BAGHDAD—Temperatures across southern Iraq are so high in the summer months that birds drop dead from the sky due to heat exhaustion. And tap water runs piping hot.
So when Iraq’s power supply faltered this month as a heat wave ramped up air-conditioning demand, it ignited an angry question: Why can’t one of the world’s top oil producers keep the power on?
Protests have rippled through Iraq’s oil-rich south for over a week as demonstrators railed against the government’s failure to provide basic services like electricity, health care and clean water. They have posed a serious enough risk that authorities have shut down the internet and sent in troops to quell the unrest.
Iraq’s electricity sector is a microcosm of the ills plaguing the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Some households receive no more than a few hours of state-provided power a day during peak demand. People who can afford it buy their own generators, or buy from neighborhood generators, when the power goes out.
Among other cities, protests flared again on Friday in the province of Basra, where most of Iraq’s oil is produced.
“Basra is like a camel loaded with gold and fed thorns: it produces 90% of Iraq’s wealth but does not get enough electricity,” said Hamid Hafidh, a protest organizer in the province.
Iraq produces much of the natural gas, gas oil, heavy oil and crude that it burns to create electricity, but most of its oil production is sent abroad as exports, which accounts for the vast majority of its government revenue.
But even if Iraq were to divert some of its oil exports for domestic power generation, Iraq can’t generate the electricity it needs.
Iraqi electricity demand has grown to 23,000 megawatts at peak summer demand, but the country can only produce 15,900 megawatts, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity. Demand will continue to grow by around 7% a year, analysts say.
On top of everything else, the nation still is picking up the pieces after the militant Islamic State destroyed a swath of Iraq’s electrical and oil refining capacity. That degraded a national power system that was falling short before the group began its three-year occupation of the north in 2014. Islamic State inflicted $7 billion of damage on the country’s power system, with eight out of 17 power plants in occupied areas completely destroyed, according to a World Bank assessment.
Iraq has initiated a slew of projects to increase generation capacity, including multibillion-dollar contracts signed with
, but they have yet to be completed. Attempts to purchase more electricity from nearby nations have been stymied or inconclusive.
Iraq had been purchasing electricity from Iran for several years, but Iran cut the power citing unpaid debt and electricity shortages of its own. Ministry of Electricity spokesman Mosaab al-Modares said Iraq has the money to pay, but can no longer transfer the funds without violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The biggest problem, however, isn’t electricity generation, but distribution. As much as 65% of the power supply is consumed by people who illegally tap into the grid or don’t have electricity meters, according to the Ministry of Electricity. Fee collection is also weak. In 2015, its best year to date, the ministry said it collected just 12% of fees.
The government tried in 2015 to collect more fees and stop illegal power consumption, but a popular backlash stalled it. Among the biggest opponents, Mr. Modares said, were private power generator owners, who he says collectively make around $10 billion in annual profits from the government’s failure to provide electricity.
“The situation is completely unsustainable,” said Robert Tollast, an Iraq-focused political risk analyst.
Meanwhile, the lack of electricity continues fuel the cries of protesters complaining about corruption and bad governance.
“It makes no sense that with the huge rise in temperature there is no electricity and the water is so salty that we cannot wash in it because our skin will burn,” said Hussam Hassan, a protester Basra.
—Ghassan Adnan contributed to this article.
Source : WSJ