Power protests

by Staff

Iraqi security 
forces confront protestors in Basra who are taking to the streets as 
power outages take their mental toll in the summer heat. (STAFF/Iraq Oil

BASRA - Summer heat has struck Iraq, and citizens tired of going without electricity and air conditioning are taking to the streets in protest. Security units have responded with force in Basra and Nassiriya, injuring protesters and killing at least one.

The weather will only grow hotter over the coming months, and both local and national governments are taking blame for the electrical grid’s shortcomings. Iraq’s ministries are stepping up efforts to meet demand that continues to outpace supply.

(UPDATE: Electricity Minister Karim Waheed Hasan resigned Monday afternoon following the protests.)

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent a delegation to oil-rich Basra to investigate why area residents are receiving just a scant few hours of electricity a day, following the killing of a protester by Iraqi security forces.

Residents in some areas average only a few hours of power a day or less, and the Ministry of Electricity is getting the brunt of the complaints. Officials there in turn blame consumers for demand that is nearly double that of 2004. The ministry also said the Oil Ministry doesn’t supply it with enough fuel to run the power plants and has called on the central government to give more funding to expansion plans.

In the meantime, the prime minister called for calm in Basra in hopes of avoiding further confrontations between authorities and angry Iraqis. Local officials said they would investigate the protester’s death at the hands of security forces.

Maliki said the government would ask the country’s electricity ministry officials why they have not met their pre-determined goal of increasing power availability to nine hours per day by June.

Iraq currently produces between 7,000 megawatts and 7,500 megawatts per day, up from 5,000 megawatts in 2004. Most of that increase has come since 2008; prior to that, security problems prevented most repairs and expansion. Demand, however, has grown from 7,000 megawatts in 2004 to more than 12,800 megawatts now.

In response, the Ministry of Electricity is taking measures both to subdue demand and to increase supply.

On the demand side, the ministry will soon institute a scaled fee structure for the power supply, which is currently subsidized. As a consumer uses more electricity, the rate that he or she pays will increase.

On the supply side, the ministry has planned to add an additional 1,000 megawatts to the grid by the end of this year, and to increase capacity to 11,000 megawatts within three years.

The ministries of Oil and Electricity have blamed each other for the current shortfalls. The Oil Ministry says it could produce more fuel if its refineries and other oil facilities received more electricity, and claims the Electricity Ministry doesn’t efficiently use the fuel it receives. The Electricity Ministry says the Oil Ministry doesn’t live up to its delivery agreements for fuel and has been too slow to develop natural gas, which could increase the output of the power stations.

The Oil Ministry announced it is increasing its allocations of fuel to petrol stations, so that citizens can purchase more fuel for their generators. Iraqis have turned to private generators since 2003 in an effort to fill the massive gap between what the state delivers and what they need. In Baghdad alone, the megawatts produced by private generators equals the output of an average nuclear power plant.

The weekend demonstration, fueled by Basra residents’ frustration with the Electricity Ministry, left one man dead and several injured when security forces fired on a crowd estimated to number in the thousands.

Protesters decried the central government and local leaders for failing to keep promises to improve the country’s overtaxed electricity grid, waving signs like, “Prison is more comfortable than our homes.” A coffin covered in a black cloth mounted to the roof of a van had the word “Al-kahraba” (Arabic for “electricity”) written on it.

Recent daytime temperatures in Basra and other Iraqi cities have hovered around 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius), conditions which have been difficult to bear since electricity shortfalls began plaguing Iraq in the early 1990s.

Ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections, many Iraqi candidates promised to address the electricity shortage issue. However, a continuing deadlock over who will lead the next government has left many Iraqis angered with their inaction.

The protests were reportedly organized by followers of the populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political allies performed well in the March 7 parliamentary elections.

Sadr’s electoral block, the Iraqi National Alliance, came in third place behind that of Maliki’s State of Law coalition and ex-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya alliance, which came in first by two seats. Leaders of the political parties are still negotiating a power-sharing strategy that will select the next government.

For populists like Sadr, the high levels of discontent make it easy to organize civil unrest. Electricity is just one of many core issues of basic services – along with water, housing, education, and more – that the next Iraqi government will have to address immediately. Yet it could still take months for Iraqi leaders to form a ruling coalition, leaving a space in the dead of summer for citizens to grow angry about government dysfunction and political gridlock.

“People are just getting tired of this,” a Western official engaged with Iraq’s services delivery said. “They’re just frustrated and now are picking on electricity.”

Following the protests, Electricity Minister Karim Waheed Hasan told reporters the power outages were due to “the doubling of electricity use” over the last few months. “The consumption of electricity is much more now than before,” he said.

Balance of article . . . .

Iraqi staff reporting from Basra, Nassiriya and Baghdad are anonymous for their security. Carmen Gentile reported from Baghdad. Ben Lando reported from Washington, D.C.