Toxin-spewing generators keep lights on in Lebanon, Mideast
They literally run the country.
In parking lots, on flatbed trucks, hospital courtyards and rooftops, private generators are ubiquitous in parts of the Middle East, spewing hazardous fumes into homes and businesses 24 hours a day.
As the world looks for renewable energy to tackle climate change, millions of people around the region depend almost completely on diesel-powered private generators to keep the lights on because war or mismanagement have gutted electricity 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 cancer-causing substances," said Samy Kayed, managing director and co-founder of the Environment Academy at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
Greater exposure to these pollutants likely increases respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease, he said. It also causes acid rain that harms plant growth and poisons bodies of water, killing aquatic plants.
Since they usually use diesel, generators also produce far more climate change-inducing emissions than, for example, a natural gas power plant, he said.
The pollutants caused by massive generators add to the many environmental woes of the Middle East, which is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impact of climate change. The region already has high temperatures and limited water resources even without the impact of global warming.
The reliance on generators results from state failure. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, governments can't maintain a functioning central power network, whether because of war, conflict or mismanagement and corruption.
Lebanon, for example, has not built a new power plant in decades. Multiple plans for new ones have run aground on politicians' factionalism and conflicting patronage interests. The country's few aging, heavy-fuel oil plants long ago became unable to meet demand.
Iraq, meanwhile, sits on some of the world's biggest oil reserves. Yet scorching summer-time heat is always accompanied by the roar of neighborhood generators, as residents blast ACs around the clock to keep cool.
Repeated wars over the decades have wrecked Iraq's electricity networks. Corruption has siphoned away billions of dollars meant to repair it. Some 17 billion cubic meters of gas from Iraq's wells are burned every year as waste, because governments haven't built the infrastructure to capture it and convert it to electricity.
The need for generators has become deeply engrained in people's minds. At a recent concert in the capital Baghdad, famed singer Umm Ali al-Malla made sure to thank the venue's technical director "for keeping the generator going."
The Gaza Strip's 2.3 million people rely 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 churn black smoke in the air, tarring walls around them.
Since Israel bombed the only power plant in the Hamas-ruled territory in 2014, the station has never reached full capacity. Gaza only gets about half the power it needs from the plant and directly from Israel. Cutoffs can last up to 16 hours a day.
Perhaps nowhere do generators rule people's lives as much as in Lebanon, where the system is so entrenched that private generator owners have their own business association.
Lebanon's 5 million people have long depended on them. The word "moteur," French for generator, is one of the most often spoken words among Lebanese.
Reliance has only increased since Lebanon's economy unraveled in late 2019 and central power cutoffs began lasting longer. At the same time, generator owners have had to ration use because of soaring diesel prices and high temperatures, turning them off several times a day for breaks.
So residents plan their lives around the gaps in electricity.
That means setting an alarm to make a cup of coffee before the generator turns off in the morning. The frail or elderly in apartment towers wait for the generator before leaving home so they don't have to climb stairs. Hospitals must keep generators humming so life-saving machines can operate without disruption.
"We understand people's frustration, but if it wasn't for us, people would be living in darkness," said Ihab, the Egyptian operator of a generator station north of Beirut.
"They say we are more powerful than the state, but it is the absence of the state that led us to exist," he said, giving only his first name to avoid trouble with the authorities.
Siham Hanna, a 58-year-old translator in Beirut, said generator fumes exacerbate her elderly father's lung condition. She wipes soot off her balcony and other surfaces several times a day.
"It's the 21st century, but we live like in the stone ages. Who lives like this?" said Hanna, who does not recall her country ever having stable electricity in her life.
Unlike most power plants, generators are in the heart of neighborhoods, pumping toxins directly to residents.
There are almost no regulations and no filtering of particles, said Najat Saliba, a chemist at the American University of Beirut who recently won a seat in Parliament.
"This is extremely taxing on the environment, especially the amount of black carbon and particles that they emit," she said.
Researchers at AUB found that the level of toxic emissions may have quadrupled since Lebanon's financial crisis began because of increased reliance on generators.
Similarly, a 2020 study in Iraq on the environmental impact of generators at the University of Technology in Baghdad found very high concentrations of pollutants, including carcinogens. It noted that Iraqi diesel fuel is "one of the worst in the world," with a high sulphur content.
Generator emissions "exert a remarkable impact on the overall health of students and university staff," it said.