Another summer of electricity shortages

Times Staff Writer

When the power fails and there is no gas for the generator, Mohammed Azzawi has a plan to make it through the stifling summer nights. He collects the fans from old computer hard drives and powers them with backup batteries.

Faced with their fifth summer without a regular supply of electricity, Baghdad residents have come up with some novel ways to cool off.

Decades of corruption, neglect and war have left Iraq’s electricity grid on the verge of collapse. Iraq is generating enough power to meet only half the nationwide demand, and most Baghdad residents are down to an hour or two of electricity a day. The shortfalls are the worst since U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, Electricity Ministry spokesman Aziz Shimari said.


The unreliable electricity supply is a source of constant frustration to Iraqis, who cite it as one of the biggest failings of the U.S.-led invasion. The constant blackouts become unbearable during the summer, when the mercury climbs to between 110 and 120 degrees.

Only the lucky few who live near essential services, such as hospitals and water treatment plants, receive nearly continuous power. The rest improvise.

Those who can afford it have generators. But with fuel in short supply and costing about $4 a gallon on the black market, many families can keep them on only a few hours a day.

Entrepreneurs have filled the gap. In most neighborhoods, residents can buy additional hours from a shared generator that delivers power through a web of wires running to each customer’s home.

Civil servant Qais Yaseen pays nearly $50 a month for five amperes from a shared generator, enough to power a refrigerator, lights and a few fans. Running an air conditioner takes at least twice that amount.

The service is a source of constant arguments in the neighborhood. Tempers flare when the power does not kick in at the allotted time.

“Once a week, they would claim that their generator has broken down, and it takes a couple of days to fix it,” Yaseen complained. “They operate less hours than agreed and always raise the price under the pretext that diesel is expensive.”

The most difficult time is at night, when a bedroom can feel like a sauna. Many families still sleep on their roofs despite the roar of passing helicopters and the risk of stray bullets. The helicopters fly so low that men in this rumor-prone city began instructing their wives and daughters to cover up in long sleeves and tracksuits for fear that the American pilots were peeking at their women.

One sleep-deprived Iraqi reporter recently asked a U.S. military spokesman if they couldn’t be a little quieter at night. Rear Adm. Mark Fox was apologetic but explained, “This is the time that the enemy is moving and we have a great opportunity to engage them and hopefully bring security to Iraq quicker.”

Even after dark, the temperature is frequently in the 90s. Some residents pile into their air-conditioned cars to sleep. Azzawi, a west Baghdad computer engineer, uses the few hours of power he gets during the day to charge his batteries. But the fans he uses are small. To make the most of them, he douses himself in the shower, then holds them up to his wet face and belly -- giving him just enough relief to fall sleep.

Parents are buying plastic swimming pools to cool off their children. Fadil Said said he was selling about 10 of them a day at his Baghdad toy shop. Many homes don’t have bathtubs, and one father confessed to sneaking into his child’s pool at night when he thought no one would see him.

But even that isn’t an option when there is insufficient electricity to power the city’s water pumps and treatment plants.

Iraq’s electricity grid was already in severe disrepair before 2003. Repairing and upgrading it have been a massive undertaking, said Col. Mike Moon, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ electricity sector in Iraq. Although output has increased, it has been outstripped by demand as Iraqis buy satellite dishes, air coolers and other devices that have become cheaper and more widely available since Hussein’s fall, Moon said.

The shortages are particularly acute in Baghdad because it is dependent on power generated in the north and south of Iraq. Only about 36% of demand is being met here, Moon said.

One of the biggest problems has been the sabotage of electricity lines and pipelines that supply the fuel needed to generate power.

Only two out of the 17 high-tension lines running into the capital are operational, said Shimari, the Electricity Ministry spokesman.

Faced with their own shortages, a number of provinces in the south and north of the country are taking more than their share of the power they generate and that passes through their network, he said.

Under Hussein, whose regime discriminated against the Shiite Muslim south and Kurdish north, Baghdad was allocated the lion’s share and could count on 16 to 24 hours of electricity a day.

Frustrated residents have taken matters into their own hands. After two full days without power at the height of summer, residents of Zafaraniya, on Baghdad’s southeastern outskirts, paid a visit to their local electricity office to demand an explanation. They were told that a cable needed to repair their network was not available in government warehouses.

“We bought it and paid the workers who installed it as if they were free laborers and not employed already,” grumbled Salam Abdul-Wahid, a policeman who lives in the neighborhood. The cost was about $650, nearly three times what an average civil servant earns in a month, shared among 20 homes.

“It was disgusting,” Abdul-Wahid said. “We need a government on the street, not behind fortified walls.”

Many people are resorting to more old-fashioned ways to beat the heat, some last used during the crippling 1990s United Nations embargo. Scuffles break out when the ice cart arrives in the impoverished neighborhoods on Baghdad’s east side. Residents will pay $5 for a block of ice, which they break into chips to fill a cooler so they can at least have a refreshing beverage.

Salesman Abu Karar travels to China every three to six months to stock up on goods for his market stall. But no matter how many fans he comes back with, he says he never has enough to keep up with demand.

Disgusted, he said, “I think they should close the Ministry of Electricity and give out money so that people can do something like buy generators or fuel.”

Times staff writers Wail Alhafith, Zeena Kareem and Saad Khalaf and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.