Lebanese parliament to discuss fuel crisis on Friday

BEIRUT (Reuters) -The Lebanese parliament will convene on Friday to discuss what to do about a fuel crisis that has brought much of the country to a halt and sparked deadly violence.

Speaker Nabih Berri called the session to discuss “appropriate action” over crippling fuel shortages, a crunch point in a two-year financial meltdown that marks Lebanon’s worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

A rocket-propelled grenade was fired near a Beirut petrol station during a dispute over gasoline, a security source said. Gunmen opened fire on soldiers who had detained a man who tried to fill his car by force. The station caught fire.

The steadily worsening fuel crisis has hit a low in the last week, with power blackouts forcing some hospitals, bakeries, and businesses to scale down or close.

A senior U.N. official said water supplies and essential health services were threatened, warning of a humanitarian catastrophe. “A bad situation only stands to get worse unless an instant solution is found,” said Najat Rochdi, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon.

Last week, the central bank announced it could no longer finance imports of gasoline and diesel at heavily discounted exchange rates, effectively ending a subsidy scheme which promises to increase prices sharply.

Governor Riad Salameh has been at odds with the government over the move, as the government says it should have been done only after the provision of prepaid cash cards for the poor.

Salameh has said he can resume subsidizing imports only if a law is passed allowing him to dip into the mandatory reserves.

The crisis has sparked a renewed push by Lebanon’s squabbling politicians to agree on a cabinet that can start tackling the financial crisis, which has depressed the currency by more than 90%.

“We still have a few meters (yards) left in the race, but god willing we are sorting it out appropriately,” Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said after meeting with President Michel Aoun on Tuesday.

Despite deepening poverty, Lebanon’s ruling elite have failed to form a new cabinet since Prime Minister Hassan Diab quit after last year’s devastating Beirut port explosion.

The past week has seen repeated violence at gas stations. At least 28 people were killed in northern Lebanon at the weekend when a fuel tanker exploded as people rushed to get a share.

Asked about local media reports of two new diesel shipments carrying 80 million liters imported at the previous subsidized rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, Salameh said they had been pre-approved in July.

The parallel market rate on Tuesday was 18,500 pounds to the dollar.

Local broadcasters MTV and al-Jadeed had reported on Tuesday that a third shipment of gasoline had been rejected by the central bank. Salameh said it would have to abide by a new circular.

“The new circular will determine the price of sayrafa as a base for the dollar [letter of credit],” he said.

Sayrafa is the central bank’s currency exchange platform.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, said on Sunday it would begin bringing diesel and gasoline from Iran with delivery dates to be announced soon.

(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir, Laila Bassam, and Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Perry and Mark Heinrich)

Water is now gold for desperate Venezuelans

Wilson Hernandez stands next to buckets of water on the roof of an apartment block in Caracas, Venezuela, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Living with a scarcity of water is becoming the norm for many Venezuelans.

Families interviewed by Reuters say they have spent months without receiving any water from the tap after power blackouts cut off supply and pipes failed due to a lack of maintenance. Faced with the uncertainty of when it might return, and whether it would be enough, they are conserving as much as water as they can take from rivers or buy at shops. They are bathing, washing clothes and dishes, and cooking with just a few liters a day.

From the poorest slums to the wealthiest neighborhoods, the shortage of water cuts across Venezuelan society as families endure the country’s deepest ever economic crisis.

A 5 liter (1.32 gallons) bottle costs about $2 at a Caracas supermarket, out of reach for many low-income people in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage is only around $6 each month.

“We try to save water scrubbing ourselves standing in bowls,” said Yudith Contreras, a 49-year-old lawyer, in her apartment where little water has arrived over the past two years. She has taken to getting water from streams that run down the Avila mountain above Caracas.

Contreras, who is from one of the families interviewed by Reuters in a ten-story housing complex in downtown Caracas, said her family recycles the water by using it to flush the toilet. In her kitchen and bathroom, she keeps containers of water, which she carries up the nine floors to her apartment as the elevator does not work.

“You have to save water because we don’t know how long this situation will go on for,” she said.

Some residents of the building, a few blocks from the presidential Miraflores Palace, have already exhausted their water supplies. “Today I finished all that I had stored,” said David Riveros, a retired bus driver living on the first floor.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government blames the scarcity of water on a long drought and also accuses opponents of sabotaging its supply. The country’s opposition, led by Juan Guaido, who in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s re-election a fraud, says the problem is due to little maintenance done over many years on Venezuela’s power and water networks.

Earlier this month, Venezuela was plunged deeper into chaos after a near week-long power blackout cut off the already scant water supply to most residents. Since then, Maduro has promised to place enormous water tanks on the roofs of houses and apartment blocks to alleviate the problem.

Since the nationwide blackout, the worst in decades, lines of people queuing to fill up water flowing from the Avila have multiplied, despite warnings that the water was not fit for consumption and could contain bacteria and parasites.

Yuneisy Flores, a 31-year-old homemaker whose family live on the fourth floor, washes her dishes in cartons and strains the water to remove the leftovers of food. She then uses the liquid to flush the toilet. She bathes her 3-year-old daughter in a sink to recycle the water.

In her home, three tanks and several other containers collect water when it comes intermittently. Flores, her husband, and their two little children bathe in one of the tanks, which holds some 18 liters.

“It’s hard, too hard, you can die without water,” she said. “We weren’t aware of this before. Water now is gold.”


(Additional reporting by Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Carlos Jasso; Writing by Angus Berwick; editing by Diane Craft)