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☄︎ The Electricity Crisis That Is Taking Away Our Time

أزمة الكهرباء التي تسرق وقتنا


4 August 2023


Dana Abi Ghanem

is a Research Fellow based at the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Law. Her research interests span the broad topic of energy and society, with a focus on new technology design and development, consumption and everyday life, and energy, cities and conflict.

I can’t recall a time in Lebanon when people didn’t talk a lot about electricity; the amperages we can or cannot afford every month, the bills for the generator service in their neighbourhoods, the crisis of electricity in the country, its mismanagement by politicians old and new. But when we talk about electricity, we are also talking about time, our own time, the time it takes to switch what appliances we have off before the generator – which has a lower amperage – comes on, the time it takes to finish whatever chores we have before the electricity is cut, the time by which one can arrive to visit a friend so that the elevator can be working. 

Since 2015, I have been doing research about electricity in Lebanon. I  wanted to know how failures in the reliability of electricity affected people’s everyday life and practices. Back then, power outages were common for a few to several hours a day – depending on where one lived in the country. People had to negotiate expensive energy bills paid to the generator service providers, others had to pay for diesel to power their private generators in their buildings. For many years after the end of the civil war and until the financial crisis began, rolling power cuts regulated routines in the capital city. Power cuts rotated in a counter-clockwise fashion for a period of 3 hours, usually between 6 AM and 6 PM, whilst for those who lived outside of Beirut, electric supply was more unreliable, days were more randomly filled with power cuts that would interrupt people’s everyday life. For my research, I spoke to them about their daily routines and how they were affected by the power cuts. I learned how they shaped their lives and routines to fit around the power cut schedule. 

From her living room in a busy apartment block in the Furn-el-Shibbek neighbourhood, Madame Karima 1 The name, and the ones thereafter, has been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.× , one of my interlocutors, shared with me her weekly laundry timetable in October 2015.

This Monday, it comes at 12. I will turn on the water pump. It means the next day, Tuesday, it will come at six. I will wash the colours. It will come again Thursday but there is no water, so maybe if there is water on Friday, I can do the whites this weekend. Regardless of whether I am tired or not

I thought about Madame Karima’s routine for a long time. Around what the presence of power cuts reveals about our practices and our electrical lives, around how the generator services work and the impacts they have on people’s wellbeing and family dynamics, and around what solutions people came up with to deal with the stolen time of electric dispossession.

Then the financial crisis took shape and everything went dark. So much has changed in these last couple of years; the streets dark in the night, candlelit rooms, eye-watering costs for generators, solar panels on roofs and balconies! With the onset of the most recent energy crisis, more homes in the country have had to invest in expensive solar power systems, and many have come to rely on them instead of having to pay hundreds of US dollars for diesel generators, now an unaffordable prospect for the majority. Despite the many problems that have arisen since this solar boom – entrenching income inequalities and the lack of quality protections to name a few – some see it is a workable solution to their problem. But I go back to enquire about the everyday. How do we live with and talk about this “new” source of electricity? How are our days and hours affected by having to rely on these solar home kits? So now we wonder: how long will the battery last, how long before it should be serviced or replaced and how long will the solar panels last me? 

So whilst the list of questions has grown or changed, one thing has not changed and that is people’s stolen time. Squeezed evermore into the even fewer hours of electricity available, this time, it was not what people managed to do when the power was cut, but what they could manage to do when the power came back on, those few hours – if at all – were sufficient electricity services, i.e. enough amperes to power people’s daily life, are available. We find ourselves paralysed; unable to work, study or read as the darkness envelopes Beirut at night. Salma cannot walk the streets of the town she lived in all her life. Mireille can no longer keep the food from rotting in her fridge. There is a time for everything in life, but in Lebanon, the energy crisis steals what time is left to rest, recuperate, reflect and recreate. It steals away our time with friends, our public life in the streets and squares. It imprisons us in our homes, smaller and darker than ever before. 

Of course, one can say our daily routines take away a lot from our souls, they shape our everyday life in stringent ways wherever we are. As Braudel 2 Braudel, F. Afterthoughts on Material Civilisation and Capitalism, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1979.× says, “they become habits that help us live, imprison us and make decisions for us throughout our lives”. In Lebanon, the electricity failures over the years have shaped our lives and imprisoned us in routines, anxieties and incapacitations. They have tired us by demanding so much planning, so much attention to detail. Not only about what we can do at what hour of the day, but with which appliances and with how much power. The electricity crisis has taken away what little time we have left, crowded our minds with amperes, kilowatts, batteries, inverters… It has clouded our days with backbreaking costs and diesel fumes. 

The new electricity crisis has indeed set in place ‘a new economy and politics for bodies’ 3 See, Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.×  that are spent and weary. What verve my people had in that October 2019 moment was replaced with a new electricity conduct, a disciplining of the masses by amperages and clockwork. Where the scheduled power cuts of the protracted electricity problem in Lebanon constituted a space of set routines and timetables, the current energy crisis further complicates our lives. In a typical day, we find ourselves managing the few hours from the grid, the five amperes (or 10 amperes if you are lucky) from the diesel generator, and the eight to 12 amperes from the batteries. We negotiate the generator operating hours, the hours to rest the generator, and the hours to save on fuel. We despair at the hours of rest we lost, hours filled with new stresses and anxieties of trying to stay alive, to stay alive with dignity, with the dwindling financial resources we have left.

How criminal can this innocuous power cable be? That those in Lebanon are unable to carry on, to continue living with the most basic services – power in their homes and lights on the street and the hours of the day stolen from them. So now, I wonder, how long will this oppressive routine last, how long before my people free themselves of these criminal leaders and allow themselves to imagine a different electricity future 4 See Shehabi, A. and Al-Masri, M. ‘Foregrounding citizen imaginaries: Exploring just energy futures through a citizens’ assembly in Lebanon’, Futures, 40, June 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2022.102956 × , one that does not poison the air they breathe and does not destroy the tranquility they so crave. And finally, how long before they retake the time stolen from them? I go back to that moment in October 2019 and wonder if we can reclaim the time we lost by gathering once more and confronting the power of the energy crisis over us, the eco-cidal and domestic violence of the power cuts and punishing amperes the blight our everyday life. 

This energy crisis is not us; it is not our roundabout ways with limited resources. It is a structured violence thrusted upon our existence by unaccountable, kleptocratic elites. But it does not need to stay that way – we can imagine a different energy future, a greener one and a more equitable and shared one. We can build on the solutions that over the years we have accustomed ourselves to, but we should do so collectively and politically. I hold on to hope at Arundhati Roy’s urging, with her words: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’.



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