Syria sweats over electricity shortage

DAMASCUS: Syrians are getting hot under the collar about a major shortfall in electricity supplies which is forecast to get worse rather than better over the next few years.

The government aims to double electricity production capacity by 2015 but at the moment the country has around 1,000 megawatts less capacity than it needs -- and this deficit is projected to expand to 1,800 MW by 2012.

High demand for electricity because of hot weather since mid-July has meant Syrians have had to put up with power cuts lasting several hours a day.

"We have two power cuts a day, generally two hours in the morning and one in the evening. It's unbearable," said George, a resident of the Damascus suburb of Jaraman where drinking water has had to be distributed by tanker.

Marwan, a carpenter, complained of having to work "late into the evening" to compensate for the power cuts.

Electricity Minister Ahmad Qussay Kayyali admitted recently to government newspaper Tishrin: "Electricity production is inadequate to cover our needs. We are facing a real crisis."

The official explanation for the shortfall is "increased demand" because of Syria's high birth rate, coupled with unpunished fraud.

Generating capacity is theoretically 7,188 MW, while peak demand from the country's 22 million people is around 6,500 MW, official daily Ath Thawra reported earlier this month.

Kayyali said electricity production ranges between 5,500 MW and 6,200 MW, hindered by a lack of maintenance of aging power stations, and demand is growing by seven to ten percent a year.

Cable links with neighbouring countries have been of "little use" as supplies are unavailable when the thermometer rises. Egypt, which was offering 100 MW to Syria, and Jordan have both cut off supplies.

At the moment, Syria has been buying electricity from Turkey, which has made 200 MW to 250 MW available since August 7, Kayyali said.

Extension projects have begun at three Syrian power stations and the extra capacity should come on stream by mid-2010, but the minister believes rationing will continue next year because of rising demand.

Syria needs at least one new 600 MW power station at a minimum cost of 500 million euros every year to reach the target capacity of 13,000 MW by 2015, Kayyali told Tishrin.

He spoke of "new projects" next year costing more than one billion dollars.

The deficit is nevertheless forecast to remain around 1,000 MW next year, rising to 1,400 MW in 2011 and 1,800 MW in 2012, Ath Thawra said.

The newspaper has been publishing a daily notice telling people in the capital Damascus and surrounding areas when state company Public Establishment for Electricity Generation and Transmission will cut power.

Economist Nabil Sukkar called for the government to allow private sector involvement.

"Syria must open its electricity sector to private investment. It has no choice. It has been slow doing so," he told AFP.

The authorities say the problem has been aggravated by US-inspired sanctions in place since 2004. These have deterred major international companies from building new power plants in Syria.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell told President Bashar al-Assad last month that Washington will seek sanctions waivers in order to export aircraft and other equipment to Syria.

But US officials said the move did not signify any lifting or easing of the sanctions, which were aimed at making the government change its regional policy.