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Here comes summer, and Iraqis brace for an ordeal

National energy grid 'effectively unoperational' so people turn to expensive electricity from generators run by entrepreneurs.

A young Iraqi studies in light from a diesel generator during a power blackout in Babil province.
A young Iraqi studies in light from a diesel generator during a power blackout in Babil province.

BAGHDAD // Another summer is on its way and for Iraqis that means the grim and inevitable prospect of temperatures so high that days and nights become a kind of physical endurance test. The only thing that makes an Iraqi summer tolerable for human beings is working air conditioning and, across large parts of the country, there is still not enough electricity to run the energy-hungry coolers.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in investment by the Iraqi government aimed at getting the national grid fully operational, most neighbourhoods still rely heavily on small diesel generators run by local businessmen. The loud drone of their engines, just as much as a persistent threat of violence, has become one of the facts of everyday life here. "The national grid is effectively unoperational as far as I'm concerned," said Abu Ala al Zubaidi, a resident of the Noaab Zbbat area in east Baghdad. "We have the big generators in that don't exactly give you enough power for everything in your house, but it's better than nothing."

Since the 2003 invasion, Iraqis have spent countless hours devising neighbourhood power schemes, and most have finally settled on a system that allows them to switch from the national to the local grid depending on power supplies. When the national power cuts out, an alarm sounds and people rush to flip a switch that shifts their house onto the local supply. But the high cost of the local fill-in electricity means few families can afford to have a 24-hour supply. That is reserved for government offices and US military bases.

"We can't afford to have power all the time, and without power we don't get water pumped to the house, we can't run our air conditioners," said Mr al Zubaidi. The Iraqi government has struggled with a series of coinciding difficulties with the electrical system. The grid was already old and insufficient for national needs and required both new power stations and infrastructure to get electricity into homes. Insurgent attacks against energy facilities and massive corruption have undermined efforts at modernisation. On top of that, demand for power has soared, which means that although production has risen, it has not kept pace with consumption.

"We need the government to work harder to get us the electricity we need, it is an urgent priority for us," Mr al Zubaidi said. "In the summer it is hell for us all because of the lack of power. It is almost impossible to live with sometimes only an hour of electricity." At the ministry of electricity in Baghdad, Sultan Aziz, a spokesman, said he was "optimistic" and that spending plans would increase power supplies to Iraqis before the summer reached its peak.

"Within a month we expect to be able to provide citizens with no less than 12 hours a day and although the path has been difficult, we are optimistic about a better future," he said in an interview. In February it was announced that Iraq's national power output had reached 6,760 megawatts, 2,500 more than was generated before the US-led invasion. The extra production due to come on line this summer will add 2,000MW. Although significant, it will not be enough to stop the current need to ration energy.

The Iraqi authorities have also installed hundreds of solar power systems that run street lights and other facilities, including a Baghdad medical clinic. Yet Mr Aziz said funding for energy projects was still short of requirements, with plans put on hold because money had not been allocated for them by the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. "The ministry of electricity still suffers from a lack of funds by the prime minister and we are waiting for money that will allow us to sign contracts that will increase power supply this summer," he said.

As with other arms of government in Iraq, there are barely concealed disputes between ministries and problems with co-ordinating reconstruction efforts. The electricity ministry spokesman was quick to point out that the ministry of oil and the ministry of the interior had to pull their weight if the country was to get more power. "The ministry of oil gets us the fuel for our power stations and the ministry of interior is responsible for protecting the power lines, that is their jurisdiction not ours," Mr Aziz said.

Electricity supply problems at a national level have at least provided a handful of enterprising businessmen with a chance to earn a living. Households typically pay between US$50 (Dh183) and $75 a month to get on the neighbourhood grid, money paid to the owner of the generator. The generator owners are not always popular, often accused of charging too much and exploiting people's need for power. Such claims were rejected by Omar Rafed Maamuri, who runs a diesel plant in Baghdad's al Synaa St.

"There are positives from a business point of view although most of the money goes to the companies manufacturing the generators" he said. "Some people are making millions of dollars out of this, but I'm not. The generators are expensive to buy, and expensive to run and repair. It costs of a lot of money. "I work hard to provide a fair service at a reasonable cost. I consider it a kind of humanitarian service, more than a business. People need the power and I can help them get it."

nlatif@thenational.ae