August 11, 2009

Syria's continuing "power struggle"

Syria continues to deal with an internal power struggle, but not the political kind. This struggle is about electrical power, or more accurately, the lack of it.

According to reporting in the official Syrian press, the country has a daily shortfall of almost 1000 megawatts (MW). That means power outages are the norm rather than the exception. The newspapers publish daily notices informing residents of when they can expect power outages and for how long. In the capital city of Damascus, it is normal for the power to be off for four hours per day - even more in the outlying areas.

When I lived in Damascus (1992-1995), power outages were common. While not so much a problem in the winter months, lack of electricity in the summer was sometimes unpleasant. Damascus is an oasis at an elevation of 2,000 feet and the summers are not as bad as other parts of the Middle East, but it still gets hot. More problematic was the difficulty in keeping frozen and refrigerated foods from spoiling.

The Syrian government has always been aware of the problem. Electrical power generation is one of the benchmarks used to assess how well a country is doing. The Israelis often scoffed that you could not really take a country seriously if it could not even provide electricity for its capital city. I can see the point.

A key part of the solution is obviously to build more power plants. The Syrians have been doing that steadily, although the process is very slow. They are playing catch-up after an unwise decision in the 1970's to focus heavily on hydroelectric power. After building dams and power plants along the Euphrates River, the Turks - who control the headwaters of the river - reduced the flow to the minimum amount required by treaty as they began to fill the huge Ataturk Dam (part of the Greater Anatolia Project). Likewise, as the Syrians built their dams, the Iraqis, further downstream, threatened military action if the Syrians continued to restrict the flow of the Euphrates.

Al Zala Thermal Power Plant

As the flow of the Euphrates was restricted, almost 70 percent of Syria's electrical capacity was threatened. Despite a major effort to construct oil-fired (and later, natural gas) power plants, supply has never caught up with demand.

The situation will not improve anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. The shortfall will continue - and worsen - until at least 2012. Although on paper Syria's power plants have the capacity to produce enough power to meet the current demand, the plants are aging and thus require maintenance and upgrading. Actual power generation falls at times as much as 20 percent below demand.

The demand will increase steadily over the next few years - Syria has a high birth rate. It will be increasingly difficult to provide jobs for all the Syrian youth entering the workforce - new jobs require increased energy capacity.

The required maintenance and new construction is also hampered by the latest sanctions placed on Syria by the United States in 2004. Although there has been a bit of a thaw in relations between Damascus and Washington, lifting of sanctions appears to be a long way off.

In the meantime, Syrians will have to deal with power outages and dim prospects for a better economy.