Basra, Iraq – As summer temperatures rose to scorching levels, hundreds of Iraqis took to the streets to protest widespread blackouts in Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces.
In the oil-rich city of Basra, protesters blocked highways and burned tires last week to pressure the local government to tackle chronic power cuts and poor public services.
Temperatures in Basra soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) by noon. Iraqi authorities responded by reducing working hours to less than five hours, citing the extreme heat.
Power outages have regularly led to violent protests, especially in southern Iraq, as successive governments have failed to address this recurring problem in recent years.
Power cuts, lack of services and widespread corruption were also among the main drivers of the mass anti-government protests that erupted in 2019 in Baghdad and in the predominantly Shiite southern Iraq.
While hundreds of people died and thousands were injured in the protest movement, few demands were met before the protests came to an abrupt end in March 2020 due to the spread of the coronavirus.
âElectricity is a basic need. Its scarcity is a violation of many human rights, including the right to health, safe housing, education and others, âsaid Ali al-Bayati, member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
” Fundamental right “
During a recent protest, protesters in Basra chanted “No, no to corruption” and “All parties are liars” as they pledged escalation if the government does not act.
“We are suffering the same way as in 2018, 2019 and 2020. There is a lack of services, poor infrastructure and ongoing power cuts,” Abdelkarim Ahmed, 25, in Basra, told Al Jazeera.
“That is why we are asking the authorities here to respond to our grievances and to grant us our fundamental right,” he added.
In recent weeks, dozens of protesters have rallied outside the main electricity company in Basra’s Tawaisa district, demanding better services.
Basra Governor Asaad al-Eidani warned in a televised address last week that he would isolate Basra’s power plants from the rest of Iraq if the central government does not address the crisis.
Ahmed threatened that if the government turned a âdeaf earâ, the people of Basra would organize a mass protest.
âWe only want electricity. Something so simple that the corrupt political class has not resolved since 2003, âhe said.
Ahmed’s friend and fellow protester Abbas Hassoun, 24, told Al Jazeera that only six intermittent hours of electricity a day reach his family home, where 16 people live, including his ailing father and young children.
âWe have been deprived of a fundamental right. The government needs to develop a long-term strategy for this. Basra has a lot of money but it is not used for its people, âHassoun said.
To escape power outages at home, Sami Mohsin, 38, said he usually drives his children in cars during afternoon rush hours.
âThe car is sometimes the only source of air conditioning, but it is expensive and damages the engine. I spent $ 200 recently to fix it, âsaid Mohsin, who explained that even though he pays for a generator, it’s only enough to supply the lights and fans.
âSome people travel out of Iraq in the summer to escape this, but I can’t afford it,â he added.
With many young Iraqis unemployed or on low wages, their only source of relief during the summer heat is to head to the banks of the Shatt al-Arab River where they congregate to cool off.
âI don’t have a job and I can’t afford 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($ 6.85) to access a private swimming pool. So I come to Chatt al-Arab every day to bathe and spend time with friends, âsaid Mohammed Ali as he sat by the river.
“I hope they [the government] can build sports facilities, including swimming pools. We should have free access because we live in the hottest city in Iraq. Unfortunately, they are just busy squandering the country’s wealth.
According to former Iraqi Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khateeb, the reasons for the power outages in Iraq are varied and complex.
“When it comes to developing the electricity sector, it is not just increasing electricity production that matters,” al-Khateeb told Al Jazeera. âDrivetrain, distribution, fueling, maintenance and management actually cost more and matter the most. “
Between 2005 and 2020, Iraq spent around $ 75 billion on investments and operating costs in the sector, which together brought the capacity of the country’s national grid to 30 GW, Al-Khateeb said. .
This is a major development from the roughly 20 GW available at peak capacity in summer 2019, he explained, adding that these limitations were caused by power lines targeting ISIL, which have affected Iraq’s electrical capacity.
Al-Khateeb said, however, that Iraq’s aging power distribution grid still requires major investments to meet the needs of its growing population. He also pointed out that previous governments have failed to implement a long-term strategy for gas production, “leading to the flaring of natural gas instead of being captured in Iraqi oil fields.”
âElectricity for homes is still heavily subsidized by the government, which has resulted in a lack of funding for essential maintenance and expansion,â al-Khateeb said.
“Political instability has prevented significant reform of the Iraqi electricity sector, despite the government’s acceptance of recommendations from groups such as the World Bank,” he added.
Iranian fuel cuts
Earlier this month, cash-strapped Iran slashed its electricity exports to Iraq to pressure Baghdad to release payments for electricity after accumulating arrears.
Iranian fuel exports to Iraq can account for nearly a third of the country’s supply during the summer months. Calls to protest raised fears of violent protests that swept through Basra in 2018 and coincided with power cuts in Iran over non-payment issues.
The developments came ahead of the federal election scheduled for October 10 and when Iraqi Minister of Electricity Majed Hantoush resigned, citing popular pressure.
“The resigning electricity minister lacked vision and strong leadership,” Harry Istepanian, an independent energy and water expert based in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
He noted that Hantoush resigned a day after popular Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr called on him to resign.
âThis shows the hold of political influence on institutional decision-makers. The electricity portfolio is tainted by politicians and will remain unresolved until such interference is over, âIstepanian said.
“There is no immediate solution to sustainable demand for electricity, at least in the short term.”
The federal budget of the Ministry of Electricity is around 17 trillion dinars ($ 11 billion), but 85% has been allocated to the operation and maintenance of existing power plants, he noted. .
“Restoring the Iranian fuel supply seems to be the only possible option pending the severe fuel shortage,” Istepanian concluded.