Iraq declared a government holiday due to the heat for the first time today, as temperatures soared above 120 degrees F. (50 degrees C.) in the midst of a summer electricity crisis that has sparked public protests.
While the mercury has passed 120 degrees before, this year the scorching temperatures coincide with the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims refrain from eating or drinking water from dawn until dusk. With Ramadan falling in the middle of summer this year and dawn coming just after 4 a.m., those fasting will go more than 14 hours without water.
“During my 31 years of work, I witnessed days when the temperature reached 53 [degrees C.] but this is the first time in my working life when the government announces a day off because of the hot weather,” says Salam Solaiman, from Iraq’s meteorological office.
Power shortages spark protests, shut down A/C
The electricity shortages, which have deprived even government ministry buildings of their air conditioning, have become a politically explosive issue.
Amid protests sweeping the Arab world, those in Iraq have focused on poor public services, particularly electricity shortages. With billions of dollars poured into reconstructing the electricity sector by the United States and Iraq, most people blame the continuing shortages on corruption as well as incompetence.
Iraqi officials say the electrical grid is providing eight hours a day of electricity to Iraqis and that full electricity will take several years. In reality, most people receive four or five hours a day, with electricity on for 15 minutes to an hour at a time and then off again. Last month, the Iraqi government shifted working hours to allow government employees to leave an hour earlier to conserve electricity.
Those who can afford it buy electricity from business people who run neighborhood generators or rely on small generators in their homes to power lights and air-coolers, inexpensive devices which cool small areas by recirculating air through water.
Government turns to generator owners
To help bridge the shortfall in electricity supply this summer, the government has implemented a program to provide diesel fuel to the private generator operators, who have pledged to lower their prices in exchange.
Instead, many generator operators are complaining they have not received their allotment of fuel and are buying it on the black market, increasing the price of electricity instead.
The heat has also led to frequent mechanical breakdowns.
Sabah Mansour, an employee of the government’s anti-corruption Integrity Commission, welcomed the day off but said both his own generator and the neighborhood generator were broken.
“I spent my time going from room to room – to the kitchen to watch my wife cook and then to the generator owner. He told me he is trying to fix it,” he said.
With hundreds of thousands of government workers at home today, the streets in Baghdad and other cities were quieter than usual. But downtown, shops were open, including small restaurants.
The city's main amusement park, Zawra Park, even managed to keep the air conditioning on for visitors. Iraqi families cooled down in a tent featuring “5-D” movies – 3-D films with the added bonus of moving chairs and cool blasts of wind.
Laith Hammoudi contributed.