Friday, September 21, 2007

Electricity

Back home in time to hear all about the Petraeus_Testimony (*) and the "surge", certainly of media interest in Iraq. The BBC, apart from focusing on the lack of political progress, mentioned more than once the shortages of electricity and the hum of generators that "is everywhere". It will hardly surprise you that they failed to mention that the situation is considerably worse in Baghdad than elsewhere in Iraq. This is according to a report in The New York Times based on a news briefing on 22 Aug. given by the electricity minister, Karim Wahid, attended also by United States military officials.
The government lost the ability to control the grid centrally after the American-led invasion in 2003, when looters destroyed electrical dispatch centers. [..M]inistry officials have been trying to control the flow of electricity from huge power plants in the south, north and west by calling local officials there and ordering them to physically flip switches. But the officials refuse to follow those orders when the armed groups threaten their lives, he said, and the often isolated stations are abandoned at night and easily manipulated by whatever group controls the area. This kind of manipulation can cause the entire system to collapse and bring nationwide blackouts,

This risks 'seriously damaging the generating plants that the United States has paid millions of dollars to repair'.

Such a collapse took place just last week, the State Department reported in a recent assessment, which said the provinces’ failure to share electricity resulted in a “massive loss of power” on Aug. 14 at 5 p.m. It added that “all Baghdad generation and 60 percent of national generation was temporarily lost.” By midnight, half the lost power had been restored, the report said. [..T]hose blackouts deeply undermine an Iraqi government whose popular support is already weak.

In some cases, Mr. Wahid and other Iraqi officials say, insurgents cut power to the capital as part of their effort to topple the government. But the officials said it was clear that in other cases, local militias, gangs and even some provincial military and civilian officials held on to the power simply to help their own areas. With the manual switching system in place, there is little that the central government can do about it, Mr. Wahid said. “We are working in this primitive way for controlling and distributing electricity,” he said. [..T]he country’s power plants were not designed to supply electricity to specific cities or provinces. “We have a national grid,” he said.

He cited Mosul and Baquba, in the north, and Basra, in the south, as being among the cities refusing to route electricity elsewhere. “This greatly influenced the distribution of power throughout Iraq,” Mr. Wahid complained. At times the hoarding of power provides cities around power plants with 24 hours of uninterrupted electricity, a luxury that is unheard of in Baghdad, where residents say they generally get two to six hours of power a day. Mr. Wahid said Baghdad was suffering mainly because the provinces were holding onto the electricity, but he said shortages of fuel and insurgents’ strikes on gas and oil pipelines also contributed to the anemic output in the capital.

Although a refusal by provincial governments to provide their full quotas to Baghdad could easily be seen as greedy when electricity is in such short supply, many citizens near the power plants regard the new reality as only fair; under Saddam Hussein, the capital enjoyed nearly 24 hours a day of power at the expense of the provinces that are now flush with electricity.

The NYT report also highlights an incident in Basra on 25 May:

Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army carried out a sustained attack against a small British-Iraqi base in the city center, and turned [their control of electricity] to tactical military advantage. “The lights in the city were going on and off all over,” said Cpl. Daniel Jennings, one of the British defenders who fought off the attack. “They were really controlling the whole area, turning the lights on and off at will. They would shut down one area of the city, turn it dark, attack us from there, and then switch off another one and come at us from that direction. “What they did was very well planned.” (23 August 2007, 'Militias Seizing Control of Iraqi Electricity Grid', James Glanz and Stephen Farrell)
(*) Petraeus_Slides (pdf )

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