By Y. Abulkher
As springtime temperatures rise, the Libyan capital area of Tripoli heads into a new season of longer electricity outages.
The Electricity Crisis in Light of the Ongoing War in Tripoli
With regards to LNA-controlled eastern Libya – which has its own parallel GECOL –it is important to clarify that the inoperative interconnection supply lines between west and east have prevented the politicisation of electricity resources between the divided regions.
However, the LNA’s advance on Tripoli since April 2019 has rendered the electricity supply vulnerable to both warring camps.
The early months of the LNA offensive on Tripoli saw few to no power outages due in part to low demand but also, possibly, to the GNA’s short-lived policy of public appeasement, which included, for example, the timely payment of public wages.
The GNA is regularly criticised for its neglect of and failure to provide public services in Tripoli, which many view as contributing to the electricity crisis.
Residents note that power load shedding tends to disappear every year on 17 February, when the revolution is celebrated, despite there being high demand as it is one of the coldest months.
They also note that power load shedding tends to spike to prevent the public from acceding certain news or developments, such as the LNA’s “zero-hour declaration” in December 2019 which coincided with a blackout.
Despite the circumstantial nature of the above observations, more substantiated sources point towards the GNA’s local armed allies aggravating the crisis in order to punish Tripoli’s citizens for their support for the LNA or their lack of participation against the LNA’s advance.
GECOL’s top officials have admitted, most recently at a press conference in July 2019, that equal load shedding hours between cities could not be instituted because of armed interventions that it refused to name, stating only that its operators and units are attacked on average four times a day.
The increased power outages in the summer of 2019 could also have been in the GNA’s favour in terms of local support, since the heavy fighting in southern Tripoli resulted in serious damage to many transmission towers and supply lines, preventing GECOL engineers from accessing the conflict zone for maintenance.
Moreover, the hostilities forced the departure of three foreign technical teams that were renovating generation units in southern Tripoli. GNA- supporting media outlets attribute all these losses to the LNA.
Subsequently, worsening living conditions and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families due to the fighting has reinforced local support for the GNA.
The Parallel Crisis of Uncollected Rubbish
The electricity crisis appears to be mutually reinforcing a parallel rubbish crisis in Tripoli. According to GECOL, the Southern Tripoli
Electricity Station, in the south-west of the city under GNA control, has been repeatedly breaking down due to its turbines becoming blocked by the smoke from burning waste in a nearby temporary landfill.
This has been disrupting a network supply of 400 MW. Due to its dense population, which keeps being displaced further inwards by the conflict, the capital generates up to 3,000 tons of waste per day.
Theoretically, waste management in Tripoli is conducted in stages by public cleaning companies under the auspices of the Ministry of Local Governance.
Waste is collected in trucks from residential, commercial and industrial areas to transitory sites in the city until their final transportation to the main landfill of Sidi Al-Sayeh, 50 km south of the city.
However, rubbish collection services in the capital have ceased since the LNA’s advance in April 2019. In the summer of 2019, the main landfill came under LNA control in an inaccessible conflict area, rendering it out of reach.
Since the municipalities halted waste collection services, households and businesses have been forced to dump their rubbish on the street and burn it. As a temporary solution, the transitory sites were used as permanent landfills, but to no avail.
The inner-city sites in Abu Slim and Suq al-Juma are small and already operating beyond capacity. For about a month at the height of the crisis, one site was closed by armed groups until the GNA made a pay-off, signifying further exploitation of the crisis.
The uncollected rubbish led to the appearance of pop-up landfill sites across the city, the most recent being in the Suq Al-Juma Municipality, close to Mitiga airport – Tripoli’s only functional airport.
The Ministries of Transport and Local Governance have criticised this decision because of its negative consequences for the aviation and service industries in the vicinity.
This signifies a further deepening of divisions between central public administration actors and decentralised unilateral efforts to tackle the crisis. Tripoli’s streets, neighbourhoods and even highways are drowning in rubbish, causing increased threats to public health.
