Lilongwe and Beirut are two highly centralized capitals in terms of economy and services. Lilongwe, the largest city in Malawi, which covers 727 square kilometers (281 square miles), houses one million people. Further north, Lebanon’s largest city and capital is home to two million people spread over 67 square kilometers (26 square miles). In spite of the demographic and geographic differences, both cities have one thing in common: power cuts that are so frequent, its citizens have been forced to drastically alter their lifestyles.
While Lilongwe has had intensive power cuts that last for 24 hours at a time, with some people getting just eight hours of electricity in 36 hours since October 2017, Beirut has long known what it means to suffer from repeated power cuts. People in the Lebanese capital have lived through frequent and somewhat random power cuts ever since the Lebanese Civil War (1975 and 1990). Over the years, political unrest in the country has complicated the city’s ongoing challenges with power cuts and its notorious trash crisis.
In using the waste and power crisis to their advantage, people living in the villages of Aabey and Baawerta, which are 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Beirut, often make use of the garbage in the nearby landfills used by the Lebanese capital to generate electricity for their houses. “So basically, when the power provided by the government cuts off, we automatically get the power back by generating from garbage,” Aabey-based Khaldoun Abou Dargham, 20, tells progrss. “It does sometimes cut due to resting engines or other problems, but in general it is technically 24/7. Prior to that, it was like the the rest [of Lebanon]; six hours of electricity and then it is off.”
In Beirut, Serage Amatory, 20, tells progrss that public electricity is available for six hours followed by six hours of power cut and on goes the cycle for the whole day. “In some places in Beirut, cuts are only three hours a day,” he says. “However, most households depend on private generators, which often get monopolized by one owner for every neighborhood.”
In 2013, Lebanese households spent an average of $1,300 on electricity, with two-thirds of that going to power generators, in a country where the gross national income per capita is $9,800. “We used to have our own generator or pay monthly for one guy who had a big [generator] providing electricity for the houses willing to participate,” Abou Dargham adds. “Other than that, we plan the day accordingly to when the power is there.”
Lebanese coders and app developers have come up with mobile app ideas to anticipate power cuts to help residents make their day-to-day plans accordingly. Beirut Electricity, a mobile app that helps track electrical power cuts in the capital, is used by 15,000 people daily. Beirut Electricity tracks the rolling three-hour power cuts and predicts when the power will be on, days, weeks, months, and even years in advance, sparing users complicated calculations.
“As I spent days and nights vainly wishing for our government to fix this problem, I figured out a way to calculate the power outage hours,” the creator of the mobile app, Mustafa Baalbaki, writes in the app’s description. “[I] decided to make this app just so I won’t have to go back to my ninth floor apartment when the elevator is not working.”
At a time when the Lebanese have wryly accepted power cuts as part of their lifestyle and – in fact – culture, bringing it up in movies and TV shows as an inside joke, Malawians in Lilongwe are just beginning to adapt to the regularity of power cuts.
“When they are on, we have to iron clothes or several other things requiring power as quick as possible. Presently the power cuts have reached the level of being called a crisis,” John Namalenga, 23, tells progrss. “[Yesterday], we have had a nationwide blackout for over an hour. Parliamentarian deliberations [were] suspended for the day.”
“People joke around portraying blackouts as a greeting. Pretty much like: “Good morning, do you have lights at your home?” And the other answers: “Hi, we have no lights at home,” Namalenga adds.
Idrissa Nkwanda, 21, who also lives in Lilongwe, tells progrss that on his side of the city, in area 36, a blackout typically lasts 24 to 25 hours, after which they get power for eight hours followed by another 24 to 25 hour power outage, and so the pattern continues. “The Electricity Supply Cooperation of Malawi (ESCOM) usually releases what they call electricity management plans which indicates the scheduling of the power cuts for specific areas of the city,” Nkwanda explains.
The Malawi government blames Lake Malawi’s low water levels for the persistent power cuts that have plagued the country for the past three months. “There will be enormous operating difficulties in the months of September to December. Lake levels will drop by early December and we will only be able to generate 135MW,” announced ESCOM’s CEO John Kandulu.
But the power cuts are far from just a minor inconvenience; in fact, several lives have been several lives have been lost to the power cuts in hospitals in Malawi. “We have cases of premature babies dying in hospitals due to the absence of power for the incubators,” says the executive director of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Dorothy Ngoma. “Whenever authorities are told about these things, they…ask for names of those children who are dying. I say this is unacceptable.”
In response, the Ministry of Health is providing 85 health facilities across the country with solar power installations, with the help of $3.6 million from the Global Fund. But that hasn’t stopped Malawi’s civil society leaders from leading protests against ESCOM. Nicholas Dausi, both the Malawi government spokesperson and Minister of Information and Communications Technology, told people that, rather than protest, they should plant more trees instead and work on environmental preservation. He added that the river waters that once produced Malawi’s electricity have dried up due to deforestation.
Without specifying a particular timeframe, the Minister announced that the government is turning to thermo-power generation to fix the problem. “We are waiting for the arrival of [Kapichira and Tedzani, two hydro-power generating stations] as anyone else may appreciate we are dealing with international procurement process that require ample time,” Dausi explained.
President Peter Mutharika said earlier that there is a possibility for the electricity problems to end after the commissioning of the Chinese-funded coal-fired power plant “Kammwamba,” expected to happen in three years’ time.
In Lebanon, on the other hand, the government has been spending an average of around $2 billion annually on subsidies – around 15 percent of government expenditure – to purchase fuel for Electricité du Liban (EDL) or Electricity of Lebanon. This compares with seven percent on education and nine percent on health. A major overhaul of the system to get 24-hour power would take $5 to 6 billion based on the government’s own estimates.
Zahlé, home to 50,000, making it the fourth largest city in Lebanon after Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek, gave up on the government’s failed attempts and lack of political will and has been commissioning its own power station since 2016. Now, without relying on government sources at all, Zahlé is able to provide its residents with electricity around the clock. “The technical solutions are all proven and tested, what is needed is the political will to make a decision,” a Beirut-based World Bank official who runs the regional infrastructure and development program, Husam Beides, said.
In fact, Tom Henderson of design firm Arcadis visited Lebanon in April 2016 to discuss the waste-to-energy plant that Arcadis helped to set up in Florida, which uses trash to generate electricity, cutting the need for landfills altogether. The U.S. city keeps 3,000 tons of waste, equivalent to 90 percent of its trash, from going to landfills every day by converting it into enough electricity to power 40,000 homes and businesses. Similar to waste-to-energy schemes in Sweden and Singapore, the Florida facility puts non-recyclable garbage through boilers, which produce steam that turns turbines and in turn generate electricity – a solution both countries can use to address their electrical shortages, and, in the case of Lebanon, potentially alleviate its trash-related woes as well.