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Private owners light Beirut streets after state switches off

Beirut in darkness during power outage in 2021. (AFP)
Beirut in darkness during power outage in 2021. (AFP)
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20 Jul 2023 12:07:41 GMT9
20 Jul 2023 12:07:41 GMT9
  • Business chief issues ‘ghost town’ warning amid economic collapse
  • Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi: ‘Beirut loves light and will remain in the light’

Najia Houssari

BEIRUT: Beirut Municipality is using electricity provided by private generator owners to restore lighting to city streets plunged into darkness by Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis.

Street lighting returned to the heart of the capital on Tuesday night, a move that came after one business leader warned the capital had become a “ghost town.”

“Beirut loves light and will remain in the light,” Bassam Mawlawi, the interior minister, said in response to the initiative.

“Lighting Beirut helps stabilize security and helps the security services do their job better.”

Electricity supply in Lebanon has become increasingly erratic over the past three years due to the economic and financial crisis in the country.

In recent months, power has been limited to three or four hours over a 24-hour period, leaving the streets of central Beirut, and its shops, restaurants and cafes, almost empty.

Passers-by have also been exposed to danger because of an increase in theft and pickpocketing amid the economic downturn.

Nicolas Chammas, head of the Beirut Traders Association, told Arab News: “Downtown Beirut has been afflicted by the economic collapse, the pandemic and the Beirut port explosion, which led to its transformation into a ghost town.”

He said the initiative to restore lighting to city streets is a “very good step” and shows that Beirut has not been abandoned even if the state fails in its duties.

“It also has a symbolic reflection that will have its repercussions in all regions, as the people who abandoned the heart of the city will return, and the owners of restaurants, cafes and shops will be encouraged to reinvest in the area,” Chammas said.

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud issued a communique in March 2023 requesting all owners of private electric generators in the city to light streets surrounding locations where the generators are concentrated.

Abboud said the owners of private generators use state electricity poles for supply and, in return, must offer street lighting as a “national responsibility to preserve the rights of the residents of Beirut and the rights of the municipality, based on the necessities of the public interest and the requirements of public safety.”

According to Chammas, only about 20 percent of the institutions and businesses in downtown Beirut are currently operating, while many others have left the area, especially after the port explosion three years ago.

One owner of an abandoned shop in the city center estimated it would cost more than $1 million to redevelop the site as a luxury restaurant.

“Unless we are sure that the city has recovered and that we can trust it, neither I nor anyone else will make any costly investment,” he said.

Signs of decay in the heart of the capital are not limited to the dark streets.

A municipality official, who preferred anonymity, said: “The municipality’s condition is appalling. It was the richest municipality in Lebanon, but now it cannot attract any contractor to restore the potholes or clean the walls of the slogans and insults written by the protesters because the state deals in Lebanese pounds, which have lost value, and not in the dollar.”

Lighting, road and traffic signal maintenance contracts have not been renewed for years. Beirut Municipality previously announced a tender for a project to maintain the lighting of Beirut’s streets and tunnels, but there were no bids.

Consequently, according to the source, “contracts are no longer profitable amid the inability to import needed raw materials in dollars and the municipality’s inability to pay except in the local currency. If we want to pay (the costs) according to the market exchange rate, there will be no money left in the municipality’s treasury.”

Meanwhile, thieves are stealing manhole covers, and even electricity cables and copper wire, adding to the strain on city infrastructure.

The private sector role in relighting Beirut’s streets has already introduced to other neighborhoods.

As part of the “Light Your Street” initiative, Beirut Arab University illuminated areas around its campus in cooperation with the Rebirth Beirut Association and Medco Company, under the slogan “From Our Energy to Our Region.”

The nonprofit Makhzoumi Foundation has contributed to lighting many main streets in Beirut using solar energy.

According to Chammas, Lebanon’s tourism sector has flourished this summer thanks to expatriates as well as tourists from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

However, visitor numbers from the Gulf remain low because tourists no longer frequent downtown Beirut as before and are focusing on other attractions in Lebanon.

The Arab Youth Forum for Economic and Social Empowerment will be inaugurated on Thursday in Beirut, the capital’s first Arab activity this year.

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