Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lack Of Electricity Still An Issue In Iraq

For the last twenty-one years Iraq has had a huge power supply problem. Its electricity network was largely destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War, and while it has recovered since the 2003 invasion, the national grid has never been able to meet demand. Usage has exploded since the fall of Saddam Hussein, because of a huge increase in consumer products available in the country. Baghdad has consistently failed to close the gap, and has faced some monumental failures in its attempts to do so. Kurdistan on the other hand, has almost solved the issue, because of better spending and planning. Despite this history, the new Electricity Minister is promising a boost in output in the summer of 2012, and a final solution to the problem in two years time.

Electricity has been an issue in Iraq since 1991. That was when the Coalition put together to expel Iraq from Kuwait bombed the country’s power network in an attempt to undermine Saddam Hussein’s rule. (1) That, along with the sanctions imposed on the country the previous year for its invasion of its neighbor meant that the country was left with haphazard means to keep the lights on, as it could not get the necessary parts for regular repairs. After 2003, the United States set about fixing the entire grid, spending almost $5 billion by 2011. That set Iraq on the right path to boost its power supply. The problem was that the ending of sanctions opened up the Iraqi market to a flood of consumer goods like refrigerators, air conditioners, etc., which made demand go up faster than supply. Not only that, but most Iraqis do not pay for their electricity, which means there is no control over usage. In the last three months of 2011, Iraq was able to produce an average of 7,434 megawatts. A survey made around the same time found that Iraqi households only got 7.6 hours of power a day from the government. That’s not a consistent supply either. Instead, many residents only get a few minutes each hour, and then the power goes off, to come back on later. Dohuk, Sulaymaniya, and Basra reported the most power per day in the poll. Ninewa, Tamim, Salahaddin, Wasit, Babil, and Maysan had the least. Kurdistan has built five power plants over the last several years, two state-run, and three privately operated, which meet 95% of demand. That’s why Dohuk and Sulaymaniya had the most favorable ratings in the survey, and also skews the national average upwards. The Electricity Ministry has also focused upon Basra, and contracted three floating generator boats from Turkey, and opened two new power stations there to boost output there.
One of the new power plants opened in the last several years in Kurdistan. This one is in Sulaymaniya (NRG Global)
Baghdad is setting about its latest attempt to address this pressing issue. The 2012 budget has a $1.3 billion increase for the Electricity Ministry, which would give it $4.1 billion to invest in infrastructure. The Ministry also announced in February that it is going to sign $3 billion worth of contracts to add 7,000 megawatts in the next three years. Unfortunately, the last time the Ministry said it was going on a major building program it completely failed. That’s why there’s skepticism when the Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan makes announcements like there will be more power provided in the summer of 2012, and that the electricity problem will be solved by 2014. 
A man climbing a power pole in Baghdad showing the mix of government and private electricity lines that are typical throughout most of the country (Al Khafaji Mohammed)
Until the central government resolves the gap between supply and demand, most Iraqis outside of Kurdistan will have to rely upon private generators. Those who can afford it, regularly buy extra power from local generator operators. Even the government ministries and offices have their own generators, because the national grid is so spotty. At the end of December 2010, the government threatened to crackdown on these operators, claiming that they were ripping off the public, but then when protests broke out around the country early the next year, and the authorities changed their tune, saying that they would provide free fuel to local generators instead. This back and forth stance is just another example of Baghdad’s flawed power policies. While there are likely generator operators that do run scams on the public, in general people could not do without the extra power, because the supply coming from the Electricity Ministry is so inconsistent. Any attempt to shut down private operators would have had disastrous affects. Then the government did an about face, and offered to help local power providers, even though reports emerged that this was mostly just words to appease demonstrators. Either way, it showed that Baghdad did not have a realistic approach to the country’s power shortages.

Every year, the central government makes big announcements about its plans to solve the country’s electricity problems. Officials go to the press telling it about the latest multi-million dollar or sometimes even billion-dollar deal with a foreign company to build power plants or install generators. While it’s evident that Iraq is producing more power today than in previous years, it has never been able to get over the hump, and fully meet demand, except for in Kurdistan. In the rest of the nation the larger the contract usually means that it is more likely to fail. The Electricity Ministry has a bad track record of managing and financing these deals; and corruption plays a major role as well. If the central government focused upon smaller projects, it would probably have a far greater success rate, but those don’t get the headlines the larger ones do, so Iraq is likely to be facing this problem for the foreseeable future.


1. Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91


AIN, “Minister of Electricity expects power improvement next summer,” 2/2/12
- “MP rules out improving electric power next Summer,” 2/4/12

Arraf, Jane, “Iraq’s government shuts down amid 120-degree temps – and no A/C,” Christian Science Monitor, 8/1/11

Al-Fahed, Raysan, “Turkish ship power plant for Iraq’s Basra; legislator lashes out at ministers for giving ‘false hopes,’” Azzaman, 4/5/11

Gellman, Barton, “Storm Damage in the Persian Gulf,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 7/8-14/91

Najm, Hayder, “generating wealth from electricity,” Niqash, 12/22/10

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraq Plans To Alleviate Electricity Shortages By Summer,” 3/11/11

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 7/30/11
- “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/12
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/11

Al-Tamimi, Noor, “Two new power stations start operating in Basra,” AK News, 5/17/11

Tuttle, Robert, “Iraq to Award $3 Billion in Power-Plant Projects This Month,” Bloomberg, 2/7/12


Pam Strickland said...

Thank you for continuing to report on Iraq and the conditions the people in Iraq face every day. It is very informative.

Joel Wing said...

Thanks for reading and posting!

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


Excellent observations.

Iraq had a national linear system, with much damage from the embargo and war periods. Any break in the chain and the whole thing falls down.

The US was committed to the big project, linear approach, too. Projects that always seemed to fail or, at best, added only a ripple in a storm tossed ocean.

They should have moved to a cellular and decentralized system (for a lot of reasons), including that you could actually make some place work, it could be easily monitored (grafts and ineffectiveness) by locals (where is our power?), and could build its way across the land, one town or region after another. At least somebody has power, when do we get ours?

Joel Wing said...

Unfortunately, both the Americans and the Iraqis seem hooked on the BIG project even though so many of them have failed. Its like they dont learn.