EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this article, Steven Vincent, was murdered in Basra hours after this was published. A piece of his on Islamists there appeared in the New York Times (and subsequently the International Herald Tribune) this past weekend.
Basra, Iraq–In the middle of an interview with Sheik Abdul al-Baghdali, an American-hating supporter of Moqtada al-Sadr, the lights in his office suddenly went out. “This is what your country has done to Iraq,” he snorted, “stolen its electricity.” On his pumpkin-sized face was the insufferable smirk of a man who knows–right or wrong–he has you beat in an argument.
The problem was, he did have me beat. Understandably enough, the shortage of electricity throughout Iraq is a major source of citizen anger. In Basra, the kahrabaa is on for three hours, off for three, giving numerous opportunities for people to blame America and pine for the energy-rich days of Saddam. And since like most journalists, my knowledge of electricity extends no further than an on/off switch, I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to respond. Iraq–especially southern Iraq–floats on a sea of oil; it should be ablaze with energy–especially since Uncle Sam has invested over $1 billion dollars in this sector. Why does Basra have an energy shortage? And whose fault is it?
To find out, I went to the Electrical Energy Transmission Directorate to speak to–well, let’s call him Dr. B. (As is usual with so many Iraqi officials, security concerns prompted him to speak only on condition of anonymity.) A loquacious man, given to digressions about Basra politics, the engineering Ph.D. laid out the recent history of Iraq’s energy production, charting helpful diagrams on an office greaseboard.
“In 1991, Iraq generated a total of 9,000 megawatts, while it consumed 5,000. During the Kuwaiti War, the allies damaged or destroyed 90 percent of our power grid, reducing production to zero. For three months, we had no electricity.” By 1995, Dr. B. continued, production had increased to 5,000 megawatts, matching national consumption. Just before the latest war, however, power generation had declined again, to 2,700-4,500 megawatts.
After an aside about how increasing numbers of his Directorate’s employees belong to the religious parties that now dominate Basra (“they listen and watch everything then report back to the turbans”) the good doctor cut to the quick: “Today, Iraq produces 3,000-4,000 megawatts, while its demand is 8,000. Make that 11,000-12,000 if you add in heavy industry.”
The reasons for this shortfall, he went on, include a lack of up-to-date power plants (the last were built in 1991), deteriorating equipment (because existing plants have to go 24/7 to meet electricity demands, officials can’t pull them offline for maintenance) and, of course, terrorists who target the energy infrastructure.
The south has its particular problems, he continued, among them the increased salinization of the Shatt-al-Arab due to Saddam’s wars and disastrous environmental policies (salty water does a poorer job of cooling generators and attracts barnacles from the Gulf, which obstruct water conduits). Meanwhile, “religious parties place incompetent people in high positions. To get a job here, you used to need experience. Now it depends on your affiliation with the turbans.”
There’s also the matter of pillage. Some 900 high-voltage towers were destroyed during the last war: 50 by Coalition troops, 850 by looters. About a year ago, the Garamsha, a tribe particularly feared for their criminal activities, got in a firefight with the rival Halaf tribe, in the process destroying most of a sub-station on the north end of Basra. Six months ago, the Garamsha wrecked 10 high voltage towers, bringing down one 400 and two 132 kilovolt transmission lines.
“Today, we pay the Garamsha to ‘guard’ the powerlines,” said Dr. B. “Actually, they don’t do any work, they simply collect their money.” The Iraqi government also buys “protection” from militias belonging to the religious parties, the doctor added.
There’s yet another reason for Basra’s power shortage, one that people here rarely mention: Basrans themselves. “We pay only three dinars per kilowat hour–for us, electricity is essentially free so we have no incentive to conserve,” said Hayder Abbas, Manager of the Power Distribution Directorate.
Unlike Dr. B., who oversees electrical transmission for Iraq’s four southermost provinces, the quiet-spoken, to-the-point Abbas supervises local use of kahrabaa. “Basra province’s consumption is about 800 megawatts per hour, but we produce only 550.” The main problem is the al-Hartha plant at the northern end of Basra city, which was designed to produce 800 MWh, but damage from Gulf War I and II cut that figure in half.
Meanwhile, Abbas continued, Basrans’ salaries have dramatically increased, encouraging people to splurge on such appliances as washing machines, televisions, computers, and especially air conditioners. “Some homes have three or four a/c units, each unit consuming large amounts of electricity.” Basrans purchase 10-15 of these energy-eaters a day, Abbas estimated.
To fill the gap left by the inconstant power grid, people rely on private generators, which cost about 20,000 dinars to power a house for three hours. Generator owners also sell electricity, resulting in so-called “spider webs” of power lines criss-crossing residential neighorhoods. Poorer Basrans can’t afford this home-made kahrabaa, of course, while those who have generators face the inconvenience of starting the machines every three hours, then shutting them off again when the electricity returns three hours later. “We must do this all day, every day,” an Iraqi housewife told me.
So what’s the solution to Basra’s energy woes? The World Bank estimates that Iraq’s entire power sector needs investments of $12 billion. In a recent press conference, Iraq’s electricity minister Mohsen Alloush stated that the country needed $20 billion to raise the grid to 18,000 megawatts by 2010–although some estimates put the amount at $35 billion. Whatever the figure, it is certain to exceed the $5.5 billion Congress appropriated for Iraq’s electricity in 2003 (along with $1.2 billion of these funds the U.S. has already spent, $1 billion was withdrawn to fund security programs).
Importing electricity from neighboring countries is another option–and indeed, Iraq currently imports some 100 MW a year from Iran, an amount that Tehran says will increase to 400 MW in two years. Turkey exports around 350 MW, and plans to increase that amount to 1,000 MW. Other electricity sources include Syria and Kuwait.
This juice is expensive, however. Kuwait, for example, charges around 90 Iraq dinars per kilowat hour–45 times what its costs Iraqi to produce the same amount. Besides, observed Dr. B, “countries don’t like to export electricity to Iraq. Sabotage to our electrical lines causes short-circuits in theirs.”
The government could begin charging for kahrabaa. But how would they collect the fees? Currently, there are no methods for billing individual homes, and, more importantly, no system of enforcement to ensure payment compliance. “In any case, people would just continue doing what they’re doing now–stealing electricity by tapping into power lines,” remarked Dr. B.
That leaves conservation. Abbas estimated that if Basrans reduce their energy consumption by half, they could enjoy 24-hour electricity. “It would be a hardship, but not impossible.” To test his theory, I asked friends if they’d be willing to cut back on their lights, wide-screen TV watching, washing machines and, above all, air conditioning. Without exception the response was no. “Why should we? Iraq sits on a sea of oil,” is a typical response, followed by the usual slam against America.
“Well, of course,” Abbas replied, when I gave him the results of my poll. “People were deprived of power for so long, they now feel they have a right to as much as possible.” Sighing, he added, “Iraqis have no sense of moderation. If you’re thirsty, you drink as much as you can, even if you’re no longer thirsty. Basrans have gotten used to a certain degree of comfort, and they don’t want to let it go.” It’s not an answer that would satisfy Sheik Baghdali, of course–but then again, for Basrans like him, it’s always easier to sit in the dark in an un-air conditioned room and curse America.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic in New York City. He is the author of In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq, and is currently blogging from Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.