Basra, Iraq – As summer temperatures reached scorching levels, hundreds of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest widespread power outages in Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces.
In the oil-rich city of Basra, demonstrators blocked highways and burned tyres last week to pressure the local government into addressing chronic electricity cuts and poor public services.
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Temperatures in Basra have been soaring above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) at noon. Iraqi authorities responded by shortening working hours to less than five, citing extreme heat.
Electricity outages have routinely led to violent protests, particularly in southern Iraq, as successive governments failed to address the recurrent issue in recent years.
Power cuts, the lack of services, and rampant corruption were also among the main drivers of mass anti-government protests that erupted in 2019 across Baghdad and Iraq’s mainly Shia south.
While hundreds of people died and thousands were injured in the protest movement, few demands were met before demonstrations came to an abrupt end in March 2020 because of the spread of the coronavirus.
“Electricity is a basic need. Its shortage is a violation of many human rights, including the right to health, safe housing, education and others,” said Ali al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
During a recent protest, demonstrators in Basra chanted “No, no to corruption” and “All parties are liars” as they promised escalations if the government did not take action.
“We are suffering the same way we did in 2018, 2019 and 2020. There’s a lack of services, poor infrastructure and ongoing electricity cuts,” Abdelkarim Ahmed, a 25-year-old in Basra, told Al Jazeera.
“That is why we’re here asking the authorities to address our grievances and give us our basic right,” he added.
Over the past few weeks, dozens of protesters have gathered in front of the main electricity company in Basra’s Tawaisa district, demanding better services.
Basra’s Governor Asaad al-Eidani warned in a televised address last week that he would isolate Basra’s power stations from the rest of Iraq if the central government does not resolve the crisis.
Ahmed threatened that if the government turns a “deaf ear”, Basra residents would hold a mass protest.
“We only want electricity. Such a simple thing that the corrupt political class has failed to address since 2003,” he said.
Ahmed’s friend and fellow protester, Abbas Hassoun, 24, told Al Jazeera that only six intermittent hours of electricity a day reach his family home, where 16 people, including his sick father and young children, live.
“We’ve been deprived of a basic right. The government needs to devise a long-term strategy for this. Basra has lots of money but it’s not being used for its people,” said Hassoun.
To escape the power outages at home, Sami Mohsin, 38, said he usually drives his children around in the car during the peak hours of the afternoon.
“The car is sometimes the only source of air conditioning, but it’s costly and ruins the engine. I spent $200 recently to fix it,” said Mohsin, who explained that although he pays for a generator, it is only enough to supply the lights and ventilators.
“Some people travel outside Iraq during the summer to escape this, but I can’t afford it,” he added.
With many young Iraqis being unemployed or earning low salaries, their only source of relief during the summer heat is heading to the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river where they gather to cool off.
“I don’t have a job and I can’t afford to pay 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($6.85) to access a private swimming pool. So I come to Shatt al-Arab every day to take a dip and enjoy time with friends,” said Mohammed Ali as he sat at the river.
“I hope they [the government] can build sports facilities including swimming pools. We should get free access because we live in the hottest city in Iraq. Unfortunately, they’re just busy squandering the country’s wealth.”
According to former Iraq Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khateeb, the reasons behind Iraq’s power outages are varied and complex.
“When it comes to developing the power sector, it’s not only increasing power generation that matters,” al-Khateeb told Al Jazeera. “Transmission, distribution, fuel supply, maintenance and management actually cost more and matter most.”
Between 2005 and 2020, Iraq spent about $75bn on investments and operational costs in the sector, which together improved the country’s national grid capacity to 30GW, Al-Khateeb said.
This was a major development compared to about 20GW available at peak capacity in the summer of 2019, he explained, adding these limitations were caused by ISIL targeting power lines, which affected Iraq’s power capacity.
Al-Khateeb said, however, that Iraq’s ageing power distribution grid still required major investment to meet the needs of its growing population. He also highlighted that previous governments failed to implement a long-term strategy for gas production, “leading to natural gas being flared instead of captured at Iraq’s oil fields”.
“Electricity to homes is still heavily subsidised by the government, which has led to a lack of funding for critical maintenance and expansion,” said al-Khateeb.
“Political instability has prevented meaningful reform to Iraq’s power sector, despite the government’s acceptance of recommendations by groups such as the World Bank,” he added.
Iranian fuel cuts
Earlier this month, cash-strapped Iran cut electricity exports to Iraq to put pressure on Baghdad to release payments for power after falling into arrears.
Iranian fuel exports to Iraq can amount to nearly one-third of the country’s supply during the summer months. Calls to demonstrate have raised fears of violent protests that swept through Basra in 2018 and coincided with power cuts from Iran over non-payment issues.
The developments came ahead of anticipated federal elections on October 10, and as Iraq’s Electricity Minister Majed Hantoush resigned, citing popular pressure.
“The resigned minister of electricity was lacking vision and strong leadership,” Harry Istepanian, an independent energy and water expert based in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
He noted Hantoush stepped down a day after popular Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr called on him to resign.
“This shows the ascendency of political influence on the institutional decision-makers. The electricity portfolio is marred by politicians and will continue to remain unsolved until such interferences are ended,” said Istepanian.
“There is no immediate solution for the long-lasting demand for electricity at least in the short term.”
The federal budget for the electricity ministry is about 17 trillion dinars ($11bn), but 85 percent was allocated for operations and maintenance of the existing power stations, he noted.
“Restoring the fuel supply from Iran seems to be the only possible option in the meantime for the acute fuel shortage,” Istepanian concluded.