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In Iraq, Electricity Remains Daily Struggle for Families, Businesses

September 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Power outages are an ongoing frustration for Iraqis. Margaret Warner wraps up her reporting trip to Iraq with a look at how people have learned to deal with a lack of reliable electrical service.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next:Our Margaret Warner wraps up her reporting trip to Iraq, a country facing not only the winding down of a war, but power shortages that have become part of daily life.

MARGARET WARNER: Mofak Mohammed (ph), a 51-year-old father of four, is alone after a day at work.A factory manager nearby lets him tap into its power source a bit during the day, but, at night, he has none.

MAN (through translator):I have a wife and four kids.In this house, we all sleep here on the cold floor, because the heat here is unbearable.So, I sent them away to my relatives’ house.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s late summertime in Iraq, and the living is anything but easy.With daytime temperatures averaging 120 degrees, Iraqis are stuck with only four to five hours of power a day from the national grid.

The electricity shortage affects every activity of daily life, in the smallest homes or in giant hospitals like this one in Fallujah, which has to rely on its own generators.Pediatrician Dr. Samira Abdul Ghani says the acute power shortage is causing major health problems in her young patients.

DR. SAMIRA ABDUL GHANI, pediatrician: Believe me, there are many cases of heat stroke.There are a lot of cases of dehydration.There are cases of exhaustion, simply because of hot weather, and there’s no electricity.

MARGARET WARNER: For smaller businesses, it can be a struggle.Back in Baghdad, Mohammed Kasin carves wooden furniture.It’s hot work, but he gets by.

MOHAMMED KASIN, carpenter (through translator): When we have a break at noon, everyone runs home to take a shower, and we drink a lot of water.

MARGARET WARNER: His boss, shop owner Abdul Amir Kakhim (ph), says, before the 2003 invasion, power wasn’t a problem.And he’s angry that it is one now.

MAN (through translator):Previously, we didn’t have to use a generator, but, right after the war, we got one.I blame everyone, the government, the Americans, and the Iraqis.

MARGARET WARNER: Privately, many Iraqis told us they blame corruption for the power shortages, though they wouldn’t say it on camera. Public anger over electricity did erupt in protests in several southern cities this summer.Rioters in Nasiriyah were driven back with water cannons.And, in Basra, police fired into the crowd, killing two.

The U.S. government says it has spent $5 billion to upgrade Iraq’s electricity grid since the 2003 invasion, and the Iraqi government says it’s laid out an additional $6 billion since 2006, all to build new plants and transmission towers and rehab older plants like this one.

The Doura power plant in south Baghdad is supposed to supply one-quarter of the city’s electricity.Plant manager Ghazzi Essa gives us a tour of his older unit, dating from the early 1980s.He says it’s so worn out that he doesn’t dare run it at full capacity.

GHAZZI ESSA, plant manager:And there is so many parts very — fatigue, and there is leakage.

MARGARET WARNER: Essa knows he’s letting his customers down, but he doesn’t know what else to do.

GHAZZI ESSA: There’s pressure on us, yes, big pressure.It is a very difficult time for us.We are spending 24 hours here.We keep the day and the night here to keep these units and the others in operation.We are here trying our best.

MARGARET WARNER: Actually, Iraq now generates 50 percent more power than it did before the invasion.But, if you live in Baghdad, it doesn’t feel that way, because Baghdadis aren’t allowed to be the energy hogs they were during the days of Saddam.

The government now distributes energy equally across the country, says Raad al-Haris, the deputy minister of electricity.

RAAD AL-HARIS, Iraqi deputy minister of electricity:Yes, during Saddam regime, there’s an order from higher authority that Baghdad should be 20 hours or 22 hours on, and two hours or four hours off.In the governorate, it was vice versa.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s out of the rest of the country.

RAAD AL-HARIS: Yes, 20 hours off and four hours only on.That’s why, during that regime, when you come to Baghdad, you didn’t recognize that there’s a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in fact, the tables have turned.Some other regions, where most of the power is produced, are refusing to send Baghdad its fair share.

That’s the new Iraq?

RAAD AL-HARIS: Yes, this is democracy.


MARGARET WARNER: But the bigger problem, he said, is that energy consumption has soared, doubling in the last seven years.

Shouldn’t it have been anticipated that demand was going to soar?Is this a huge failure of planning?

RAAD AL-HARIS: Exactly.There’s no good planning.They didn’t concentrate, neither the Americans, nor our government, for the electricity.

MARGARET WARNER: The shortages don’t keep Iraqis from buying all the latest energy-gobbling items.We found Muhanned Kadim (ph) in Baghdad’s Karada district loading up electric appliances for his retail store outside the city.

MAN (through translator):I sell all kinds of air conditioners.Everybody is buying air conditioners now.

MARGARET WARNER: Washing machines, refrigerators and water heaters are also flying off the shelves.A lot of the items are cheap, inefficient goods from Asia that further strain the system.Salesman Raheem Badia says the unreliable national grid has created a huge demand for small personal generators.

RAHEEM BADIA, salesman (through translator):Since the fall of the regime, so many new houses have been built, and they’re all using air conditioners.In the past, a house had maybe one.Now it could have three.

MARGARET WARNER: Here’s one way Iraqis beat the power shortage.Entrepreneurs buy giant gas-fueled generators like this one, and plop them down on a city street.They will sell electricity to anyone who wants to tap in and pay the price.

The rat’s nest of wires, what looks like endless tangles and knots, somehow make their way to customers’ homes, like that of Hahlam Ibrahim Ahmed and her extended family.Like many middle-class Iraqis, they cobble together power from the national grid, a neighborhood generator, and a small personal one.

HAHLAM IBRAHIM AHMED, resident of Baghdad (through translator):We have to wait until 1:00 to do anything that requires electricity, like washing clothes.Or if I have to go out and I need a shower, there’s no power to dry my hair.So, the situation changes our life completely.

MARGARET WARNER: But they can only afford to buy enough power from the neighborhood generator to cover them from 1:00 p.m. to midnight, and she’s had to build her life around that.

What about refrigeration?How do you keep your food fresh?

HAHLAM IBRAHIM AHMED (through translator):We cook just enough for dinner on a daily basis.What’s left over, we throw away.Life here is very hard.

MARGARET WARNER: The hard life never seems to end.People fortunate enough to have a personal generator spend literally hours in gas lines, waiting to fill up their car tanks, so they can siphon it out for generator fuel at home.

There are exceptions.The lights never flicker at the open-air ice cream shop we visited last week.The place has been hit twice by terrorist explosions.But the insurance that owner Moustafa Mahmoud Abdullah is most insistent on is what keeps the ice cream cold and the customers happy.

MOUSTAFA MAHMOUD ABDULLAH, businessman (through translator):I have three giant generators, and all the power that you see in this shop comes from those three generators.I never depend on city power, so my generators are running full-time.

MARGARET WARNER: How much does it cost you?

MOUSTAFA MAHMOUD ABDULLAH (through translator):The total cost of running this business on generators alone, to keep all the power that you see, on a monthly basis, is 21 million Iraqi dinars.That’s about $20,000 a month.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a lot of ice cream cones.To Iraqis who are eager for the good things in life, but aren’t making enough money to go entirely off the grid, the government’s response is:Wait.Wait for another two to four years as new plants now being built gradually come online.That’s cold comfort for Mofak Mohammed (ph), whose only nighttime relief comes from a cool tile floor.