Middle East and South-Eastern Mediterranean. She conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Syria and is the author of the recently published book Power, sect and state in Syria.