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Iraqi voices: Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects

Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops.

By Kael Alford

If there is one issue that symbolizes the difficulties and political turmoil that have beset Iraq over the last decade, it is the country’s electrical system.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

A generator in Sadr City, Baghdad, July 2011.

While the nation of 29 million people is rich in oil, which generates revenue of nearly $2 billion a week, the government has not been able to translate that river of cash into a steady flow of electrical current from its power plants to homes and businesses. According to the Iraqi government’s figures, the grid currently meets 50 percent of demand or less, depending on the region. 

USAID and other international organizations have invested billions of dollars to try to improve the battered system, and progress has been made. But as an October 2009 USAID report noted, such efforts are hampered by the continuing “looting of cables, destruction of high-tension towers and sabotage of fuel lines. … Decades of operation without regular maintenance have resulted in increased breakdown and a need for significant rehabilitation.”

The dire state of the official grid has given rise to a perilous patchwork by the private sector to keep the lights and other appliances on.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Cables reach to a generator on the outskirts of Baghdad, July 2011.

On a typically sweaty July afternoon in Baghdad, as temperatures hovered around 113 degrees, I met a 40-year-old freelance electrician named Majid, who was making the rounds at private residences in the Karrada district.  He was installing a second-hand air conditioner for a woman whose “swamp cooler,”  which functions by blowing air across a reservoir of water, wasn’t working because the city water had been cut for two days.  Majid had been an electrician in Saddam’s elite Republican Guard, and was wearing U.S. military issue boots with thick rubber soles to guard against getting electrocuted while he worked. His only other protection was a pair of pliers with plastic handles. Regardless of these precautions, he said he’s been shocked many times. He said these days Iraqis were all doing their own maintenance work on the city wiring in their neighborhoods and he was one of the best-employed men around.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Majid, a 40-year-old freelance electrician, works on the makeshift neighborhood wiring while a young local resident holds his ladder this summer.

He waxed nostalgic about the electricity supply under Saddam, which was already inadequate. “Then there were only 2 hours in the day and 2 hours at night without power, and we were complaining! We even had one day when there was electricity all day.”  With a half-joking expression he says that people used to complain about Saddam Hussein, “but these days we say, ‘God be Merciful. Let those days come back again!’”

He works from 9 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night and doesn’t ask anyone for a fixed price. He says he’ll accept whatever his neighbors can pay.  “The whole neighborhood depends on me and I’m getting tired,” he said.

In addition to freelance electricians, each neighborhood in Iraq hosts a private generator to augment the official electrical supply. Cables erupt from crude concrete or aluminum buildings containing the thrumming generators and converge and tangle in chaotic knots before finally plunging into homes and businesses. It’s the same in big cities, small towns and even some squatters' camps, all over the country.

The uninsulated cables often stretch and sag, particularly in the summer, triggering fires when they touch one another.

Experts say it’s no secret what the problems are: The Iraqi electrical grid is unstable, hampered by war-torn infrastructure that forces implementation of blackouts to prevent it from crashing entirely; demand that has steadily increased since the 2003 U.S. invasion; and incompetence and massive corruption at the highest levels of the government.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Electric cables to private generators hang above a street in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, July 2011.

In August, Iraqis learned that Minister of Electricity Ra’as Shalal al-Ani had tendered $1.7 billion in contracts to a shell Canadian company and a German company that had gone bankrupt, prompting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to request his resignation and leading to a corruption investigation.

And that may be only the beginning. An International Crisis Group report released in September said that in 2011 the Integrity Commission and the Board of Supreme Audit, two oversight bodies in Iraq, identified hundreds of such shell companies abroad linked to senior government officials in the Defense Ministry and Maliki’s office.

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling

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