Defining Need in a Liberian Diesel Shortage

Here in Liberia, they say there is a diesel shortage in the making. One local newspaper calls it an eminent shutdown [sic] and the irony that this type of situation is all too common in Liberia may have been lost in the headline’s translation from the Liberian English.

Then I went to the supermarket with my grocery list in hand. Eggs, milk, toilet paper, onions and ground beef for Mino the dog, the normal fare. As I noticed the flow of customers gradually increase, in fewer than 1o minutes a flashflood of hoarders suddenly packed the aisles, filling baskets and carts with canned meat, imported rice, cookies and milk tetrapaks. Disaster shopping is a test of survival and a battle of wits. What do you buy when the diesel—in other words energy—runs out? One Lebanese business owner told me to go home and eat everything in my refrigerator, and I think he meant it.

Offices like mine have cut down on running generators, just in case. For the last two days we quit at 4pm instead of 5pm. No overtime in a crisis and there won’t be anybody working on the weekend, some fear there might not even be a weekend. How can you plan a weekend with no battery in your cell phone? For now, I keep my phone charged and Mino’s food frozen.

Now we're runnin' on biomass!

Now we’re runnin’ on biomass!

Once the diesel supply runs out, all we energy users will have is charcoal and fire, and like 95% of the population of Liberia, we’ll make due with these elements. According to the national Census, over 85% of Monrovia use charcoal for energy while above 90% of the country’s rural population rely on firewood, as the jungle giveth. In fact, just 1 in 10 city dwellers has access to electricity, and estimates say over 90,000 households and businesses in Monrovia use small diesel generators for electricity.

All those generators along with thousands of diesel chugging buses, trucks and UN military vehicles have created this “eminent crisis” or the need for diesel. The Liberian Petroleum Refinery Company says Liberia needs somewhere around 4 million gallons (95,000 barrels) of diesel every month to meet its generator and vehicle needs. How about those needs?

If it weren’t for the diesel, there’d be no lights on in my house, no Internet, no AC, no refrigerator or DSTV. The washing machine, the dryer, the water heater would be useless. I’m afraid my daughter’s reusable diapers would stack up if there were no diesel. Computer batteries would die and there’d be no music or digital books.

There would be no coffee shop, no traffic lights or hotel buffets. There would be no bar or discoteque or sports betting. There’d be no newspapers in the morning and there’d be a lot of dead air on the radio stations (assuming your radio has batteries). Of course, there’d be nothing on the TV screen, no winter Olympics, so forget about figure skating and say goodbye to late night curling. There’d be no happy hour, breakfast brunch, executive lunch or banana carrot cake. No more croissants, chapattis or shwarma rolls. Eventually there might not even be beer, though I’ve heard Club has an insanely deep supply. Club beer was the only item continuously produced during the war. It may be the country’s most important creation, obviously much more important than electricity.

There would still be plenty of coconuts, pineapples and fish (though not the frozen type). There would be goat soup, plenty of hot peppers and some local chicken for flavoring. There would still be vast amounts of dancing and singing, lots of smiles. There’d be motorbikes and taxis, but no buses. There’d be a lot of flat tires, broken down vehicles, and closed up mechanics. There’d still be church sermons on dark pulpits, Sunday dresses, shiny leather shoes and colorful fabrics.  Weaves would be woven and sturdy women would continue to tap their hairdos to relieve the itch. But there’d be no clippers for the men. Monrovia,  the city without haircuts. You could count on the Daily Talk, a chalk-scribbled wall on 23rd street where people read the news for free. What might the wall say? Something about an inadequate government with obsolete ministries, and a presidential palace with the lights on.

There’d still be water in the ocean, sand on the beach and birds in the jungle.

Some people act like it’s the end of the world when the diesel runs out. Others smirk and say this is Liberia. We shrug and wait to see if and when we will run out of clean diapers.

She's not thinking about the washing machine.

Not thinking about the washing machine.

  • Kolja Lehmann-Muriithi

    10 bucks per gallon is actually not too far from what we’ve been paying in Germany recently. However, that’s still less than the minimum wage per hour, whereas the average worker in Liberia probably makes this much in, what, a day or even a week?