What's behind Iraq's chronic electricity shortages?

A demonstrator waves the national flag during a protest in the southern city of Basra on July 14, 2020, as they block the road to denounce the lack of electricity and services. [Getty]
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Iraq
21 July, 2021
Analysis: Iraqis have suffered from 30 years of chronic electricity shortages, with successive wars, international sanctions, mismanagement, and rising demand all playing a part.

During yet another fiercely hot summer, 2021 marks the 30th consecutive year that Iraq has suffered chronic electricity shortages, a truly paradoxical situation considering that country's abundance of oil and gas resources.

In early July, temperatures reached 52 degrees Celsius (125 degrees Fahrenheit). The worsening electricity shortages make matters much worse.

Iraq depends on neighbouring Iran for about a third of its electricity, but Tehran has cut supplies, saying that Baghdad owes it more than $6bn in unpaid bills. On top of this, the Islamic State (IS) group has also been targeting Iraqi power lines.

"Iraqis are presently enduring yet another debilitating summer, and there is still little the government can do to bring an end to this 30-year-old fiasco"

Iraqi Electricity Minister Majed Mahdi Hantoosh submitted his resignation on 29 June as protests broke out across the country. Meanwhile, power outages are regularly lasting 20 hours, with some periods of 24-hour outages hitting both poor and wealthy neighbourhoods alike.

During the 1991 Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein's Iraqi military from Kuwait, US-led air and missile strikes crippled Iraq's electricity infrastructure.

Despite several attempts over the intervening three decades to fully restore electricity in the country, Iraqis still have to put up with a highly inadequate and unreliable national power supply. 

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The effect of UN sanctions on Iraq's electricity

Reuters reported in May 1991 that Baghdad had an "air of normality" in the aftermath of that war, "with traffic jams, bustling markets, and water and electricity 24 hours a day". 

However, this reporting did not tell the full story, as UN sanctions were already taking their toll. In terms of the electricity grid, Iraq was unable to import parts to repair its damaged power stations.

"Without imported parts, power supplies cannot be restored more than they have. So far they've made do by cannibalising what parts they have," Bernt Bernander, the then-UN special representative to Iraq, told the wire service.

That report estimated that Iraqi electricity generation just before the summer of 1991 reached approximately 35% of prewar levels. 

"In the past, international sanctions have prevented Iraq from upgrading power plants and equipment"

Iraq is a flat country, meaning that it needs power to pump water and sewage. In 1998, the Independent reported, "this requires electricity, but output has dropped from 10,000MW eight years ago to 4,000MW today".

By early 2000, the UN oil-for-food programme had delivered over $6bn worth of supplies to Iraq. However, the US held up $1bn worth of contracts for equipment to, among other things, rebuild Iraq's electricity sector. 

"Equipment vital to Iraq's electricity and water supplies are held up. As a result, water is frequently contaminated… and the national grid could completely pack up at any moment," the Guardian reported in November 2000.

In Baghdad in late 2002, the Chicago Tribune reported, "telephone and electronic services" were "spotty but functional". 

"But a look beneath the surface shows the extent of the deterioration, most of it from a decade of international sanctions that have prevented Iraq from upgrading plants and equipment," the report added. 

Paul Bremer. [Getty]
American Paul Bremer, head of the transitional government in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, predicted that he could restore Iraq's electricity to pre-war levels in six months. [Getty]

When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was more careful about what it targeted during its bombing campaign, as it planned to restore Iraq's electricity sector.

Early in the proceeding American-led occupation, Paul Bremer, head of the infamously inept Coalition Provisional Authority that briefly governed Iraq, predicted that the US could restore Iraq's electricity supply to prewar levels by August 2003. 

The task was not an easy one. Looters raided electrical facilities in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion. The Americans quickly found that their modern equipment was incompatible with what was left of Iraq's damaged and antiquated grid.

Furthermore, as the security situation in the country deteriorated, militants frequently bombed electricity facilities and power lines.

Nevertheless, by October 2003, Iraq's electrical output surpassed average prewar levels after reaching 4,518MW for the first time, but still fell short of the 6,000MW the country required at that time.

"Despite several attempts over the intervening three decades to fully restore electricity in the country, Iraqis still have to put up with a highly inadequate and unreliable national power supply"

In 2004, James Glanz wrote in the New York Times that the US had "failed by a wide margin to meet its long-stated goal of reviving Iraq's electricity output".

