Toxin-emitting generators keep the lights on around the Middle East

BEIRUT (AP) — They literally run the country.

In parking lots, on flatbed trucks, hospital yards and rooftops, private generators are ubiquitous in parts of the Middle East, spewing dangerous fumes into homes and businesses 24 hours a day.

As the world looks to renewable energy to combat climate change, millions of people in the region are almost entirely dependent on private diesel-powered generators to keep the lights on because war or mismanagement have destroyed electricity infrastructure.

Experts call it national suicide from an environmental and health perspective.

“Air pollution from diesel generators contains more than 40 toxic air pollutants, including many known or suspected cancer-causing substances,” said Samy Kayed, managing director and co-founder of the Academy for the Environment at the 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 damages plant growth and poisons water bodies, killing aquatic plants.

Since they typically use diesel, the generators also produce far more climate-changing emissions than, say, a gas-fired power plant, he said.

Pollution caused by huge generators adds to the many environmental woes of the Middle East, which is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to the effects of climate change. The region already has high temperatures and limited water resources even without the effects of global warming.

Dependence on generators results from state failure. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, governments are unable to maintain a functioning central network of power, whether due to war, conflict, or mismanagement and corruption.

Lebanon, for example, has not built a new power plant in decades. Many plans for new ones have foundered in political factionalism and conflicting patrimonial interests. The country’s few aging heavy fuel oil plants long ago could not keep up with demand.

Iraq, meanwhile, is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves. However, the scorching heat of summer is always accompanied by the roar of neighborhood generators as residents blast AC around the clock to cool off.

Repeated wars over the decades have destroyed Iraq’s electricity grids. Corruption has siphoned off billions of dollars earmarked for its repair. About 17 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Iraq’s wells is burned off each year as waste because governments haven’t built the infrastructure to capture it and turn it into electricity.

The need for generators is deeply rooted in people’s minds. At a recent concert in the capital Baghdad, famous 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 about 700 neighborhood generators across the territory for their homes. Thousands of private producers keep businesses, government institutions, universities and health centers running. Running on diesel, they spew black smoke into the air, forming tar walls around them.

Since Israel bombed the only power plant in the Hamas-ruled territory in 2014, the plant has never reached full capacity. Gaza receives only half of the energy it needs from the plant and directly from Israel. Outages 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 business association.

Lebanon’s 5 million people have long depended on them. The word “moteur”, French for generator, is one of the most frequently spoken words among the Lebanese.

Dependence has only increased since Lebanon’s economy collapsed in late 2019 and central blackouts began to last longer. At the same time, generator owners were forced to use rationing due to soaring diesel prices and high temperatures, shutting them down several times a day for breaks.

So the residents plan their lives around the gaps in electricity.

That means setting an alarm to make a cup of coffee before the generator goes off in the morning. Frail or elderly people 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 run without interruption.

“We understand people’s frustration, but if it wasn’t for us, people would be living in the dark,” said Ihab, the Egyptian operator of a power plant north of Beirut.

“They say we are more powerful than the state, but it is the absence of the state that has 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 fumes from the generator were worsening her elderly father’s lung condition. She sweeps soot from her balcony and other surfaces several times a day.

“It’s the 21st century, but we live like in the stone years. Who lives like this?’ said Hana, who doesn’t remember her country ever having stable electricity in her life.

Unlike most power plants, the generators sit in the heart of neighborhoods, pumping toxins directly into residents.

There are almost no regulations and no particulate filtering, 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 particulates they emit,” he said.

Researchers at AUB found that the level of toxic emissions may have quadrupled since Lebanon’s financial crisis began due to 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. He noted that Iraqi diesel fuel is “one of the worst in the world”, with a high sulfur content.

The generators’ emissions “have a significant impact on the overall health of students and university staff,” it said.


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

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