Health problems, environmental issues, visual pollution and the potential for all kinds of corruption – these are just some of the complaints about how electricity is supplied in the troubled northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Here locals must get by on around six hours of power a day supplied by the state. This becomes especially difficult in the heat of the summer, when food cannot be kept and houses cannot be cooled. Alternatively locals must pay for electricity from private suppliers, who make it with their own generators. And it is mostly the latter that is causing the aforementioned problems.
“Noise pollution, magnetic fields, toxic smoke, water, air and soil pollution, high temperatures and the hazardous way in which these generators are operated all make for dangers to the province’s environment,” Sati al-Rawi, a professor and the manager of the Environmental and Pollution Control Research Centre at Mosul University, says. “And they make the city look ugly,” he added.
The amount of cheap fuel, which is what generator owners mostly use, is leading to contamination of both land and atmosphere, critics say. And there are further risks because most of the generators are being used in densely populated areas – even though regulations say that generators should be placed at least 25 meters away from any residential areas.
Sultan Shakir, 40, knows all about this. He had to seek help from the authorities because of a generator near his house that was exacerbating his aged mother’s asthma with its toxic gas exhausts and shaking his house continually. Complaints like these have gone as far as the courts, with, for example, the Mosul judiciary ordering the removal of generators near houses because of vibrations that are affecting the health of those living within. Local law experts note that the courts will only do something about local generators if the damage caused is greater than the benefits gained.
Prices for electricity supplies in Mosul are also at a premium – and observers say that the high prices mean corruption is rife within the black market for power. The authorities are supposed to inspect the generators regularly – however they may well be bribed into giving good reports. Ongoing security issues also affect what kinds of inspections can be carried out.
Ninawa’s provincial council dismisses these allegations of corruption though, saying they are nothing but rumours.
Iraq’s power problems began after the second Gulf War in 1991, when the US led forces against Iraq, following Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait. During that conflict, US-led forces destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, which included power plants and the electrical grid.
Due to sanctions, further conflict and controversy, successive Iraqi governments have not managed to rebuild capacity. About two years after the war, one enterprising Mosul local figured out how to use a large truck engine to generate power and started to sell it to nearby houses.
At first there were only about 30 customers for this method of power generation but in 1997 the Iraqi government began giving out permits, making it official to generate extra power in this way.
Last year, after growing protests about the lack of any progress on power generation, the government began supplying generator owners with fuel free of charge. This was in order to appease voter’s demands.
Today it is unclear exactly how many private generators there are operating in Mosul. A committee, created by the local government, is supposed to organize the generator owners. However, in reality, the committee’s instructions and planning is barely heeded.
Generator owners still hang their wires on telephone poles and between buildings – a Mosul University study says that the length of wire connecting generators in the city is around 143 million kilometres long - and place their generators on municipal land without permission.
NIQASH has obtained different totals of how many generators there are in Mosul from different organizations. The responsible provincial government committee says there are around 3,500 generators, another company that works with the generators estimates there are around 3,100 and the government department responsible for giving out subsidised fuel to generator owners says there are about 3,000.
However, those who know the generators business believes there may be a lot less. According to his study, environmental researcher al-Rawi estimates that only about 1,700 generators are actually needed in Ninawa province. Which means that some locals have registered their generators and are collecting the fuel which they then sell on the black market; they can make around US$1,500 a month doing this.
Additionally some locals may well own the generators they registered but they too sell the fuel because they either don’t bother running the generator – they make more money by selling the fuel – or the generator doesn’t work anymore.
In conclusion, the people of Mosul are well aware of the dangers and disadvantages of getting their power via noisy, polluting and expensive generators. Yet they also cannot do without them. Just ask Shakir, who complained to authorities about the generator being too near his home. “My family is in dire need of these generators,” he says. “During the summer it’s unbearably hot. But,” he added, “we should be able to avoid at least some of these problems.”
Al-Rawi has several suggestions – he thinks generators shouldn’t be operating in crowded residential areas, he believes the low quality, more polluting fuel should be avoided and that wiring should be controlled somehow. Al-Rawi believes it is up to the local Ministry of the Environment’s to do this.
Unfortunately though, the local Ministry of the Environment seems helpless, or uninterested. As a source inside the Ministry, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NIQASH: “Big generators are a major cause of pollution but the people cannot live without these generators.”