Bad odours, germs and insects are spreading alongside a rise in respiratory illnesses and skin conditions, while doctors and researchers warn of the return of diseases such as cholera and malaria, and now the threat of the Covid-19.
Locals have been much more vocal about the rubbish crisis than they have about the interminable and less immediate electricity crisis. Many protests have been organised against municipal decisions to open temporary landfills in residential areas.
One angry demonstrator even aimed his grievance at both warring camps: ‘Keep your ministerial portfolios and keep the money, but do find a solution to this garbage crisis because it’s making us sick’.
Power outages often disrupt the pumping of water to businesses and households that do not possess rooftop water tanks. This could have a profound impact on preventative hygiene measures against waste in public spaces and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Undeniably, technical frailty is the operational root of the electricity crisis in Tripoli, but it is exacerbated and perpetuated by its politicisation as part of the civil war.
As summer approaches, rising temperatures will put greater demand on the electricity network. Although the effect of industrial and commercial shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic could offset some of the pressure, hospitals and homes may still not receive a regular electricity supply.
The ongoing January 2020 blockade of oil exports imposed by pro-LNA factions in protest against the GNA-backed Turkish intervention could cause even further escalation in the electricity crisis.
As revenues plunge, the fuel needed to operate some power plants will be harder to come by. More generally, weaker public finances mean that even less maintenance work will be carried out.
As in many other conflict zones, local armed actors and profiteers in Tripoli exploit the weakness of public infrastructure and services. For example, they distribute subsidised goods such as cooking gas and wheat at exorbitant prices.
At the same time, rental prices for displaced families have spiked and the already high cost of living in the capital continues to rise. Since the crisis is underreported in both international and national media, understanding the politicised elements of Libya’s electricity crisis relies to a great extent on observing the market and conflict dynamics in the wider context of the civil war.
What is certain is that the indiscriminate imposition of power load shedding hours on the residents of Tripoli, along with the accumulation of rubbish and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, is leading to a health and environmental crisis.
Although Libya’s electricity crisis has many roots – pertaining to fragile infrastructure, poor administration, and coercion by non-state actors – lack of security has been the main problem affecting it.
Only when a steady national security apparatus is restored and armed attacks on power installations have ceased will foreign companies return to complete development projects and the power load shedding system become just.
Tripoli’s electricity crisis existed prior to the current armed conflict, oil blockade, rubbish crisis and Covid-19 pandemic. As summer heat returns, the combination of all these factors increases the probability of a humanitarian catastrophe.
In coming to terms with this reality, the main recommendation is for national actors and their foreign backers to put an immediate end to the escalation of the conflict or to support a humanitarian pause.
In isolating the electricity crisis, the following recommendations are offered to policy actors:
1. From a technical perspective, import electricity from neighbouring countries as a viable short-term solution to prevent the collapse of the electricity network. Algeria and/or Egypt could supply an additional 400 MW to the power grid. This option proved successful in the eastern region.
2. The EU and its member states should take initiatives to deploy European technology and expertise to repair and bolster the Tripoli area’s electricity infrastructure.
3. A drastic solution would be to go green by shifting the focus of national production and international aid to solar energy.
A study by the University of Nottingham estimated that Libya could harness the equivalent of seven million barrels of oil a day from the sun by covering just 0.1 per cent of its territory with solar panels, which would generate 250 MW of electricity plus extra for export. The UN Development Programme has already successfully installed solar panels in several Libyan hospitals.
Y. Abulkher, a Tripoli native, is now a PhD candidate based in the Netherlands and has previously worked for international missions and public administrations in Libya.
Clingendael – the Netherlands Institute of International Relations – is a leading think tank and academy on international affairs. Through our analyses, training and public debate we aim to inspire and equip governments, businesses, and civil society in order to contribute to a secure, sustainable and just world.