The US, he added, "missed its goal by as much as 30%, starving air conditioners, lights, factories and oil pumps".

In 2006, Iraqi Electricity Minister Mushin Shlash succinctly summed up how fundamentally important electricity is for his country's survival. 

"When you lose electricity the country is destroyed, nothing works, all industry is down, and terrorist activity is increased".

In the same year, the US Army Corps of Engineers began winding down its efforts to restore Iraq's electricity. Thanks to the Corps' assistance and a commitment of over $4bn, Iraq's output increased by about 2,000MW. This gave the country a potential total capacity of over 7,000MW.

However, plant breakdowns and maintenance issues rendered the grid incapable of generating more than 5,400MW.

Dealing with chronic electricity shortages

For decades, Iraq's growing electricity demand invariably exceeded the available supply, especially as more Iraqis could afford air conditioners and fridges. Iraqi central authorities prioritised its limited electricity supply to essential facilities such as hospitals and schools rather than homes and businesses.

A 2007 report in the Los Angeles Times looked at various ways ordinary Iraqis improvised to cope with the unbearable heat. One computer engineer collected fans from old computer hard drives and powered them with batteries to cool himself. Parents bought small plastic swimming pools to cool their children.

Many Iraqi families sought to avoid the heat inside their homes by sleeping on their roofs. Paranoid that American helicopter pilots were watching their wives and daughters sleep, Iraqi men insisted they completely cover-up. Others slept in their cars with the air conditioning on.

Iraqis sleep on their roofs to escape the heat on 24 July, 2003 in southern Baghdad. [Getty]
Iraqis sleep on their roofs to escape the heat on 24 July 2003 in southern Baghdad. [Getty]

In 2008, Iraq and the US military began erecting solar-powered street lights across the country to keep city streets lit during frequent blackouts.

Given Iraq's extremely hot climate and long summers, solar power seems an obvious solution for the country's electricity shortages. However, the high cost of solar energy, which the US claimed would cost six to seven times more than conventional power, meant it was only practical for powering more small appliances, like street lights.

In 2008, Iraq took advantage of a respite in violence and began repairing damaged power stations and building more infrastructure. The country's electricity production increased by over 10% in the first half of 2008, compared to the same period the year before. 

By 2009, as it grappled with the effects of the 2008 global recession, the US made clear that it could no longer afford to spend billions on Iraq's electricity sector. By this time, Iran was stepping in to supply electricity and fuel to Iraq and had contracts to build power plants there.

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Between August 2008 and August 2009, the availability of electricity in Baghdad increased by nearly 20%. Still, most residents of Baghdad only had electricity for eight hours a day, with those who could afford it relying on private fuel-powered generators. 

Iraq's Electricity Minister Karim Waheed resigned in June 2010 during angry protests over electricity shortages. Growing discontent over electricity raised fears of widespread instability at a time when Iraq's security situation was improving significantly. 

Incidentally, as AFP noted in July 2021, this is "the 18th year in succession that Iraq's minister of electricity has failed to survive the summer season".

By 2011, Iraq had doubled its electricity over pre-2003 levels, increasing its supply to 7,900MW. At the same time, however, demand for electricity between 2005 and 2011 had increased by 73% to 15,300MW.

"2021 is the 18th year in succession that Iraq's minister of electricity has failed to survive the summer season"

Iraqi Kurdistan's electricity situation

While Iraqi Kurdistan, which had been spared much of the instability and violence that plagued post-2003 Iraq, had a generally better electricity supply, it too faced frequent outages.

In 2011, Kirkuk's governor, Najmaldin Karim, disconnected his city from Baghdad's grid and linked it to Kurdistan's. This increased average daily electricity availability to 18 hours

Iraq's security situation dramatically deteriorated in 2014 when the Islamic State infamously conquered one-third of its territory, including Mosul. As the country mobilised to fight for its life, it was clear Iraq could not prioritise efforts to solve the electricity problem.

Nevertheless, electricity shortages returned to the top of Iraq's agenda in August 2015 and even briefly "eclipsed war with the Islamic State" at a time when the group still occupied most of the territory it had conquered.

Iraqis were once again protesting, and the government was once again powerless to meet their demands since the grid could only generate 11,000MW at total capacity, a mere half of what Iraqis needed for the boiling summer months.

Iraqis are presently enduring yet another debilitating summer, and there is still little the government can do to bring an end to this 30-year-old fiasco. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon