BEIRUT — They literally run the country.
In parking lots, on flatbed trucks, in yards and on hospital rooftops, private generators are ubiquitous in parts of the Middle East, belching dangerous fumes into homes and businesses around the clock.
As the world seeks renewable energy to combat climate change, millions of people in the region rely almost entirely on private diesel-powered generators to keep the lights on, as war or mismanagement has drained power infrastructure.
Experts call it national suicide from an environmental and health perspective.
“Air pollution from diesel generators contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including many known or suspected carcinogens,” said Samy Kayed, CEO and co-founder of the Academy of the Environment. American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
Greater exposure to these pollutants likely increases respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease, he said. It also causes acid rain which harms plant growth and increases eutrophication – the excess buildup of nutrients in the water that eventually kills aquatic plants.
Since they typically use diesel, the generators also produce far more climate change-inducing emissions than, say, a natural gas power plant, he said.
The pollutants caused by the massive generators add to the many environmental problems in the Middle East, which is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impact of climate change. The region already experiences high temperatures and limited water resources, even without the growing impact of global warming.
Dependence on generators results from state failure. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, governments cannot maintain a functioning central power grid, whether through war, conflict, or mismanagement and corruption.
Lebanon, for example, has not built a new power plant for decades. Multiple plans for new projects have failed due to factionalism by politicians and conflicting patronage interests. The country’s few aging heavy fuel oil plants have long been unable to meet demand.
Iraq, meanwhile, sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Yet the scorching summer heat is always accompanied by the roar of neighborhood generators, as residents blast air conditioners around the clock to cool off.
Repeated wars over decades have destroyed Iraqi power grids. Corruption has siphoned off billions of dollars intended to fix and modernize it. Some 17 billion cubic meters of gas from Iraqi wells is flared every year as waste because it has not built the infrastructure to capture it and convert it into electricity to power Iraqi homes.
In Libya, a country prized for its light, sweet crude oil, power grids have warped under years of civil war and the absence of a central government.
“Power outages last most of the day, when electricity is needed most,” said Muataz Shobaik, owner of a butcher shop in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, who uses a noisy generator to run his coolers.
“Every business now needs an off-grid backup solution,” he said. Diesel fumes from machinery in its stores and nearby stores were thick in the air amid the searing heat.
The 2.3 million residents of the Gaza Strip depend on around 700 neighborhood generators across the territory for their homes. Thousands of private generators keep businesses, government institutions, universities and health centers running. Running on diesel, they release black smoke into the air, tarring the walls around them.
Since Israel bombed the only power station in Hamas-controlled territory in 2014, the station has never reached full capacity. Gaza receives only about half of the electricity it needs from the plant and directly from Israel. Cuts can last up to 16 hours a day.
WAY OF LIFE
Perhaps nowhere do generators rule people’s lives more than in Lebanon, where the system is so entrenched and institutionalized that private generator owners have their own trade association.
They are piled up in narrow streets, parking lots, on roofs and balconies and in garages. Some are as big as storage containers, others small and noisy.
The 5 million inhabitants of Lebanon have depended on them for a long time. The word “motor”, French for generator, is one of the most often spoken words among the Lebanese.
Dependency has only increased since the Lebanese economy collapsed at the end of 2019 and central blackouts began to last longer. At the same time, generator owners have had to ration use due to soaring diesel prices and high temperatures, turning them off several times a day for breaks.
The inhabitants therefore plan their lives according to the power cuts.
Those who can’t start the day without coffee set an alarm to brew a cup before the generator goes out. Frail or elderly people in apartment towers wait for the generator to turn on before leaving the house so they don’t have to climb stairs. Hospitals need to keep generators running so that life-saving machines can run uninterrupted.
“We understand people’s frustration, but without us people would live in darkness,” said Ihab, the Egyptian operator of a power plant north of Beirut.
“They say we are more powerful than the state, but it was the absence of the state that made us exist,” he said, giving only his first name to avoid trouble with the authorities. .
Siham Hanna, a 58-year-old translator in Beirut, said the fumes from the generators worsened her elderly father’s lung condition. She wipes soot from her balcony and other surfaces several times a day.
“It’s the 21st century, but we live like in the Stone Age. Who lives like that?” said Hanna, who doesn’t remember her country ever having stable electricity in her life.
Some in Lebanon and elsewhere have started installing solar power systems in their homes. But most only use it to fill when the generator is off. Cost and space issues in urban areas have also limited the use of solar power.
According to an International Energy Agency report, the typical middle-income household in Iraq uses a generator for an average of 10 hours a day and pays $240 per megawatt hour, among the highest rates in the region. .
The need for generators has become ingrained in people’s minds. At a recent concert in the capital, famed singer Umm Ali al-Malla made sure to thank not only the audience but also the venue’s technical director “for keeping the generator running” while her admirers danced .
Unlike power plants outside of urban areas, generators are at the heart of neighborhoods, pumping toxins directly to residents.
It’s catastrophic, said Najat Saliba, a chemist at the American University of Beirut who recently won a seat in parliament.
“It’s extremely taxing on the environment, especially the amount of black carbon and particulates they emit,” she said. There are almost no regulations and no filtering of particles, she added.
AUB researchers have found that the level of toxic emissions may have quadrupled since the start of the financial crisis in Lebanon due to the increased use of generators.
In the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, miles of cables criss-cross the streets connecting thousands of private generators. Each produces 600 kilograms of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per 8 hours of work time, according to Mohammed al Hazem, an environmental activist.
Similarly, a 2020 study of the environmental impact of using large generators at the Baghdad University of Technology found very high concentrations of pollutants exceeding limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. and the World Health Organization.
This is partly because Iraqi diesel fuel has a high sulfur content – “one of the worst in the world”, according to the study. Emissions include “sulphates, nitrates, sooty carbon atoms, ash” and pollutants considered carcinogenic, he warned.
“The pollutants emitted by these generators have a remarkable impact on the overall health of students and university staff,” he said.
— Information for this story was provided by Samya Kullab, Kareem Chehayeb, Salar Salim, Fares Akram and Rami Musa of The Associated Press.