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Left in the dark.

Power cuts are a way of life in Syria, so much so that they have long since become a popular topic for poking fun at the government. The government has embarked on a capacity expansion programme, but cannot bring itself to explain why shortages are endemic.

SYRIANS ARE used to power cuts. Since the early 1980s there have been only a few periods in which the electricity was not interrupted every day. One of those periods was following the "trial" and execution of Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Helena, in December 1989. Syrian sources say that officials in Damascus were so shaken by the turn of events in Eastern Europe that they cancelled the cuts altogether. Indeed, from December 1989 well into 1991 it seemed as if the cuts were a thing of the past.

The sudden cancellation of the power cuts in December 1989 indicated a fact that the Syrian government would like to hide: the capacity does exist, somehow, to generate adequate amounts of electricity for the country. It is simply a question of priorities. According to one Western observer: "The government is far more interested in buying arms than attending to the people's needs."

In the government's defence, the growth in electricity demand is extremely high. Demand is said to be expanding at an annual rate of 25%, fuelled by rapid population growth, an ambitious rural electrification programme, and a booming manufacturing sector.

The 800 megawatt Euphrates Dam, built with Soviet assistance and completed in 1977, was supposed to meet Syria's energy needs well into the next century. But these projections were unrealistic to begin with, and in any event the project has been plagued with technical problems from the start. It has never been able to run at full capacity.

Last summer only two of the dam's eight turbines were working. When asked why, a straight-faced official at the dam told The Middle East demand at that time of day was low. At that very moment in Aleppo, about 120 kilometers to the west, many parts of the city were without power yet the official categorically denied that the dam had not lived up fully to expectations. He insisted that any complications were largely the result of Turkish work upstream.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that Syria's economy is suffering as a result of the electricity cuts. To buffer themselves most manufacturers have bought expensive industrial capacity generators (late last year the government waived all import duties on generators). But the sudden plethora of generators has caused its own problems. Unlike generators for domestic use, which use petrol, heavy duty industrial generators run on diesel fuel. The result has been a severe and prolonged diesel shortage (diesel is also the most common form of heating fuel in Syria), further exacerbated by the import last year of several thousand diesel-fuelled minibuses and vans.

The government has been largely silent on the economic impact of the electricity cuts, but occasionally bits of telling information slip through. One paper carried a brief story reporting that three state oil seed factories in Aleppo were running at about 20% capacity because of power cuts lasting as long as 19 hours a day.

In the absence of facts, rumours thrive. One common explanation for the cuts is that the government is selling electricity to Jordan to earn foreign currency. Diplomatic sources in Amman, however, totally discount such suggestions.

Not only have Syrians become accustomed to power cuts, but they have also managed to laugh at them as well. According to one popular joke, a Syrian astronaut was able to recognise his country from outer space at night because it was the one where the lights were blinking on and off. One wit in the People's Assembly raised a hearty laugh in that usually lifeless body when he announced that there was one village in his native Hassakeh province that did not suffer from the cuts - because it had no electricity to begin with.

There is hope, however, that some of these problems will recede. A 200 megawatt power plant went on line in February to meet the needs of Damascus, and the government has signed several contracts with Japanese and Chinese companies to build other plants. Most recently the government concluded an agreement with Mitsubishi to build a 600 megawatt station outside Homs.

The cuts were scaled back in February to coincide with the beginning of Ramadan. Residential areas which were going for seven to eight hours without power now do without for only three or four. But this is a temporary respite, not an improvement. The situation will not improve substantially, officials are saying, until 1996, when most of the new projects go into operation.
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Title Annotation:power shortages in Syria
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:788
Previous Article:Open for business.
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