Hospitals in blast-hit north Lebanon grapple with power outages

Hospitals in the Akkar region of north Lebanon where a fuel tank explosion killed at least 28 people this week are struggling to operate as life-threatening power cuts and telecom outages sweep the area.

Lights and phone lines went out across the impoverished and marginalised region that has long suffered from an ailing power grid but that is now grappling with an unprecedented crisis due to severe diesel shortages nationwide.

The outages on Tuesday come less than two days after a fuel tank exploded in the village of al-Tleil, scorching people clamouring to fill petrol that the army was distributing.

About 80 people, including several soldiers, were injured, many of them left with severe burns, overwhelming hospitals.

Fuel shortages since the start of summer have aggravated hardship in Lebanon, a country of more than six million that is in the throes of an economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst since the mid-19th century.

Without the diesel needed to power private generators, businesses, hospitals and even the country’s main telecom operator have had to scale back operations or close entirely due to outages lasting up to 22 hours a day.

In Akkar, hospitals still storing corpses of victims charred in Sunday’s blast were left without power, internet and working landlines, as health officials pleaded for help from the authorities.

“We have a stock of 700 litres (almost 185 gallons) of diesel fuel which will last for only one day,” said Dr Riad Rahal, the director of Rahal Hospital in the Akkar town of Halba.

The nearby El Youssef hospital also had enough stock of diesel to last until Wednesday morning but no working phone lines, said Nathaline El-Chaar, an assistant to the director.

“Since yesterday, landlines have been out of service … and we are trying hard to secure diesel,” she told the AFP news agency.

She said the hospital’s diesel provider had delayed deliveries, fearing attacks on a north Lebanon highway where incidents in recent days have seen angry groups seize fuel from trucks.

Deadly queues

But the official National News Agency (NNA) said on Tuesday that diesel fuel shortages and power outages had forced the Ogero telecom provider to cut internet, landlines and mobile phone services in several parts of Akkar, effectively paralysing banks, businesses and state offices.

Ogero head Imad Kreidieh warned that other regions in Lebanon would have to follow suit unless the situation improved.

In the southern suburbs of Beirut, shots were fired at a petrol station, the latest in a series of incidents rattling motorists lining up in long petrol queues.

The NNA said the army deployed in the area after several people were wounded in the shooting but did not provide more details.

A security source told AFP that people who had illegally stored petrol at a pumping station fired live rounds as soldiers tried to confiscate their stock.

They also started a fire at the gas station, accusing its owner of having tipped off the army.

Videos and pictures circulating on social media showed men opening machine-gun fire. AFP could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.

The army on Saturday started raiding gas stations and confiscating stocks of fuel that distributors have been hoarding to sell at a higher price in the black market or across the border in Syria.

Lebanon’s military said on Twitter it had seized more than 4.3 million litres (xxx gallons) of petrol and 2.2 million litres (xxx gallons) of fuel oil between Saturday and Monday.

It forced the owners of these supplies to sell almost all the petrol and 1.6 million litres (xxx gallons) of fuel oil to hospitals, bakeries and a power utility, and to distribute more for free, it said.

‘Bad situation’

Meanwhile, the Lebanese parliament is expected to convene on Friday to discuss what to do about the fuel crisis.

Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called the session to discuss “appropriate action” over the crippling fuel shortages.

A senior United Nations official said water supplies and essential health services were threatened, warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.

“A bad situation only stands to get worse unless an instant solution is found,” said Najat Rochdi, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon.

Last week, the central bank announced it could no longer finance imports of gasoline and diesel at heavily discounted exchange rates, effectively ending a subsidy scheme that promises to increase prices sharply.

Governor Riad Salameh has been at odds with the government over the move, as the government says it should have been done only after the provision of prepaid cash cards for the poor.

Salameh has said he can resume subsidising imports only if a law is passed allowing him to dip into the mandatory reserves.

The crisis has sparked a renewed push by Lebanon’s squabbling politicians to agree on a cabinet that can start tackling the financial crisis, which has depressed the currency by more than 90 percent.

“We still have a few meters left in the race, but god willing we are sorting it out appropriately,” Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said after meeting with President Michel Aoun on Tuesday.

Despite deepening poverty, Lebanon’s ruling elite have failed to form a new cabinet since Prime Minister Hassan Diab quit after last year’s devastating Beirut port explosion.

Asked about local media reports of two new diesel shipments carrying 80 million litres (xxx gallons) imported at the previous subsidised rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, Salameh said they had been pre-approved in July.

The parallel market rate on Tuesday was 18,500 pounds to the dollar.

Local broadcasters MTV and al-Jadeed had reported on Tuesday that a third shipment of gasoline had been rejected by the central bank.

Salameh said it would have to abide by a new circular. “The new circular will determine the price of sayrafa as a base for the dollar [letter of credit],” he said.

Sayrafa is the central bank’s currency exchange platform.

Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, said on Sunday it would begin bringing diesel and gasoline from Iran with delivery dates to be announced soon.