Iran Gains From Power Cuts

BAQUBA — The crisis over electricity failure grows as summer temperatures climb and a drought plagues Iraq. It is a crisis Iran is using to help Iraqis where the U.S. has failed.

The average house in Baquba, capital of Diyala province north of Baghdad, has less than 12 hours of electricity a day. “I cannot exclude electricity from my thinking; when I think of making any plans, I have to factor the lack of electricity,” says local shopkeeper Abdullah Salim.

With temperatures soaring to 55C, lack of fans and air coolers can put people’s health, and businesses, at risk.

“We cannot work without electricity, because generators are not dependable,” Salman Taha, who owns a mechanics workshop, told IPS.

“When I decided to purchase an updated model of my bakery, I did not think of electricity,” says Mahmood al-Mujamaee. “I could not operate it at all because of the inconsistency of electricity; the bakery needs stable power. It cost around 45,000 dollars. Now, I’m ready to sell for 20,000 dollars.”

But bad as it is, the situation has been improving over the past four months – with Iran’s assistance. The Bush administration and western companies like Bechtel have failed to deliver on promises to improve infrastructure.

“Now, the province gets power from Iran under a contract signed about two years ago between the Iraqi government and Iran,” Naseer Milmy, an employee with the directorate-general of electricity told IPS.

Electricity cuts are now programmed; houses get two, sometimes four hours at given times. This is considered remarkable progress even if the voltage of supplied electricity is often lower than the required 220-240.

“This problem should be tackled by the Iranian side,” said an engineer at the directorate-general of electricity, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is supposed to build voltage regulators each 100 kilometres from the border to the province to avoid loss in the power.”

The Iranians are working on it. “There is another line of power from Iran which is being worked on and should be finished within a month,” Diyala’s directorate-general of electricity said in a statement. “This will have a great effect on the improvement of the voltage and increasing the hours given.”

People have meanwhile had to buy voltage regulators to deal with this difficulty. The price for a regulator for four amperes is 80 dollars, for 20 amperes 200 dollars, and for 40 amperes 350 dollars. People often need to buy more than one. But even so, current voltage is incapable of powering big machines or appliances.

Some local electricians have produced a device to increase voltage. It remains unreliable at best. “Some houses burnt down because of the extremely high voltage from these,” said a local trader. “Scientists will be shocked to see what Iraqis are doing. It shows how much people are suffering.”

A month ago, water pumping got better after a better flow of river water was ensured. This helps people using air coolers operated by water pressure rather than electricity. All kind of air coolers can be operated on only one or two amperes.

But the better water flow may not be here to stay. The water resources ministry has given a drought warning. Following an unusually dry winter, water in reservoirs and lakes is currently just under 22.07 billion cubic metres, down from the previous year by 9.19 billion cubic metres.

“The shortage of rain, which last winter was 30 percent of what it was in previous years, has led to an obvious impact on water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries,” the ministry said in a press release.

Lake Hamrin in the north-east of Diyala has shrunk to nearly half its size and could dry up within two months, ruining the livelihoods of many farmers and fishermen.

“The lack of water from Iran’s al-Wand river and from the Darbandikhan dam in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has caused Lake Hamrin to lose nearly 80 percent of its capacity,” says Mowafaq Hawar Mohammed, an expert at the provincial water resources directorate.

The water and agriculture ministries decided late May to allow planting only of strategic crops like rice, corn, sunflower, cotton, and vegetables. The government has ordered irrigation rationing.

With all this, Iraq has been plagued with dust storms this summer. Every three or four days the sky above Baquba is overcast with dust.

“This make things more difficult with electricity shutdowns,” Luay Ata, father of four, told IPS. “People cannot sleep on the housetops at night where it is cooler.”

Through the difficulties, people look now to Iran, not the U.S., for a better life.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East).