Basra, Iraq – As summer temperatures reached extreme heat, hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets to protest the widespread power outages in Baghdad and the southern provinces of the country.
In the oil-rich city of Basra, demonstrators blocked the highway and burned tires last week to force the local government to solve the problem of long-term power outages and poor public services.
The temperature in Basra soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) at noon. The Iraqi authorities reduced their working hours to less than 5 hours, citing the extreme heat.
Power outages often lead to violent protests, especially in southern Iraq, because successive governments have failed to resolve recurring problems in recent years.
Power outages, lack of services, and rampant corruption were also the main drivers of large-scale anti-government protests that erupted in Baghdad and Iraq in 2019, mainly in southern Shia.
Although hundreds of people died and thousands were injured during the protest movement, due to the spread of the coronavirus, few people asked for it before the demonstrations abruptly ended in March 2020.
“Electricity is a basic need. Its shortage violates many human rights, including the right to health, safe housing, education and other rights,” said Ali Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
In a recent protest, demonstrators in Basra chanted “No, no corruption” and “All parties are liars” because they promised to escalate if the government does not take action.
Abdelkarim Ahmed, 25, of Basra, told Al Jazeera: “We are suffering the same as in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Services are lacking, infrastructure is weak, and Continue to power off.”
“That’s why we are here to ask the authorities to resolve our grievances and give us basic rights,” he added.
In the past few weeks, dozens of protesters have gathered in front of the main power company in Basra’s Tawasa district to demand better services.
Basra Governor Assad Adani warned in a televised speech last week that if the central government does not resolve the crisis, he will isolate the power station in Basra from the rest of Iraq.
Ahmed threatened that if the government “turns a deaf ear”, residents of Basra would hold a large-scale protest.
“We only want electricity. The corrupt political class has not been able to solve such a simple problem since 2003,” he said.
Ahmed’s friend Abbas Hasson, a 24-year-old protester, told Al Jazeera that his home has only 6 hours of power outages a day, and there are 16 people living there, including his sick father and young children. .
“We are deprived of a basic right. The government needs to develop a long-term strategy for this. Basra has a lot of money, but it is not used for the people,” Hassan said.
Sami Mohsin, 38, said that in order to avoid power outages at home, he usually drives his children around during rush hours in the afternoon.
“Cars are sometimes the only source of air conditioning, but it is expensive and can damage the engine. I recently spent $200 to repair it,” Mohsin said. He explained that although he paid for a generator, it was only enough. Supply lights and ventilators.
“Some people travel outside of Iraq in the summer to escape this situation, but I can’t afford it,” he added.
Since many young Iraqis are unemployed or have low incomes, their only source of relief during the hot summer is to travel to the banks of the Arabian River, where they gather to cool off.
“I don’t have a job and can’t afford to pay 10,000 Iraqi Dinars (US$6.85) to use a private swimming pool. Therefore, I come to Shatt al-Arab every day to swim and spend time with friends,” Mohamed Ali said while sitting by the river.
“I hope they [the government] Sports facilities including swimming pools can be built. We should enter for free because we live in the hottest city in Iraq. Unfortunately, they are just busy squandering the country’s wealth. “
According to Luay al-Khateeb, former Iraqi Minister of Electricity, the reasons for power outages in Iraq are diverse and complex.
“When developing the power sector, it is not only important to increase power generation,” al-Khateeb told Al Jazeera. “Transmission, distribution, fuel supply, maintenance and management are actually more expensive and the most important.”
Al-Khateeb said that between 2005 and 2020, Iraq spent approximately US$75 billion on investment and operating costs in the industry, which increased the country’s national grid capacity to 30GW.
He explained that this is a major development compared to the peak capacity of about 20GW of usable capacity in the summer of 2019, adding that these restrictions were caused by ISIL on power lines and affected Iraq’s power capacity.
However, Al-Khateeb said that Iraq’s aging power distribution network still requires significant investment to meet the needs of its growing population. He also emphasized that the previous government’s failure to implement a long-term strategy for natural gas production “resulted in the burning of natural gas instead of capturing it in Iraq’s oil fields.”
Al-Khateeb said: “Household electricity is still heavily subsidized by the government, which leads to a lack of funding for critical maintenance and expansion.”
“Although the government has accepted the recommendations of groups such as the World Bank, political instability has prevented meaningful reforms of the Iraqi power sector,” he added.
Iranian fuel cuts
Earlier this month, Iran, which is short of funds, cut its electricity exports to Iraq in order to pressure Baghdad to pay electricity bills after it defaulted on electricity bills.
Iran’s fuel exports to Iraq may account for nearly one-third of the country’s supply during the summer months. The appeals for demonstrations raised concerns about the violent protests that swept through Basra in 2018, which coincided with a power outage in Iran due to non-payment issues.
The development took place before the expected federal election on October 10, when Iraq’s Minister of Electricity, Majed Hantoush, resigned on the grounds of popular pressure.
“This resigned Secretary of Electricity lacks vision and strong leadership,” Harry Eastpanian, an independent energy and water expert in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
He pointed out that a day after the popular Shi’ite clergy, Hantosh stepped down. Muktada Sadr Call on him to resign.
“This shows that political influence is increasingly affecting institutional decision-makers. The power portfolio is undermined by politicians and will remain unresolved until this interference ends,” Istepanian said.
“At least in the short-term, there is no immediate solution to the lasting power demand.”
He pointed out that the Ministry of Electricity’s federal budget is about 17 trillion dinars ($11 billion), but 85% of it is used for the operation and maintenance of existing power stations.
“Restoring Iran’s fuel supply seems to be the only possible option to deal with severe fuel shortages at the same time,” Istepanian concluded.