Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Power shortages

The power shortage is still the same despite repeated promises and false statements by the Ministry of Electricity. Every now and then they give out a deadline (which is usually at the middle or the end of the upcoming month) in which outages are to be reduced to some unbelievable rates. Last time it was supposed to improve in mid July to 8 hours of outages a day, of course nothing happened and the opposite turned out to be true, the outages were increased to 16 hours a day, after a few days they returned to 12 hours a day.

In Basrah city it has been the same for over a month, 3 hours of power followed by 3 without. At the village where I work, it sometimes goes out for a whole day or more, and sometimes it stays on for a full day at random intervals, no rationing system over here it seems. Needless to say that Basrah (the whole south in general) used to get 2-3 hours of power a day for the last 12 years in order for Baghdad to get a relatively stable supply of power. After the assassination of Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr in 1999 and the small uprisal that followed in southern cities, the government stopped cutting off power at night in an attempt to control the security situation.

I remember a popular joke about the electricty situation from a few years ago; Gabriel had made a special device for God which was basically a large board with millions of tiny light bulbs on it to measure how many people were cursing God or uttering blasphemies at the moment. God was impressed with the device and they both proudly watched as a light here and there went on and off every once in a while. Suddenly a large portion of the board (over 20 million bulbs) lit altogether. God was shocked, and he turned to Gabriel, "What was that?" he asked. "Oh, the electricity just went out in Iraq" Gabriel said. Another related joke, Sajida (Saddam's wife) was sitting all sullen and cursing her bad luck. Someone asked what was bothering her. "It's nothing" she answered, "I just happen to have two widowed daughters, a crippled son, and a maniac husband who keeps switching the lights on and off all day".

As to what people do when the power goes out. It is a long established fact that the majority of Iraqis now own generators (usually 1-5 kV units) or have subscribed to the various 'neighbourhood generators' which were formerly government property. One Ampere usually costs 10,000 Dinars (about 6 dollars) a month. There are some streets in Baghdad where a vehicle higher than 10 feet cannot go through because of the network of wires and cables that go across the street.

Unfortunately, my neighbourhood doesn't have one of these so we have three alternate sources, one being a small 3.5 kV generator, another source is an 'invertor' which charges from a large battery and gives about 4 Amperes for 2 hours (depending on the charging period), we usually use this during the day and save the generator for the night until 1 AM which is when we turn it off. The last source (which is rarely used) is locally called a 'chattal', you only use that when you have an area close by with a different power schedule from which you 'borrow' a few Amperes via an ingenuously concealed cable or wire which are sometimes hundreds of metres long and pass over several houses. This technique was widespread from the days of the former regime. It was (and still is) illegal. The Ministry of Electricity recently started a campaign in various districts of Baghdad to remove these 'tresspassing' wires, they reportedly confiscated hundreds of kilometres of these wires. I believe the whole thing was useless since I am sure new wires were put in place. It might seem logical to advise people to stop overloading the grid, but sadly logic doesn't make sense in an Iraqi summer. Many Iraqis are convinced that the whole power shortage thing is just something to keep people busy, or a 'punishment' as some choose to call it.

The roof is a pleasant place to spend the night especially if washed beforehand and there are rural areas nearby, but in areas such as mine where mortar fire is frequent we can't enjoy such a previlege. The last time I tried I kept glancing at the sky in case there were red bullet tracers, or I would suddenly jump out of bed when an American helicopter would roar across the area flying incredibly low. Sometimes it would take just a small distant boooom to haul me inside to sleep naked on the floor of my bedroom.

Maybe we are in desperate need of an 'electricity emergency law' instead of the one proposed by the current interim government. All resources should be fully directed to restore the power grid to a sufficient level before anything else. I don't think there are any excuses not to do this, it isn't an impossible achievement. True there are obstacles such as the continuous mortar attacks against power stations and sabotage of power lines, no to mention the targeting of foreign experts, but it is doable. Iraqi technicians are efficient enough for the task if they are provided with the neccessary spare parts, something which they have been denied many times so more money gets pocketed by the foreign corporations that are involved in the reconstruction.

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