In parts of Mideast, power generators spew toxic fumes 24/7

Sep 11, 2022, 11:07 PM | Updated: Sep 14, 2022, 8:13 am
With the Lebanese Government House in the background, a new generator is hauled up to the roof of a...

With the Lebanese Government House in the background, a new generator is hauled up to the roof of an office building, in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 21, 2022. They literally run the country. Private generators are ubiquitous in parts of the Middle East, spewing hazardous fumes into homes and business across the country, almost 24 hours a day. As the world looks for renewable energy to tackle climate change, Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere rely on diesel-powered private generators just to keep the lights on. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT (AP) — 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 increases eutrophication — the excess build-up of nutrients in water that ultimately kills aquatic plants.

Since they usually use diesel, generators also produce far more climate change-inducing emissions than, for example, a natural gas power plant does, 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 growing impact of global warming.

The reliance on generators results from state failure. In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, 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 and upgrade it. Some 17 billion cubic meters of gas from Iraq’s wells are burned every year as waste, because it hasn’t built the infrastructure to capture it and convert it to electricity to power Iraqi homes.

In Libya, a country prized for its light and sweet crude oil, electricity networks have buckled under years of civil war and the lack of a central government.

“The power cuts last the greater part of the day, when electricity is mostly needed,” said Muataz Shobaik, the owner of a butcher shop in the city of Benghazi, in Libya’s east, who uses a noisy generator to keep his coolers running.

“Every business has to have a backup off-grid solution now,” he said. Diesel fumes from his and neighboring shops’ machines hung thick in the air amid the oppressive heat.

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.

WAY OF LIFE

Perhaps nowhere do generators rule people’s lives as much as in Lebanon, where the system is so entrenched and institutionalized that private generator owners have their own business association.

They are crammed into tight streets, parking lots, on roofs and balconies and in garages. Some are as large as storage containers, others small and blaring noise.

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.

Those who can’t start the day without coffee set an alarm to make a cup before the generator turns off. The frail or elderly in apartment towers wait for the generator to switch on 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.

Some in Lebanon and elsewhere have begun to install solar power systems in their homes. But most use it only to fill in when the generator is off. Cost and space issues in urban areas have also limited solar use.

In Iraq, the typical middle-income household uses generator power for 10 hours a day on average and pays $240 per Megawatt/hour, among the highest rates in the region, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

The need for generators has become engrained in people’s minds. At a recent concert in the capital, famed singer Umm Ali al-Malla made sure to thank not only the audience but also the venue’s technical director “for keeping the generator going” while her admirers danced.

TOXIC CONTAMINANTS

As opposed to power plants outside urban areas, generators are in the heart of neighborhoods, pumping toxins directly to residents.

This is catastrophic, 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. There are almost no regulations and no filtering of particles, she added.

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.

In Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, miles of wires crisscross streets connecting thousands of private generators. Each produces 600 kilograms of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per 8 hours working time, according to Mohammed al Hazem, an environmental activist.

Similarly, a 2020 study on the environmental impact of using large generators in the University of Technology in Baghdad found very high concentrations of pollutants exceeding limits set by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.

That was particularly because Iraqi diesel fuel has a high sulphur content — “one of the worst in the world,” the study said. The emissions include “sulphate, nitrate materials, atoms of soot carbon, ash” and pollutants that are considered carcinogens, it warned.

“The pollutants emitted from these generators exert a remarkable 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 reporting.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Traders gather around a post as Twitter shares resume trading on the floor at the New York Stock Ex...
Associated Press

Twitter under Musk? Most of the plans are a mystery

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A super app called X? A bot-free free speech haven? These are some of Elon Musk’s mysterious plans for Twitter, now that he may be moving toward buying the company after all. After months of squabbling over the fate of their bombshell $44 billion deal, the billionaire and the bird app […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Appeals court orders another look at revised ‘DACA’

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal appeals court Wednesday ordered a lower court review of Biden administration revisions to a program preventing the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought into the United States as children. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal district judge in Texas should take another look […]
15 hours ago
A TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch with file footage o...
Associated Press

Seoul: North Korea fires another missile toward sea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea launched a ballistic missile Thursday toward its eastern waters, South Korea’s military said. The launch was the North’s sixth round of weapons firings in less than two weeks, which has prompted condemnation from the United States and other countries. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the launch […]
15 hours ago
FILE - Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks during the inauguration ceremony of a highway ove...
Associated Press

Nicaragua charging exiled opponents’ relatives

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Exiled Nicaraguan economist Javier Álvarez received terrible news this week: his wife, daughter and son-in-law, jailed three weeks ago by the government of President Daniel Ortega, had been formally charged with serious crimes back in Nicaragua. Jeannine Horvilleur, 63, Ana Carolina Álvarez Horvilleur, 43, both of Nicaraguan and French nationality, as […]
15 hours ago
FILE - People walk close to the border at Yesa's reservoir affected by drought, on a sunny summer d...
Associated Press

Climate change made summer drought 20 times more likely

Drought that stretched across three continents this summer — drying out large parts of Europe, the United States and China — was made 20 times more likely by climate change, according to a new study. Drought dried up major rivers, destroyed crops, sparked wildfire, threatened aquatic species and led to water restrictions in Europe. It […]
15 hours ago
FILE - San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a briefing outside City Hall in San Francisco...
Associated Press

San Francisco mayor pledges again a crackdown on drug sales

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco Mayor London Breed pledged for the second time in a year Wednesday to crack down on open-air opioid drug sales and rampant public drug use that she says is destroying the city. What’s different this time, she said at a news conference, is that police officers have support from […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
In parts of Mideast, power generators spew toxic fumes 24/7