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in the dark

Mayada Daood
A lack of electricity is a standard problem for Iraqis. They have suffered from the absence of power supply for decades.
16.06.2010  |  Baghdad

No longer do they believe the promises they hear from officials who say that the future looks bright. The irony is not lost on them. They feel destined to remain in the dark.

Iraq’s power supply problems go back to the early 1990s when coalition troops destroyed the national electricity network in the first Gulf War. An economic siege followed that continued until the second Gulf War in 2003.

During the sanctions years, existing facilities fell into disrepair and no new ones built to meet the increased demand during the siege, when Iraq suffered most from power outages.

In recent years, Baghdad and its surrounding areas suffered from continued outages, reaching sometimes up to 20 hours a day.

Since 2003, all attempts at fixing the power supply crisis have failed. Power produced in Iraq and imported from outside has failed to meet the actual demand across the economy.

"The absence of electricity is the rule not the exception,” said Raghad Raed, a housewife. “Families who earn a good income can afford to connect to two suppliers, one supply line in the morning hours and one in the evening without which it is hard to survive the summer heat and the dust storms."

The solutions are generators, which have popped up all over Baghdad, supplying homes with 3-10 Amperes of electricity via wires connected to hundreds of houses subscribing to the service. The price per 1 ampere ranges from 9000 -14000 Iraqi dinars, depending on the total hours of supply.

Almost all houses in Baghdad have subscribed, putting an enormous financial burden on the people.

Forty-year-old Salman Hasan said "it is more important to spend money on electricity in summer than to buy other necessities. Without electricity we cannot live a dignified life and we cannot even sleep well."

When asked about the amount that he spends monthly on buying electricity, Hassan said "it depends on the season. In winter we subscribe to only 5 amperes for 50 thousand Iraqi dinars per month but in summer we need more for air-conditioning; we need 8 amperes and we pay around 80,000 Dinars per month. There is an additional amount of 5000 Iraqi dinars which we pay for the early morning supply of electricity, from 1am – 6am"

Iraqis accuse the government of administrative corruption and believe this is the reason behind their suffering. In summer, temperatures reach as high as 50ºC and the government is unable to provide people with solutions.

During Friday prayers, and in almost all mosques, imams accuse the government of making false promises and demand explanations for the absence of electricity supply. In some provinces, demonstrators demanded the resignation of the electricity minister and a replacement to be appointed.

The absence of electricity does not only affect individuals but has an impact also on the economy. Adel Nathem, an owner of a plastic factory in Abu Ghraib, said that he closed his factory because of the absence of electricity.

"Nine workers lost their jobs and became unemployed, adding a new burden to the Iraqi economy," he explained.

"The cost of electricity is high and there is no support at all for factories' owners. As a result, the products' prices have risen and local products no longer compete with imported ones. Many factories closed their doors and employees of these factories have joined the army. The economy has lost many of the qualified Iraqi labourers.

"We don't trust the minister of electricity any more and for sure we don't rely on his promises," said Nathem. "Every year we hear the same words but nothing has changed until now.”

It is difficult to estimate the amount of damage inflicted on the economy due to the lack of electricity because there are no data on this topic but the shortage has had its negative impact on all sectors.

Manaf al-Saegh, an economic expert at the Institute of Economic Reform, said that electricity in modernised societies is the backbone of all activities. "No development could be possible without electricity. Electricity has its impact on all activities. Without it, how can a person start his day?"

He added: “Electricity is also important for factories, for small and medium enterprises and also for bigger projects, not to mention entertainment and communication."

In Iraq, electricity is a real challenge according to Saegh. "It has had its impact on major economic activities and mainly on the industry. The absence of electricity supply led to the closure of many factories and the high cost of production related to the increased cost of electricity made local products unable to compete in the markets.

"The shortage in electricity supply does not only impact on the industrial sector but also on the agriculture sector," Saegh continued. “Many poultry facilities producing eggs and dairy products have been closed due to the shortage in electricity supply."

Added to that, foreign investors consider electricity a major factor investment.

"The high cost of electricity does not encourage investors to start projects in Iraq. Huge amounts were spent to end the electricity crisis and many promises were made but until now nothing tangible has happened," Saegh said.

The Ministry of Electricity has been announcing big projects over the past seven years to improve the power supply in Iraq. The latest was the promise made earlier this year when the ministry said that electric power production will reach 9,000MW during 2010 summer season, an amount capable of covering two thirds of the country's needs which are estimated at 13,000MW.

The ministry remains unable to produce more than 8,700MW. Although too small, Ibraheem Zaidan, a spokesperson for the Electricity Ministry, said it was “enough to make the citizens feel a difference." "But things have to wait until foreign companies finish the maintenance process of a large number of production plants, expected to be completed in mid-June.

"The Ministry is intending to increase production to reach 9000 MW by the end of 2010 when new electric power stations are installed and when old ones are refurbished," said Zaidan.

However, Iraq's energy needs will not be met until 2013 when General Electric and Siemens conclude their contracts. It is only then that production will reach 27,000MW. This will not happen if the political situation fails to improve or deteriorates.

On 15 December 2009, the Ministry of Electricity signed a contract to import plants from the US-based General Electric Company with a capacity of 7,000MW for a total amount of $3 billion to support the Iraqi electricity network. Another contract was signed with Siemens to build new electricity plants with 3,300MW capacity.

The date set by the Ministry's spokesman is approaching. The heat in Baghdad makes people feel that this day will never come. Under such tough weather conditions the only thing that the Iraqi people now hope for is to see the promises come true.