Iraqis cope with life without lights

Baghdad's electricity has fallen far below prewar levels due to instability.

Younes Abbas Shamari is a carpenter with an open-air shop on Baghdad's Zawiya Street, which means he depends on electricity for most of what he does: sawing, drilling, sanding. These days, however, he rarely works, as the electricity is off more than it's on.

His workshop sits on a commercial strip in a relatively calm area in the central part of the city. Many small businesses here are in need of electricity to function, but Mr. Shamari estimates he gets just two hours of electricity for every four there is none. And that's twice the Baghdad average, this being one of the capital's more upscale neighborhoods.

Thanks largely to deteriorating security, electricity - along with water, sewage, and oil production - has dropped below prewar levels. Before the invasion, for example, Baghdad was receiving an average of at least 16 hours of power a day. Today, with insurgents targeting power plants and electrical lines on an almost daily basis, the city gets power just four hours each day on average.

"It's not enough to pay for the rent on my shop," says Shamari, whose salary supports an extended family of 13 in Diyala, outside Baghdad. "The rent is almost higher than whatever income I get from my work." He acknowledges that before the war, electricity wasn't nonstop, but it was available when he worked.

Iraq was generating 4,500 megawatts before the US invasion. But by November of last year that generation capacity had dropped to 3,995 megawatts, well below the national demand of 7,000 megawatts, according to a January report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Production has slumped despite the $3 billion - of $18.4 billion authorized for Iraq reconstruction - the US has set aside for electricity projects.

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, testified Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iraq would need much more than the $56 billion estimated by the World Bank and UN in 2003 to rebuild Iraq. He didn't give a new figure.

Mr. Bowen told the committee that Iraq's water supply, sewer system, and electrical grid were worse off than once thought.

When fuel was still cheaper than water, before the government cut subsidies in December, Shamari made up for the lack of power with a gas-powered generator. But with the price of fuel now three to five times what it was just three months ago, that's no longer an option.

"How is Iraq supposed to make an economic recovery if businesses don't have basic necessities like electricity?" asks Humam al-Shamaa, an economics professor at Baghdad University. "And the lack of electricity affects security, too, because the streets aren't lighted after sundown and so businesses close earlier than normal."

US officials, though, point out that while power in Baghdad is slumping, supply has increased elsewhere in Iraq. "Now [electricity] is being distributed in a much more egalitarian manner," says Dawn Liberi, head of the Iraq office of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Bowen seconded that claim at Wednesday's hearing. He said the power supply outside Baghdad was the one area of improvement since the war began.

Ms. Liberi does find a silver lining in Baghdad's current electricity situation. Iraqi incomes are on the rise, she says, which is ramping up the consumption of air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, and other electricity-hungry consumer goods. "It's very difficult to meet demand, because it's rising much faster than supply," she says.

Liberi also offers another explanation US officials frequently cite when discussing reconstruction shortfalls: Iraqi government disregard for free-market principles and the continuation of state subsidies.

Shamari, for example, pays 4,000 Iraqi dinars a month for electricity, about $2.75. One regular household user says he pays 450 dinars for three months of usage - about 40 cents.

It's a key factor in Iraq's electricity problem, says Liberi. Under Saddam Hussein most people received electricity as a virtual state gift, paying symbolic prices that were out of touch with international rates. After Mr. Hussein, she says, Iraq has yet to adjust, with most people still paying very little. As a result, Iraqis have little incentive to conserve.

US officials have repeatedly argued that the elimination of state subsidies will free up cash for much needed reconstruction projects. Others, however, worry that such belt-tightening measures could lead to social unrest at a time when stability tops the agenda.

But as long as insurgents continue to strike Iraq's power grid, reconstruction remains a perilous endeavor. The insurgency has caused the US to reroute reconstruction money to security. Of the estimated $270 billion spent, $15 billion has gone to nonsecurity items, Liberi says.

And there are few encouraging signs that this trend will change. In fact, a recent report by the US Government Accountability Office, says insurgent attacks are on the increase. There were 2,500 attacks in December 2005, up from just 1,000 the previous March, the report finds.

"We have had increased [electricity] generation, but we have very limited transmission around the country, because the transmission lines keep getting hit," says Liberi.

Shamari, the carpenter, agrees that the situation is getting worse. Power shortage aside, business is down in general because, as the economy suffers, he says, fewer people are getting married. Newlyweds seeking to furnish their new homes are his main clients. Shamari used to get four major orders a month, he says, and now he gets only one.

He pushes a small power saw through a plank of wood and speaks sadly through the sawdust spray. "I'm thinking of just selling my business."

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