Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Summer in Baghdad, the Baghdad furnace…

Suffering from lack of reliable electricity supplies increases as the summer season invades Baghdad, and when temperature averages above 45 centigrade during the long season, life is almost paralyzed when electricity goes off and you can do nothing, not even sleep.

This summer electricity in Baghdad is almost nonexistent, the national grid provides one hour every five other hours; reasons are numerous and government excuses are even more but maybe the straw that broke the back of the camel was the shut down of Biji station which one of the biggest in the country. The reason in this case is supposed to be that the 200 employees and their families were forced to leave the station and their homes at gun point; most of those people are not from the same town or province and they lived for years in a small housing compound near the station and if this is the real reason then I wonder how the government failed to protect those families who live in a relatively easy-to-protect isolated area around the station!

People here had long ago stopped to expect anything good from officials' statements and promises which became a source of inspiration for countless cartoons on the papers and jokes that circulate through text messages and emails.

In general, Iraqis depend on neighborhood diesel generators for electricity, actually these generators have become a good source of income for people who have enough money to install one and would not mind the headache of keeping it. In our neighborhood for example there are three large generators within a radius of 500 meters and their owners compete to have more subscribers. The cost is around 7,000 dinars for the ampere and households would usually subscribe for 5 or 10 amperes which suffice for operating lights, TV, fans, air-cooler and a fridge.
There's some kind of agreement among generator owners here regarding the amount of electricity supplied over the day; these generators do not work 24/7 but mostly 8 hours a day and in many cases the operator would ask the subscribers about their preferences on how they want these 8 hours divided. In our case we suggested the following schedule:

Two hours of supply from 3 to 5 pm: after lunch which is the traditional nap time for most Iraqis who prefer to kill the hot afternoon by sleeping.

Break from 5 to 8 pm so that the generator can get some rest.

Four hours from 8 pm till midnight: this is the golden time for most Baghdadis; people are usually home to watch TV and have dinner.

Another break from midnight to 1 am.

Another two hours from 1 to 3 am: these two hours are critical for going into deep sleep and fans and air-coolers would prepare the house for that; people usually keep the bedrooms' doors shut in order to preserve the cold air for as long as possible after power goes off.

Of course these diesel generators are not problem-free; they are mostly used and not brand-new so they require frequent maintenance let alone their high consumption of fuel (a gallon of diesel costs ~2$) and the owner would always complain to the subscribers from the hardships of his job every time they go to pay the monthly fee and he'd warn from a possible raise in fees or from maintenance that would put the generator out of work for a couple days. And he does that with teary eyes cursing the day that made him choose this job but at the same time counting the money so carefully.

When you stand near any of those generators you'll see a huge mass of wires coming out of the circuit-breakers box. These hundred or so wires usually climb the nearest grid lamp post and pass from one to another for a few hundred meters as the shortest route to the subscribers' homes.

In addition to the owner and the operator/mechanic there's the ladder guy or (Abu il-daraj) and this is a man of great importance in the process; you can always spot him accompanied by one or more of the subscribers tracking wires that occasionally get cut or short-circuit with other wires as a usual consequence for rain or high winds. Of course the wire is the responsibility of the subscriber and he pays for it but the owner would offer his advice for the best choice of wires.

Some time ago there was a suggestion from the electricity ministry for a plan to provide uninterrupted supply of electricity. The proposed plan suggested that each household gets 24/7 of electricity but at a limited amount of 10 amperes each.
I found the plan convenient but unfortunately it was rejected by all district councils after residents' opinions were surveyed.

I asked one of those who refused the plan why he refused it because I thought this refusal made no sense at all; I mean we already are buying the same 10 amperes from local generators at high prices and for only 8 hours a day so why not take 10 amperes 24/7 and at a negligible price?!
He said "I'm afraid if we accept 10 that we will be stuck with 10 forever" and added "do you believe they don't produce enough electricity? They cut it on purpose!".

Such comments often do not surprise me; they originate from the fact that we are not used to trust any government; for decades we kept hearing false promises, so why should we believe them now?
Lack of information also plays a role here; no one knows the facts about the situation of the worn-out infrastructure or amount of sabotage (or amount of possible corruption) and that's why some people think that electricity is available but accuse the government of not fairly distributing it as some sort of punishment.

Anyway, promises about an improvement in power production and supplies by 2008 is not largely convincing to people living under the burning sun of Baghdad under which promises evaporate and dreams of a cool A/C breeze evaporate as well.

Apparently we are destined to have more rough summers.

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