Middle East

Baghdad diary: Searching for power

Street generators and crazy wiring in Baghdad
Image caption Life in Iraq revolves around an endless string of power cuts

Most evenings in Baghdad, after the day's work is done and the scorching summer temperature falls a little, I will sit down to enjoy a few moments of quiet outside on the terrace at the back of the BBC's bureau.

Quiet, if I'm lucky. At some point, the city's power grid may kick in. The huge generator will fall silent and, instead of the din of a thousand diesel engines, the sounds of traffic and birdsong drift gently on the evening air. It is a blissful feeling.

The constant hum of generators may be oppressive to the ears, but in Iraq it is an indispensable part of life.

For many though, electric power has become an unaffordable luxury.

It sounds like stating the extremely obvious, but during the summer it gets very hot in Iraq. I mean really, really hot. Over the past couple of weeks, temperatures in some parts of the country have hit 50C.

Iraq's crumbling power grid supplies most people with fewer than five hours of electricity per day. In some rural areas it is less still. So, life in Iraq revolves around an endless string of power cuts.

Frustration

As the summer temperatures rise, people's frustration has boiled over into anger.

In the city of Basra two weekends ago, demonstrators took to the streets bearing a mock coffin draped in black, inscribed with the word: "electricity".

When the crowd started throwing stones at the local government building, security forces fired back, using live rounds. Two demonstrators were killed.

More protests followed, some of them came close to turning into riots.

Energy Minister Waheed Kareem was forced to resign. His boss, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, asked for patience, saying there would be no quick solution to the problem.

The interior minister meanwhile warned darkly that violent protests would be dispersed using "known methods".

In a country where people have become to an extent inured to violence, this incident, and others, have shaken both the government and the people.

Communal generators

Hussein al-Sharistani is a busy man these days.

In addition to his existing job as oil minister, he has now taken over the electricity portfolio. The rest of his time is spent in so far fruitless political negotiations to try to form a new government.

"The people are frustrated with the hardships they are suffering due to the power shortages," he acknowledged, when we met in his office at the ministry.

That's an understatement. On Friday, I had been to Sadr City, the large Shia neighbourhood in northern Baghdad, just as prayers were coming to an end.

I spoke to the imam at the mosque, Sheikh Jassim al-Mouteri.

"People have been patient long enough," he said. "Where has all the money gone? This must be resolved immediately."

Just up the road, I came across Ahmed Kadem, a local school teacher. Pliers in hand, he was attaching a length of electrical cable to a bird's-nest of wires sprouting from a generator on the street corner.

The power shortages have given rise to a new business: communal generators. A local entrepreneur will power a few dozen houses or businesses with his generator. You can either pay the businessman a monthly fee (typically between $50-100 (£33-66) for domestic use) or try to siphon some off on the sly.

This problem has nothing to do with the political deadlock, Mr Kadem said.

"Go to the Green Zone, and you'll see they have electricity 24 hours a day. They should suffer as we do."

'Bad for business'

Mr Sharistani admitted that, up till now, the politicians have got a better deal than the people who voted them into office. But he said he intended to change all of that.

Image caption Nejim spends half of his earnings on fuel and servicing a generator

"There were strong pressures on the previous minister to supply power to residencies, to government buildings, that I found unnecessary. They should be treated like any other normal citizen. The first action I have taken [as electricity minister] is to treat the politicians like anybody else."

While the problem persists, he believes ministers should suffer the same power cuts as the people.

But Mr Sharistani admitted that the vast building of the oil ministry was not even on the national grid, relying instead on its own generators (paid for, of course, by Iraq's oil revenues.)

But if you run your own business, you have to pay for your own generator.

The other day, I went out to get an ice cream.

Nejim Abed Hashim owns and runs a small shop not far from the office. His ice cream is hand-made by his cousin and, on a hot day, it's absolutely delicious, especially the pistachio flavour.

But Nejim says he spends half of his takings on fuel and servicing for the generator. He has little choice. The national grid supplies his shop with around two hours of electricity during working hours. Without the generators, his produce would turn to sludge.

"It's bad for business," he told me. "The officials should spend the money that has been allocated to improving the power supply to improve the electricity, not to put the money in their pockets."

To be fair, it isn't all the government's fault.

Image caption Desperate Iraqis have taken to stealing electricity

Iraq's power stations were bombed during the first Gulf War. They were then left to crumble under international sanctions, before being bombed again during the invasion of 2003.

The minister told me his government had allocated $7bn to the country's electricity infrastructure since 2006. That is not including the money spent by the Americans on similar projects.

And yet most Iraqis will tell you things have only got worse since then.

Iraq is trying to become a country where problems can be solved by politics rather than violence.

At the moment, the popular perception is one of corrupt officials sitting around in their air-conditioned villas, squabbling over political posts, while the people suffer.