Toxin-spewing generators keep lights on across the Middle East

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 that harms plant growth and poisons water bodies, killing 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 has high temperatures and limited water resources, even without the impact of global warming.

Dependence on generators results from state failure. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, 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 stay cool.

Repeated wars over decades have destroyed Iraqi power grids. Corruption has siphoned off billions of dollars intended to fix it. Some 17 billion cubic meters of gas from Iraqi wells is flared every year as waste because governments have not built the infrastructure to capture it and convert it into electricity.

The need for generators has become deeply ingrained 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 getting the generator going”.

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.

Perhaps nowhere do generators rule people’s lives more than in Lebanon, where the system is so entrenched that private generator owners have their own professional association.

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.

This means setting an alarm to brew a cup of coffee before the generator goes out in the morning. Frail or elderly people in apartment towers wait for the generator before leaving the house so they don’t have to climb the 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.

“We are in the 21st century, but we live like in the Stone Age. Who lives like this? said Hanna, who doesn’t remember her country ever having stable electricity in her life.

Unlike most power plants, generators are at 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.

“It’s extremely taxing on the environment, especially the amount of black carbon and particulates they emit,” she said.

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.

Similarly, a 2020 study in Iraq on the environmental impact of generators at Baghdad University of Technology found very high concentrations of pollutants, including carcinogens. He noted that Iraqi diesel fuel is “one of the worst in the world”, with a high sulfur content.

Emissions from generators and “exert a remarkable impact on the overall health of students and university staff,” he said.


Associated Press writers Samya Kullab in Baghdad, Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Salar Salim in Erbil, Iraq, Fares Akram in Gaza, Gaza and Rami Musa in Benghazi, Libya, contributed reporting.

ABC News

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