BEIRUT — The Lebanese government has failed to uphold the “right to electricity,” New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday in a report highlighting the negative effects of a lack of access to electricity.
The organization’s report is based in part on a national survey of 1,209 Lebanese households conducted between November 2021 and January 2022.
Nearly nine out of ten households said the cost of electricity affected their ability to pay for other essentials and two-thirds said they were affected several times a month. Almost half of households with an income in the top quintile (20 percent) said electricity bills affected their ability to pay for other essentials.
The survey findings provide some of the first reliable data on the crushing energy burden in contemporary Lebanon.
The average Lebanese household with a generator connection spent 44 percent of their monthly income on generator bills, the survey found. This figure ranged from 88 percent for households in the bottom quintile (lowest 20 percent) in terms of income to a still considerable 21 percent of households in the top quintile in terms of income.
According to data from Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics (CAS), in 2012, the year with the most recent available data, electricity made up 4.72 percent of average household spending.
Despite the exorbitant cost of generator services, the vast majority of Lebanese remain generator customers in the near total absence of state electricity. The survey found that roughly 90 percent of households use a generator, including four out of every five households in the poorest quintile. In other words, the vast majority of the country’s poorest residents use generator services despite the extremely high cost.
In fact, use of generators may have increased since the onset of the crisis, given that data collected in 2018 and 2019 by the CAS indicated that 84 percent of households used generators, compared to the 90 percent found in HRW’s late 2021 survey. Many of the added subscriptions may come from Beirut, which had a 54 percent generator usage rate in 2018–2019 according to CAS, and an 87 percent rate in 2021–2022 according to L’Orient Today’s calculation of HRW’s survey data.
In addition to high costs, shortages also burdened households. Sixty-five percent said their ability to keep food refrigerated was affected by shortages, and 47 percent said it impacted their ability to pump water. More than a third said it interfered with their ability to cook or heat food, or to keep their home at a safe temperature.
Electricity is a “Distinct Human Right”
HRW argues that electricity is itself “a distinct human right.”
The organization faults the government for “fail[ing] to properly manage the state-run electricity company, Electricite du Liban (EDL), resulting in widespread blackouts that are violating the right of Lebanon’s population to electricity as well as secondary rights to an adequate standard of living, education, health, free movement, and a health environment.” The report accuses the government of “decades of unsustainable policies and fundamental neglect,” which it attributes to “elite capture of state resources, corruption, and vested interests.”
“It is not an absence of financial capability that has brought us here,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, at a press conference Thursday.
While accusing the government of failing to meet its obligations to its citizens, Fakih said that “privatization is not the solution for Lebanon’s woes.”
Report co-author Lena Simet agreed, saying that utility privatization has in some other countries worsened inequality between citizens. According to Simet, the solution lies in getting the electricity sector, currently occupied by a mushrooming generator economy, back under state control and “making EDL run.”
HRW requested comments from the caretaker Prime Minister, the ministries of energy and water, health, environment, civil defense and international agencies. As of the report’s publication Thursday morning, only the civil defense and the World Bank responded to HRW’s questions. Their responses were not “pertinent to the major findings of our report,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW said Thursday.
A delegation from HRW met with caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayyad on Wednesday, the organization said. Coogle called the meeting “substantive,” but Fakih lamented the lack of an adequate plan to address the sector’s challenges.
HRW called for the Lebanese government to “enshrine the right to electricity” in national law, pass laws necessary for the IMF deal, and finally implement the 2002 law that establishes an Electricity Regulatory Authority to exercise oversight of the sector. It also called on the government to pass a law organizing distributed renewable energy generation and to increase renewable energy generation capacity.
It also called for a new EDL tariff structure with mechanisms to ensure households do not spend a high share of their income on electricity. Simet said there is no internationally accepted threshold for how much households should spend on electricity as it varies by context and called on the government to study household spending patterns as part of a tariff redesign for EDL and generator prices.
Without urgent reforms to the sector, most households will continue to suffer from exorbitant costs in order to secure just a few hours per day of low-current electricity at a time when they can least afford it.
“If we didn’t have the generator expense, then we’d manage. But the generator bankrupted us,” one anonymous interviewee said in the report. “You can let go of everything, but you can’t live without electricity.”