In heat-struck Iraq, power shortages prompt protests

Iraq's energy crisis is coming to a head as the country faces heat waves, lockdowns, and blackouts. Two protesters were killed by security forces in Baghdad last week while demonstrating against power cuts.

Nabil al-Jurani/AP
Laith Jabbar, a gas station worker drinks water in Basra, Iraq on July 27, 2020. As temperatures soar to record levels this summer, Iraq's power supply falls short of demand again.

In Iraq’s oil-rich south, the scorching summer months pose painful new choices in the age of the coronavirus: stay at home in the sweltering heat with electricity cut off for hours, or go out and risk the virus.

This is Zain al-Abidin’s predicament. A resident of al-Hartha district, in Basra province, Mr. Abidin lost his job due to pandemic-related restrictions. During the day he listens helplessly to his four-month old daughter cry in the unbearable heat, too poor to afford private generators to offset up to eight-hour power cuts.

“I have no tricks to deal with this but to pray to God for relief,” he said.

As temperatures soar to record levels this summer – reaching 125 Fahrenheit in Baghdad last week – Iraq’s power supply has fallen short of demand yet again, creating a spark for renewed anti-government protests. Iraq has imposed a strict lockdown and 24-hour curfew. So families have to pump fuel and money into generators or, if they can't, suffer in stifling homes without air conditioning.

State coffers were slashed because of an economic crisis spurred by falling oil prices and the pandemic, leaving little for investment to maintain Iraq’s aging electricity infrastructure. Importing additional power is tied up in politics. On one side, Iranians demand overdue payments on energy they already provided Iraq. On the other, the United States is pushing Baghdad to move away from Iran and strike energy deals with Gulf allies, according to three senior Iraqi government officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Power cuts, coinciding with stay-at-home restrictions and scorching temperatures have extended into Lebanon and Syria, two countries also teetering on the brink of economic collapse.

In Lebanon, residents suffer from power cuts lasting up to 20 hours a day in Beirut even as humidity climbs to above 80%, adding to public outrage over the country’s severe financial crisis. Neighborhood generators have had to switch off to give their engines a break and to ration fuel, causing a run on candles and battery-operated lamps.

Like Iraq, blackouts in Lebanon have been a fixture of life, largely because of profiteering, corruption, and mismanagement, ever since the 1975-1990 civil war.

In Syria, nearly a decade of war has left infrastructure in shambles and electricity cuts are frequent. Last week, power was off for hours even as temperatures in Damascus reached a record-breaking 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Baghdad, the roar of generators punctuates daily outages like clockwork. Iraqis find short-lived respite by using public showers set up on the street. The heat was blamed for an explosion at a federal police weapons depot.

“We bring our children downstairs and spray them with a hose to cool them down,” said Ahmed Mohamed, in Baghdad.

Reforms in the electricity sector have been stymied by protests and the vested interests of private generator companies, some with connections to political figures. Public reluctance to pay the state for electricity has long flummoxed Iraqi officials.

In the summer of 2018, poor service delivery prompted destabilizing protests in Basra. The following year, mass anti-government protests paralyzed Baghdad and Iraq’s south, as tens of thousands decried the rampant corruption that has plagued delivery of services, including electricity.

Two protesters were killed by security forces in Baghdad last week while demonstrating against power cuts.

Crumbling power lines mean there is 1,000 megawatts less power this summer. Supply now falls 10,000 megawatts short of demand, a senior official in the Electricity Ministry said.

“You have to work very hard just to stand still,” said Ali al-Saffar, the head of the Middle East a division of the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

To survive the summer months, Mr. Saffar recommends an immediate audit of generators used in public offices to see what can be put toward the national grid, as fewer people come to work under lockdown measures.

The government has already implemented emergency measures to divert power used in operations in oil fields to add to the grid, officials in oil and electricity ministries said.

Iraq relies heavily on Iran for power especially during the summer. But budgetary shortfalls have thrown Baghdad into arrears. Two government officials said urgent allocations were being made to avoid a repeat of 2018, when Iran halted imports in the summer because of outstanding payments.

Dependence on Iranian energy has also complicated U.S.-Iraq relations.

To qualify for successive sanctions waivers enabling imports to continue, Iraq must prove to the Trump administration that it is taking concrete steps to wean itself off reliance on Iran.

The U.S. has pushed for deals with Gulf allies to diversify Iraq’s power supply, three officials said.

Two projects appear to be in advanced stages of negotiations. The first would provide an initial 500 megawatts of supply to southern Iraq by connecting the grid to a supergrid encompassing six Gulf countries. A framework agreement was signed last year with the Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority, but lack of financing to pay for 187 miles of transmission lines has slowed progress.

The Gulf has pledged to put up the money, but “they are worried about the political situation,” said one senior government official.

“They had a video-conference with the [Electricity] Ministry in early July – representatives from the U.S. were on the call to push them.”

The second is the development of a much-anticipated gas hub in southern Iraq to feed domestic power demands.

Talks are ongoing to develop Iraq's Ratawi oil field and capture gas flared in nearby fields to generate electricity. Under the deal, Riyadh-based ACWA Power and U.S. firm Honeywell would construct the gas hub, financed by proceeds from the field, operated by Saudi Aramco.

But the agreement has not been officially inked.

Meanwhile, Iraqis continue taking to the streets in protest.

Activist Mohammed Ibrahim, who stages small sit-ins with his fellow activists in Basra said demonstrations would continue even if their calls for change fell on deaf ears in the halls of power.

“The protests are the only way to show this injustice,” he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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