Iraq's unstable power supply 'like disco lights' during scorching summer

Rising demand and infrastructure limitations are putting immense strain on the national grid

FILE PHOTO: A man activates his personal electrical generator at home to help cope with a series of power outages in Najaf, Iraq, July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani/File Photo
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As temperatures soar this summer, Iraq faces another electricity crisis that threatens to leave millions grappling with prolonged power cuts amid the stifling heat.

The combination of rising power demand and infrastructure limitations has put immense strain on the national grid, exacerbating an already dire situation.

“It’s like disco lights,” Baghdad resident Hasanain Ahmed told The National from his upscale Al Mansour district.

As is the case with many Iraqis, the father of four depends on his own generator and a communal one that powers the neighbourhood.

“Nearly a quarter of my income, about $1,000, goes to electricity per month in order to keep the lights, AC [air conditioning unit] and other apparatuses on in my home and the clinic,” said Mr Ahmed, 52, a dentist.

Iraq has spent at least $60 billion on the electricity sector since 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, former prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said in late 2020.

Aside from money lost to corruption, much has been misallocated.

The heatwaves that have enveloped the country have led to a huge surge in electricity demand as citizens increasingly rely on air conditioning and other cooling systems.

However, the strained national grid has struggled to meet the increase in demand, resulting in prolonged power cuts and a lack of respite from the oppressive heat.

Last week, the Electricity Ministry announced that power generation stood at 24,000 megawatts, an increase of 22 per cent from the same period last year.

“But that’s still not enough to supply electricity for 24 hours,” Minister Zaid Ali Fadhil told a state-run TV station, adding that demand was about 34,000MW.

Power cuts, which have become a daily occurrence for many Iraqis, have had a devastating impact on everyday life.

Homes, businesses, hospitals and other critical centres are left without electricity for extended periods, leading to disruptions in essential services.

This has spoilt food supplies and heightened health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations.

Iraq’s southern province of Basra, the country’s hottest region, endured a power cut of nearly 24 hours last week before supplies were restored gradually.

“It was like hell,” said Munthir Ali, 33, a supermarket owner in Basra. “Freezers and refrigerators stopped as private generators were not able to work for hours, spoiling all food supplies such as ice creams and meat.”

The country's power infrastructure has deteriorated due to decades of war and neglect, exacerbated by insufficient investment.

The outdated and overburdened transmission network struggles to cope with the demands of a rapidly expanding population.

The situation has led to public frustration and protests, with citizens demanding immediate and sustainable solutions to the electricity crisis.

Many Iraqis argue that resolving this issue should be a top priority, given the crucial role electricity plays in maintaining a decent standard of life, particularly during extreme weather.

“It’s a shame. We are awash with oil revenue but we have not been able to fix our power grid,” Mr Ali said.

To alleviate the crisis in the short term, the government has introduced a rotating power cut schedule in an attempt to distribute available electricity more equitably across different regions.

It offers subsided fuel to neighbourhood generators and sets the tariffs. Offenders who charge above that will be jailed, it warns.

However, sporadic electricity supplies continue to cause significant inconvenience and economic disruptions that affect businesses and productivity.

Despite being Opec’s second-biggest producer, Iraq depends on Iran for about a third of its power needs. When gas supplies drop, several areas in the country are in the dark for hours.

However, since last year, Iraq has taken some steps to develop its natural gas resources and the electricity sector, signing multibillion deals with international companies, including GE from the US and Germany’s Siemens.

It has also awarded deals for renewable energy projects.

Baghdad is also in talks with Gulf states and Jordan to import electricity but these discussions have yet to result in permanent deals.

Updated: June 22, 2023, 5:20 AM