Mideast in turmoil with water and energy shortages amid record heatwave

Temperatures in Iran top 50°C during chaos in country’s southwest over lack of water; Lebanon’s major power station to resume operations, even with economic collapse

Protesters burn tires to block roads during a demonstration demanding the return of electricity in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, July 2, 2021. (AP/Nabil al-Jurani)
Protesters burn tires to block roads during a demonstration demanding the return of electricity in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, July 2, 2021. (AP/Nabil al-Jurani)

Amid a record heatwave, water and power shortages have sparked protests and unrest across the Middle East, from Iran to Lebanon.

Temperatures in a number of countries have topped 50 degrees Celsius (122°F), including Iran, which hit 51°C (123.8°F), and Iraq, which reached 52°C (125.6°F) this month.

In Lebanon, a major power station was to resume operations on Sunday, two days after it ground to a halt due to a lack of fuel at a time of constant power cuts and economic collapse.

Zahrani in south Lebanon — one of the country’s four main power plants — went offline on Friday because the state electricity company was unable to access fuel shipments stuck offshore due to pending payments.

Electricity of Lebanon (EDL) said Saturday that foreign correspondent banks had completed payment procedures and preparations were underway to unload the cargo the same day.

“Zahrani power plant will be back in service starting tomorrow morning after the entire cargo aboard the tanker is unloaded into its tanks,” EDL said in a statement.

A man rides his scooter with empty water bottles to fill them with gasoline, in Beirut, Lebanon, June 23, 2021. (AP/Hussein Malla)

The state electricity company did not refer to Deir Ammar power station, which also went offline on Friday because it ran out of fuel. Together, Deir Ammar and Zahrani provide about 40% of the country’s electricity.

Lebanon is mired in what the World Bank has called one of the worst economic crises since the 1850s, and the cash-strapped state is struggling to buy enough fuel to keep the lights on.

Power cuts in recent months have lasted up to 22 hours a day in some areas, while even private generator owners have been forced to ration output as fuel prices rise, resulting in periods of complete blackout.

This has disrupted work at businesses, government offices and hospitals. The government’s COVID-19 vaccine committee on Friday said it canceled a mass vaccination drive planned for the weekend because of power outages in most centers.

The international community has long demanded a complete overhaul of the electricity sector, which has cost the government more than $40 billion since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

In this, June 17, 2021 photo, a protester passes burning tires and garbage containers blocking a main highway during a protest against the increase in prices of consumer goods and the free fall of the local currency, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP /Hussein Malla)

Syria has seen electricity cuts for some 20 hours a day in some areas north of Damascus, residents have complained, according to the Washington Post. In Aleppo, cuts last for eight hours at a time, with just 1.5 hours of power in between, Syria’s al-Watan paper said.

In Iraq, amid the 52 degrees Celsius weather, four southern provinces have been without consistent electricity since earlier this month, including Basra — home to Iraq’s main port.

Sizzling temperatures have been compounded by high levels of humidity.

“The children sleep right on the floor to try and stay cool, but us, the adults, haven’t slept a wink these past nights,” Meshaal Hashem, a Basra docker, and father of three, told AFP.

In the city of Diwaniyah, Rahi Abdelhussein buys bags of ice to cool down his children, saying it helps hydrate them.

Shops have placed hoses and makeshift showers outdoors to attract customers to stop.

Iraq — the second-largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel — buys gas and power from neighboring Iran to supply about a third of its power sector, dilapidated by decades of conflict and poor maintenance.

But Iran decided to cut supplies to its neighbor earlier this month, saying the Iraqi electricity ministry owes it more than $6 billion in arrears.

Iraq says it is unable to pay because of US sanctions on money transfers to Iran, a deep financial crisis compounded by lower oil prices, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iraqi youths react to the heat as they wait to buy ice blocks at a factory in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on July 2, 2021, amid power outages and soaring temperatures. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP)

In Iran meanwhile, at least three people have been killed in the country’s southwestern province of Khuzestan following nearly a week of protests against water shortages, local media reported.

Wealthy Khuzestan is Iran’s main oil-producing region, but it is struggling with a persistent drought that last week sparked protests over a lack of water.

Three people, including a police officer, have been reportedly killed. The officer was shot in the port city of Mahshahr during “riots” on Tuesday, the official IRNA news agency said, quoting acting county governor Fereydoun Bandari.

“One officer was martyred and another injured in the leg,” Bandari said, although he did not specifically link the shooting to protests over water shortages.

There were protests in Izeh and Susangerd counties over “the water situation,” state TV said, reporting that “opportunists” had turned calm gatherings into clashes with the police.

In Izeh, a “young person” was shot dead by “rioters” and 14 police officers were injured, local governor Hassan Nobovati told Fars news agency. Nobovati did not explicitly say if the victim was a protester.

Protestors block roads over water shortages, in the province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran, on July 17, 2021. (Video screenshot)

On Saturday, state media reported a protester had been shot dead in the town of Shadegan by “opportunists and rioters.”

“The people of Khuzestan are staging nightly protests, protests that have been festering for years,” the reformist newspaper Arman-e Melli said Tuesday.

In recent days, Farsi-language media based abroad have broadcast videos they said showed protests in Ahvaz, Hamidiyeh, Izeh, Mahshahr, Shadegan, and Susangerd. They said security forces had forcibly dispersed protesters, but domestic media played down the reports.

The videos show hundreds of marching people, chanting slogans against authorities, while surrounded by anti-riot police. In some, what sounded like gunfire could be heard. The videos shared on social media could not be independently verified.

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