Baghdad Struggles to Turn on the Juice
BAGHDADThe vendors along the streets of downtown Baghdad tend to cluster their shops according to the wares they have to offer. One street has appliance store after appliance store; another a line of repair shops, and so on.
Scanning the rows of refrigerators and toaster ovens along one of the city's main drags, Joseph Nolin can gauge how well he is doing his job.
"It's going to be a long slog to get life here back to normal, make no mistake," says Nolin, an electrical engineer by training who now oversees reconstruction projects in the Iraqi capital for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "One way to measure success is to look at what the Iraqis are buying today versus what they were buying yesterday."
Now, he says, Baghdad residents are buying up appliances. That tells Nolin two things: first, that the people have enough money to buy goods and, second, that they have enough electricity to use them.
The second deduction is Nolin's primary concern. One of his main responsibilities is reconstruction projects in Baghdad that involve the country's electrical gridwhat's left of it.
In January, the 5 million or so Iraqis living in the capital had to make do with an average of about 4.5 hours of power a day, some neighborhoods getting more and others less. By official statistics, that was about the same as a year earlier but only half the level in January 2005. The power supply increased for the first week in February to about six hours a day, U.S. officials reported.
U.S. and Iraqi officials trying to improve the situation have faced an uphill struggle because of decrepit infrastructure, insurgent attacks, and other obstacles.
"There were no electrical meters under Saddam, so the idea of paying for power is totally foreign to Iraqis," he says, gazing out an SUV window at shop after shop of televisions, satellite dishes, and air conditioners. "When we do manage to get the power on in a certain area, many people will simply turn on all the appliances that they have in the house."
That, in turn, overloads the system, and it fails.
"We could try to build some type of breaker system for the neighborhoods or the houses," he adds. "But then the Iraqis would easily bypass them."
Before the war, Baghdad had from 16 to 24 hours of power a day, supplying most of the needs of the capital while the rest of nation was shortchanged, receiving from four to eight hours a day.
One of the first things that the United States-run occupation authority did after the defeat of Saddam Hussein was to distribute electricity more equitably, increasing supplies to the long-deprived Shiite region south of Baghdad and, in the process, creating considerable resentment in the capital. But the electric infrastructure was in worse shape than officials realized, producing a patter of electric failure worsened by insurgent attacks.
Nationwide, Iraqis now have about nine hours a day of electricity, a figure that reflects the more stable conditions in the less embattled northern and southern regions of the country. Still, overall electric generation remains below the estimated prewar level, according to government reports, despite more than $3 billion in U.S. spending since 2003 to build and repair electrical infrastructure. The State Department reports that the estimated total demand for electricity in Iraq is about double the level of electricity provided.