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Iraq 10 years on: Blistering black-outs

Electrical towers in Basra, southern Iraq. Iraqis receive on average 8 hours of electricity from the public grid a day and many depend on private generators
(Heba Aly/IRIN)

The electricity supply system in Iraq has suffered from decades of neglect and lack of new investment, according to the UN.

It has also suffered from previous wars: the Gulf War, for example, rendered all but two of Iraq’s 20 power-generating plants unoperational, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991. Six months after the end of the war, Iraq had regained about two-thirds of its pre-war output, the report said, but a decade of sanctions made it difficult to replace spare parts and import supplies for repairs.

By 2003, the government had managed to provide acceptable levels of electricity supply to Baghdad, but other governorates received less than the capital.

Electricity production took a major hit after the American invasion. Within a month of the incursion, daily energy production had dropped from 4,075 megawatts to 711 due to post-war looting and sabotage, according to the US Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction. By the time the Americans handed over power to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, production had climbed back up to 3,621 megawatts per day.

Long-term investments made into electricity-generation capacity in recent years have not fully borne fruit, observers say, and have not been matched by similar investments into networks for electricity transmission and distribution. “It’s like pouring water into a leaking bucket,” said Sudipto Mukerjee, deputy head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Iraq.

According to the UN’s Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit (IAU) in Iraq, the electricity supply system is “particularly unreliable and serves its users only a few hours each day.”

Iraqi households receive an average of eight hours of electricity from the public network, according to the 2011 Iraq Knowledge Network (IKN) survey, though the government promises to provide electricity 24 hours a day by the end of this year. In the 2011 IKN survey, seventy percent of respondents reported daily electricity cut-offs of more than 12 hours a day. An additional 26 percent had cut-offs of at least three hours a day. Summer temperatures in Iraq can surpass 50 degrees Celsius.

Conflicting views

Former president Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, is said to have discriminated against the Shia heartland in the south by providing them less consistent electricity access. Observers say electricity continues to be politicized by the government, more consistently provided to some groups for political reasons. However, aid workers say this is not reflected in the statistics.

IRIN interviews with two residents of Baghdad show part of this picture:

Sa’ad al-Shimary, a Shiite government employee, said: “Electricity is not a problem. The government supports us with 10 hours, and the rest we get from the private generator for only US$100 a month, so in my home I have 24 hours of electricity, as do most Iraqi families.”

But Mustafa Ahmed, a Sunni, disagreed: "Before 2003, electricity was bad, and now it's worse. We used to get between 12 to 15 hours of electricity. Now, if we’re lucky we get eight hours a day.”

For more, see this UN fact-sheet on the electrical power sector and the IKN survey. In the latest issue of Middle East Report, Nida Alahmad of the European University Institute in Florence looks at American attempts to rebuild Iraq’s electricity supply immediately after the invasion.

For other development indicators, visit IRIN's series: Iraq 10 years on.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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