Electricity shortfall hits poor Iraqis hardest

by Carmen Gentile

Highrise towers
 like these in Baghdad become excruciatingly hot during the summer 
months when electricity for running fans and air conditioners is 
sporadic at best. (CARMEN GENTILE/Iraq Oil Report)

BAGHDAD - Day after day, Suhail Najin climbs nine flights of stairs in the sweltering Iraqi heat to his top-floor apartment. The concrete high-rise tower he calls home soaks up the blazing summer sun, turning the building into a virtual oven. Najin’s home often has no electricity to run fans or air conditioners, let alone the building’s elevator.

Iraqis like Najin are suffering amid a chronic power shortage blamed on an antiquated and war-ravaged electrical grid. Most Iraqis are lucky to receive the occasional burst of electricity. The average household receives less than four hours a day.

For years Iraqi leaders have promised to tackle the country’s energy crisis, with few results. Frustrated Iraqis took to the streets last month for several days of protests. Demonstrations that turned violent left one man dead and prompted Iraq’s minister of electricity to step down.

“It’s very difficult to live without electricity, we only receive a few hours of power a day,” said Najin from the shabby hallway outside his apartment, his wife and two of his four children peering out the door from the darkness.

Najin and his family are forced to find creative solutions to living without electricity. Groceries are hauled up from the ground floor in a cloth bag tied to 90 ft. of rope. “We have no other choice but to put up with this,” he said with resignation in his voice.

In the absence of national power, Iraqis who have the means rely on gas-fueled generators for their electric needs. But generator fuel is a luxury poor Iraqis can’t readily afford, and they are often forced to choose basic necessities like food over electricity.

Youseff Jaffa, 50, is unemployed and makes ends meet by washing cars. A resident of Baghdad’s Dar Salam neighborhood, a collection of one-story concrete block homes covered in rusty tin roofs, he says his family’s struggle to survive on his meager earnings is made worse by the lack of electricity.

“I deduct fuel costs from the family household [budget]…. Instead of buying milk for he baby, I buy fuel for the generator,” said Jaffa. Outside his home, a small generator thrums and rattles on the sidewalk. When he can fuel it, the small engine produces just enough power to keep his fan running.

Jaffa says he knows he can’t keep taking food from the mouths of his children to keep his generator running, but can’t imagine any alternative.

“I have to do this,” he said. “With this heat we won’t be able to survive, especially with the kids.”

Extreme temperatures don’t just cause discomfort; they also pose a health risk. Medical conditions such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion are endemic in the summertime – problems which outmatch the capacity of Iraq’s struggling health care system.

Iraq’s new electricity minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, who also heads the country’s Oil Ministry, has promised Iraqis more power. But Shahristani has been at the electricity post just three weeks, and his promises have yet to bear fruit. Electricity in the capital is available for three or four hours a day, and rarely during the daytime, when temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius).

The Electricity Ministry recently announced plans to build another 40 or so power plants throughout the country. However, the new plants won’t be operational for another three to five years.

Sitting in a crowded Baghdad cafe, shoulder to shoulder with other patrons, Mahdi Mahmoud says he doubts the Iraqi government will ever make good on solving the country’s energy crisis.

“That’s just something they say to the media,” said Mahmoud. In the meantime, he says he, and the rest of Iraqis, just have to endure the heat and lack of electricity. “We thank God that we have the gift to acclimate, but we can’t bear it forever.”