Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan

Monday, December 4, 2006

Without Power

The first time I came to northern Iraq, I had to drive in from Turkey because the airport in Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) wasn't up and running yet. I taxied in with two Kurdish businessmen from Turkey who had USAID construction contracts in Erbil. I asked them their opinions on the war and about the problems they faced. The biggest problem, they said, was not violence: It was the lack of electricity.

This company had to pay for its own generator, but the executives said that they were lucky because at least their business could afford it. People aren't on USAID contracts and generators are expensive; a small, used generator that will run a TV and some lights can't give enough energy to run a hot water boiler. It costs at least $1,500 plus a few hundred dollars a month in fuel, which at this point can pretty much only be purchased on the black market due to the fuel shortage.

Living with two hours of power a day is more than inconvenient -- it's unnerving. You can't keep fresh food in your refrigerator, can't take hot showers, can't watch TV, can't work and have to sit in the dark. Without electricity you feel like you don't have many choices, or much power over your own life.

When I left in August 2006, there was between six and twelve hours a day, but now the shortage is much worse. In Baghdad, there's about six hours of power a day; in Kirkuk, it's as much as fifteen. In Kurdistan, it's about two or three hours – and it's really making people angry.

There's no war here, so Kurds are wondering why, three and a half years after Saddam was overthrown and 15 years after the Kurdish government took power, they don't have power. According to Human Rights Watch and other sources, the electricity shortage began when the US took out power plants across Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war, and it grew worse in the following decade. Today, the shortage annoys Iraqis throughout the country; my former colleagues in Baghdad said it made the summer unbearable. But it's the number one problem for Kurds, as their power cuts are more severe and they don't have to worry about violence.

Kurds generally blame the Kurdish government, but many Iraqis argue that the electricity shortage is representative of the US government's failure to reconstruct Iraq. Reconstruction was of course hindered not only by attacks on projects (which wasn't as much of an issue the first year or so) but also by corruption by both Iraqi officials and US government contractors. The US has said it spent $4.2 billion on electricity – so why are the lights still off?

The businessmen I drove in with, Iraqis and even some in the State Department have argued that Iraq may have been more stable if there were services like electricity. It sounds simple, but perhaps the US government should have made providing electricity, water and fuel their first priorities – even above democracy building. Now reconstruction is a difficult – if not impossible – task, except in places like Kurdistan.

2 comments:

Mariwan said...

Great piece! I love it. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Very good piece, informative and well written. I'm attempting to go to Southern Kurdistan next week.