Heatwaves scorch Iraq as protracted political crisis grinds on

Temperatures have soared to nearly 50 degrees Celsius in Baghdad on an almost daily basis amid heated political crisis.

Supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer at Grand Festivities Square within the Green Zone, in Baghdad, Iraq on August 5, 2022 [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]
Supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer within the Green Zone, in Baghdad, Iraq on August 5, 2022 [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters] (Reuters)

Baghdad, Iraq – Under Iraq’s blistering summer heat, thousands gathered inside Baghdad’s Green Zone for mass prayer on Friday.

Some wrapped their faces in cloths soaked in water, others brought bottled water to pour over their heads, many carried umbrellas – all in an effort to bring some relief from the scorching heat.

As the sun beat down on the crowds of thousands packed into the largely uncovered square in central Baghdad, some began to faint.

“It was so hot,” Haafez Alobaidi told Al Jazeera after the prayer called by influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

“When the air was still, I felt like I was being roasted in an oven,” Alobaidi said.

“When there was breeze, it felt like a hairdryer was blowing in my face … full force,” he said.

“You thought living in Iraq would make you get used to this kind of weather, but no, no human beings should live in this weather.”

Heatwaves are sweeping across Iraq.

Temperatures have soared up to nearly 50 degrees Celsius in Baghdad almost daily, and in the southern city of Basra, temperatures have come close to 53 degrees – dangerously high in a country that has a chronic lack of basic infrastructure and services, and is also embroiled in a political crisis.

Every summer, Iraq experiences heatwaves of varying intensities, and this year is no exception.

But this year the intense heat has also been exacerbated by a heated political crisis: A deadlock in parliament that has paralysed the country, including leaving Iraq without a government budget to properly allocate expenses to essential services such as the electricity supply.

Since last year’s parliamentary elections, Iraq has endured more than 300 days without a government.

‘All for Muqtada!’

Though winning the most seats in the parliament, al-Sadr failed to form a government to his liking. He later withdrew his representatives from parliament, resulting in a political stalemate.

Al-Sadr recently flirted with the idea of holding another election. His supporters stormed the parliament building last weekend in Baghdad and remain in occupation there, further complicating the political crisis.

Alobaidi, who participated in the mass prayer on Friday and also helped storm the parliament, said the exertion had nearly caused him to suffer heat stroke.

Asked why he continued to protest in such blazing heat, Alobaidi rose his arm and said: “all for Muqtada!”

Against this backdrop of scorching days and a heated political crisis, there is a caretaker government that, in accordance with the law, cannot set a budget, including for the country’s critical electricity sector.

Currently leading that government since May 2020, Mustafa al-Kadhimi is severely limited in what he can do with state finances.

On May 15, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ruled that the current caretaker government could only implement projects based on the budget set for last year, and only on a pro-rata monthly basis.

Iraq, an oil-rich country, has been exporting record amounts of oil and creating increasing revenue for the country due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and global oil turbulence.

However, with the constraints on budget allocations due to the political stalemate, the government cannot tap into those growing wealth reserves accumulated over recent months as ministries across the government are battling with budgetary shortfalls.

Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity recently announced a state of emergency as the country continues to struggle with peak summer power demands and a less-than-adequate power supply.

The ministry announced on July 30 that it had achieved an unprecedented level of supply with power production reaching 23.25 gigawatts, which is still far behind the amount of power required for people to cope through the harsh summer. According to the ministry, electricity demand in the summer of 2022 will hit a record high of 34.18 gigawatts.

‘Simply impossible to do anything’

There are several causes of the power shortages, said Yaser al-Maleki, an energy economist and Gulf analyst at the Middle East Economic Survey.

“[There are] old power plants that face mechanic difficulties, or plants that are supposed to run on gas but are now running on liquid oil,” al-Maleki told Al Jazeera.

“But at the same time, the ministry simply isn’t prepared for the summer demands because they don’t have a budget.

“What are they going to do for summer 2023 when demand is going to go higher – are we going through another couple of hundred days without a government?” he asked.

The lack of adequate power supply is being felt across Iraqi society where many have been stripped of the means to keep cool as temperatures rise.

In Iraq’s southern provinces, including Basra, on the evening of August 5, when the temperature stayed above 40 degrees Celsius, a malfunction hit the Basra power line feeding Nasiriya, leading to a complete shutdown of all Basra power stations. The city was plunged into darkness before power was gradually returned in the early hours of August 6.

There is a persistent power shortage in the capital city, too. In northeastern Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah district, for example, the national grid has only been able to provide households with roughly six to eight hours of electricity each day, according to a number of residents.

For better-off families, private generators can fill the gaps in power. The cost of running generators varies, based on how much energy is consumed but many people who spoke with Al Jazeera said that they could spend between $100 to $150 per month for a relatively stable electricity supply.

Ahmad al-Zangana, a resident of the district, said he uses a generator to keep an air conditioning machine running at night.

“But that costs me $150 a month – I only do this in the summer because it’s too expensive,” he said.

For the vast majority, paying such a high price for privately generated electricity is not an option. They must find ways to bear the heat.

A boy pours water in his Muqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer on August 5, 2022 [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]
A boy pours water on his face as people gather for a mass Friday prayer on August 5, 2022 [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

Yaser Zalzaly, along with his wife and two children, sat in Abu Nuwas Park on the banks of the Tigris river in central Baghdad, after the midday heat had started to subside.

Watching his children play in the water, Zalzaly told how the electricity supply at his house had dwindled to only four hours a day.

It was nearly 8pm, and the temperature was still 44 degrees Celsius.

“It’s simply impossible to do anything in the house,” he said while using a magazine as a fan to generate some breeze.

“We come here every evening just to leave the heat trapped in our house.”

Source: Al Jazeera