October 04, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Baghdad is Abuzz without Electricity

As I was perusing the news this weekend, this headline from the Sunday Washington Post caught my eye: “In Iraq, the Frustrating Sound of Generators.” Since there has been – understandably – no shortage of headlines featuring Afghanistan in recent weeks, especially with Bob Woodward’s new book making headlines about the White House’s internal debate on how to proceed there, I thought it might be a welcome change of pace to highlight what is happening in Iraq as part of our weekend roundup; or as this report from the Post points out, what is still not happening there. 

As the U.S. military continues its drawdown in Iraq, challenges abound, including that many Iraqis still do not have access to reliable electricity. As the Post’s Janine Zacharia writes in her report, Iraqis can still recall President George W. Bush’s 2003 promise that the United States would help the country restore basic services, including electricity. But as Zacharia points out, “Seven years later, the state's inability to provide reliable power to homes remains one of the most striking signs of the dysfunction that persists here and a nagging source of frustration for ordinary Iraqis.”

It is important not to conflate the challenge of “reliable power” with no power at all. According to Zacharia:

Since 2005, the United States has helped Iraq double the amount of power it generates, U.S. officials said. But demand has doubled, too, as higher incomes have enabled people to buy more air conditioners, satellite dishes, televisions and refrigerators. Officials also said that shortages feel more pronounced in Baghdad, because during the Hussein era, much of the country's limited capacity was kept for the capital and not equally distributed among the provinces, as it is today.

So while the country is generating more power than it was in the pre-war era, rising demand has outpaced supply, causing widespread shortages that could undermine long-term development and sustainability. 

Without reliable power, Baghdad and many other parts of the country are drowned out by a cacophony of electric generators – “from small gasoline-powered models for individual homes to diesel-driven giants that fuel a neighborhood” – that communities have come to rely on day and night. “The hum is everywhere,” Zacharia writes, “a constant auditory reminder of Iraq's problems and an unfulfilled American promise.”  (Emphasis added)

The challenge of providing reliable electricity is related in many ways to the same systemic challenges that undermine stability across the country. As Zacharia enumerates, “The power shortages have resulted from corruption, failed development policies, insurgent attacks on installations and a government paralyzed by sectarian political infighting.” 

The frustration over the lack of electricity has boiled over recently, stirring up violent protests in Nassiriya, and in Basra, where deadly protests in June prompted Iraq’s Minister of Electricity Karim Waheed to resign. “But protesting didn't turn the lights on,” Zacharia recalls. Instead, Iraqis – those who can afford to – have searched out alternatives, with some purchasing generators that cost about 2,700 dollars. “Less-wealthy families, and those without enough space for their own unit, hook up to a neighborhood generator and pay a few dollars a month for power as part of an informal energy co-op,” according to Zacharia. “Those who cannot afford even that have to live with whatever is supplied by the central grid, which can be as little as two hours daily.”

Inventive Iraqis have been able to make the best of the lack of services, building these “patchwork generators” using components made in Iraq, from China and “a secondhand Kia engine imported from the United Arab Emirates”; they sell the generators for less than half the price of imported ones. But while business is good, even those making a living off of the lack of central electricity complain that Iraq deserves better. “The government should provide electricity to the people,” one generator salesman told Zacharia.    

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing several electricity-related projects ahead of the December 2011 withdrawal, the onus also falls on the Ministry of Electricity. According to Brigadier General Kendall P. Cox Sr. who is leading the Army Corps of Engineers' efforts, 24-hour power generation is still years away. And from my perspective, depending on how long the government remains deadlocked – and whether or not deadlock becomes a feature of Iraq’s political system – it could take even longer for the government, in particular the Ministry of Electricity, to bulk up its electricity-generating capacity. 

This Week’s Events

Today at 3 PM, USIP will have an event on Pakistan’s floods featuring Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Husain Haqqani. Unfortunately, the event is full, but you can catch the webcast here. Then at 4 PM, the University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute will host an event on Beyond Petroleum? Energy Policy after Deepwater Horizon. At 5 PM, do not miss the Environmental Law Institute’s town hall discussion on “The Future of Climate Action.”

On Tuesday beginning at 7:45 AM, the White House Council on Environmental Quality will kick off a three-day long symposium on GreenGov at the George Washington University.

On Wednesday at 10:30 AM, join me and Christine at the Wilson Center for what should be an exciting event on geo-engineering, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. Then at 12:30 PM, the World Resource Institute will host an event on Assessing the Economic Costs of Climate Change Impacts in Europe. Then at 2 PM back at the Wilson Center, do not miss U.S.-China Power Sector Cooperation: A Discussion With the Secretary of Commerce and Duke Energy.

On Thursday at 10 AM, check out the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s event Can Oil Production Meet Rising Global Demand? Then at 12:30 PM, head to the Institute for Policy Studies for Food Sovereignty and Land Grabs In Africa. And at 2 PM, Carnegie will host a discussion on Pakistan's Security After the Floods. Then at 3 PM, stop in at Georgetown for Agricultural Development in Afghanistan and Conflict Zones.

That is all from us. Have a great week everybody!