As the Israeli military blockade of Lebanese ports enters its third week, officials here say they are running critically short of fuel for power plants.
"All our power generation depends on fuel oil," Public Works and Transportation Minister Mohammed Safadi said Thursday. "We are five days away from running out."
Lebanon is grappling with major public service, sanitation and environmental concerns because of the embargo and Israeli air attacks that have destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, including 80% of its bridges.
Safadi estimated the infrastructure damage at $2 billion and said it would take at least three years to rebuild. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries have offered to provide billions of dollars in reconstruction aid once the fighting ends.
Bombing runs have destroyed roads to Beirut's sanitary landfill, leading to mounds of uncollected garbage. The situation is complicated by the fact that many sanitation workers were foreigners who left the country after the airstrikes began.
Attacks on the key Jieh power plant 20 miles south of Beirut caused a massive oil spill that has coated 50 miles of Lebanese coastline. The popular Ramlat al Baida public beach in west Beirut is covered with a 10-foot band of black tar.
"This is a catastrophe I wouldn't wish on any country in the world," Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf said. Attempts to gauge the extent of the spill, Sarraf said, have been complicated by the air and sea embargo that prevents him from viewing it by plane or boat.
"I am not even allowed to go out in a patrol boat," he said. "I've had to resort to calling captains on ships at sea to find out what they have observed."
Sarraf said he sent a frantic appeal this week to the U.N. Mediterranean Action Plan environmental program in Athens for help with the cleanup. But the program's coordinator, Paul Mifsud, said nothing could be done until the fighting had ended.
"The extent of the pollution and the type of pollutant would call for a complex and long shoreline cleanup operation," Mifsud said. "However, international assistance could be considered only once the hostilities in the area have ceased."
The most pressing problem facing the country is the looming electric power shortage that threatens hospitals, government buildings and residential neighborhoods.
The 140-year-old American University of Beirut has closed its academic buildings to conserve energy. Dormitories normally filled with students now house university staffers whose homes were destroyed by the bombings.
Like many other institutions here, the university has its own power plant and fuel supply reservoir. But its acting president, George Tomey, said that without supplemental power from the public utility company, the university would have to close its 420-bed hospital, considered one of the best in the Middle East.
"My ability to keep the hospital open will not go beyond a week if we lose our supply," Tomey said. "We are trying everything we can to ration. This is the most crucial period."
Tomey, who has spent more than 40 years on the campus as a student, teacher and administrator, said the crisis was one of the toughest in the university's history, including the years of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. "We've never faced this kind of fuel crisis before," he said.
Jamie McGoldrick, Lebanon representative for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the situation in the country was complicated by the sudden escalation of the conflict, which went from border skirmishes to full-scale fighting overnight.
"This one went from zero to 10 in a matter of days," McGoldrick said. "There was no long buildup of hostilities that would have allowed more preparation."
Safadi, the transportation minister, said the Israeli navy blocked an earlier attempt to bring fuel into the power stations by ship.
"There was a ship that tried to come in, but it was not allowed and had to return to Cyprus," Safadi said. "We have other ships on the way, but if we can't get them through we will be in total darkness."
Despite the looming shortages, Beirut continues to function at an amazingly normal level. Most restaurants and shops remain open. Many hotels, accustomed to shortages and power interruptions from this city's tumultuous history, have their own fuel supplies and power generators.
Josef Kufer, the Swiss general manager of the 292-room Movenpick luxury resort hotel and spa above the oil-soaked Ramlat al Baida beach, said it could last at least 45 days on its own.
The 4-year-old hotel catering to a Persian Gulf and European clientele has three large oil tanks, a private water well, massive generators, freezers stuffed with food and its own reverseosmosis desalination plant.
The Jieh oil spill has forced the hotel to close its private beach and marina. But Kufer said the hotel also had a water treatment plant and four swimming pools -- a source of drinking water if times get really tough.