Shopping for heat in Sulaymaniyah. (photo: معاز فرحان )
Iraqi Kurdish man, Asso Abdullah, makes a living selling wood-fired heaters and hot water tanks as well as gas-powered cooking appliances. And business is booming.
“The lack of electricity and oil means we are selling more wood-fired heaters and water heaters,” Abdullah, a resident of Sulaymaniyah in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH. “There is increased demand for these items.”
He’s been making and selling these household goods for over 18 years and recalls how many Iraqi Kurdish people had to use these kinds of tools for heating and cooking in the 1990s. At that time Iraqi Kurdistan was operating in a state of de facto independence from Baghdad and as a result, then-leader Saddam Hussein imposed an economic blockade on the Kurdish. A civil war between Iraqi Kurdish parties in the mid-1990s also meant there was never enough electricity.
But now, Abdullah says, the equipment that was so popular during the 90s is back in demand again.
Another local in Sulaymaniyah, Shano Hawri imports gas heaters. He says he’s selling between 40 and 50 a day at the moment. “Because there’s no more oil,” Hawri explains, saying that while sales of gas heaters are going up, sales of oil heaters are plunging.
Over the past two years there has been no maintenance on the power generating facilities. Some years we spent IQD20 billion. This year, nothing.
The cheapest gas heater costs locals about IQD55,000 (around US$47) and as much as IQD80,000 for larger heaters. If the heater is on all day, then gas bottles last up to five days; these cost IQD7,500 for a full cylinder (around US$6).
In years past, when the region was seen as the land of business opportunity and even being described as the “new Doha”, Iraqi Kurdistan used to have a far better supply of electricity. But this has changed with Iraq’s security crisis, sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, and the region’s financial crisis, caused by internal politics and budget problems in Baghdad.
According to the schedule presented by the local department of electricity, residents are supposed to be getting around 14 hours of power a day. But at the moment they are only getting between four and five; they then pay for around another seven hours from private generators – locals can buy an ampere of power for IQD9,000 (around US$7.50). Most houses can afford three amperes when the publicly supplied power runs out but that’s often not enough to keep heaters running.
It’s not just heating either. Demand for rechargeable lamps is also rising, as power cuts mean homes are left in the dark some nights. These lamps can be plugged in to charge while the power is on, then used when the power is off.
“There is a huge demand for the lamps at the moment,” says Salar Ali, who imports gas-operated lighting and cooking appliances. “I import a thousand lamps and a thousand stovetops a month at the moment.”
His shop has been selling 100 rechargeable lamps a day, adds Kamal Mohammed, a retailer of electrical appliances in Sulaymaniyah. He says he’s never sold this many before and he’s been in the business for 15 years.
During Iraqi Kurdistan’s more prosperous years the local power department had promised that soon, residents could expect electricity 24 hours a day. But these promises were never fulfilled.
“We have actually been expecting that the situation would deteriorate,” admits the power department’s spokesperson, Sirwan Mohammed. “We have terrible policies for the fuel sector in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The government had plenty of plans to produce electricity but no plans for how to distribute and maintain it, Mohammed argues. The Sulaymaniyah province needs about 2,000 megawatts of electricity to function but is now getting only 500 to 600 megawatts.
“Over the past two years there has been no maintenance done on the power generating facilities here and they need maintenance,” Mohammed says. “Some years we would spend around IQD20 billion [US$16 million] on these jobs. This year nothing has been spent.”
Meanwhile back at the market, Ali Abdullah, 50, is just about to make an important purchase. Just like many others in the Sulaymaniyah area, where a financial crisis has seen salaries left unpaid and protests as a result, Abdullah didn’t receive his government pension this month. Nonetheless he pays IQD80,000 for a gas heater.
“We used to use oil heaters but we didn’t get any oil this year so we have been forced to buy this gas heater,” he explains to NIQASH. “In the past, it would have cost me IQD55,000 but the price has gone up,” he complains. “Conditions in Somalia are probably better than conditions here!”