Loud, dirty, pricey, but generators a godsend for electricity-starved Iraqis in summer heat

By Bushra Juhi, AP
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Electricity-starved Iraqis’ obsession: generators

BAGHDAD — When the roar of the local generator fills the neighborhood, Muna Hussein’s 3-year-old son breaks into dancing. He knows their home will soon have electricity so he can finally watch his cartoons.

Love them or hate them — usually both — but Baghdad residents are obsessed with the thousands of generators around the city that they rely on for electricity because the national power grid is so notoriously unreliable.

Love them because generators are the only way to ensure desperately needed air conditioners keep running in Iraq’s sweltering summer, when temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius). Hate them because of the deafening noise, the ugly maze of wires marring the city’s face and, above all, the cost — an extra outlay of $50 a month or more for already cash-strapped Iraqis.

The ubiquitous cables snaking across streets and up buildings to link homes with neighborhood generators “are the veins of life,” said Hussein, a 37-year-old schoolteacher and a mother of two boys. “Life would be impossible without the power provided by the generators.”

“I would have left Iraq a long time ago if it was not for the generators because besides the unbearable heat, without power there is no water,” she said, since people usually use electric pumps to get the water to the taps. “The first thing we do when we get our salaries is put aside the money for generator fees.”

The summer heat has brought an electricity crisis for Iraq’s government, faced with public anger over increasing costs and sporadic power. Two people were killed last weekend in the southern port city of Basra when protests over power shortages turned violent and security forces fired into the crowd. Similar demonstrations have been held nearly every day since, forcing the resignation of Electricity Minister Karim Waheed.

His acting replacement, Hussain al-Shahristani, pleaded with Iraqis on Friday to cut down on air conditioner use and warned government employees not to use their positions to ensure a constant supply from the national grid. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has urged Iraqis to be patient, saying it will likely take more than two years for the electricity grid to be fixed.

Billions of dollars have been spent rebuilding Iraq’s electricity network, which was damaged by U.S. attacks in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion and subsequent looting and insurgent targeting. But still, most neighborhoods in the capital get only five to seven hours of power a day from the grid. In places outside of Baghdad, it could be even less.

At the same time, demand skyrocketed after the fall of Saddam Hussein when Iraqis could finally buy appliances that weren’t previously available.

Moreover, the amount each family can draw from the grid when it is working is rationed to 10 amperes — not enough to run most air conditioners. So stealing from the grid is rampant as families rewire to get around the meters that enforce the ration. The mooching is so widespread and puts such a burden on the system that the Electricity Ministry earlier this year threatened the death penalty for anyone caught doing it.

Also, the price for power from the grid doubled as of June 1. Bills — which cover two months — usually run from the equivalent of $5 to $10 for a family, and many are worried about what the next bills will bring.

“They should provide the power first, then impose such laws on us,” fumed Fatema Ali, 42, whose husband earns about $215 a month as a government employee.

And since the grid power is not enough, she and everyone else turn to private generators for relief in their stifling homes. There the cost is even higher — Ali’s family pays about $63 a month to the businessman who runs a generator used by many in her northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah.

“It costs us a lot, but we have to do it for my two little daughters. Otherwise they would get very sick from the heat in the house,” Ali said.

While some have generators at home, the cost of fuel to run them is too high for most around Baghdad. So families and businesses mostly rely on large, privately run neighborhood generators. The U.S. military and Iraq’s government also depend heavily on generators.

The Baghdad governor’s office has distributed more than 1,300 big generators to ministries and Baghdad neighborhoods and scores of smaller ones to offices and places of worship since 2008.

In addition to those, thousands more are operated by private entrepreneurs, like Saad Tuma. He worked as a janitor until five years ago when he bought two generators, which now supply 90 homes and 33 businesses in Baghdad’s middle-class Karradah neighborhood.

It has made Tuma a tidy profit — the equivalent of roughly $5,000 per month. But even he has generator aggravation: people complaining about the noise, city officials hounding him about the mess from fuel and oil, customers who don’t pay their bills.

“My first job was more comfortable than this one,” he said. “Dealing with people makes me feel dizzy.”

To ensure public anger doesn’t flare further, the government has tried to keep the cost of generator electricity down. On Friday, al-Shahristani warned generator owners not to jack up prices and asked the public to turn in any who do.

The government also provides fuel at a discounted rate to 6,500 privately run neighborhood generators in exchange for their owners keeping the price of the electricity down for the consumer.

The support is a sign of how the government is painfully aware the national grid won’t be able to fully replace generators anytime soon.

Karim Obeid, the head of generators committee in the Baghdad governor’s office, said Iraq’s electricity problem “won’t be solved in the foreseeable future.”

Electricity Ministry spokesman Ibrahim Zaidan said international companies have been enlisted to repair and upgrade power plants and build new ones, and that people will “feel a change in the supply of the national power in the coming months.”

But he acknowledges the grid won’t improve substantially until 2013. Even that timetable, he added — in a nod to Iraq’s political turmoil, with a new government still unformed months after elections — “would happen if everything, politically speaking, went well.”

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