In Iraqi Homes, A Constant Battle Just to Stay Cool
In the oppressive swelter of the Iraqi summer, where temperatures reach 110 degrees by morning rush hour, life in thousands of run-down apartments and shops in this once-modern capital revolves around a primitive routine for heat survival. This is the second summer since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and people here widely expected power to be restored by now. Instead, the city’s electricity shuts off four or five times a day under a government energy-rationing scheme while officials struggle to revive a power system ravaged by war, vandalism and years of neglect. When the lights die and the air stops moving, Thakaa Abrar, 45, picks up a newspaper and begins fanning her husband, a customs worker bedridden by a stroke. Her refrigerator is almost empty, a precaution against spoilage, and she will buy only enough food to cook for supper. Her daughter Duniya, 21, fills dozens of soft drink bottles with water, ready to pour into an ancient cooler that pushes air through a filter of wet wood shavings. Even at night, someone must get up every 15 minutes to empty another bottle into the contraption. “This is no way for a family to live. We are tired. Everyone is tired, because it is impossible to sleep,” said Abrar, offering visitors a tray of warm soft drinks in her cramped apartment. “We could never afford to buy a generator. When the pipes break, I have to beg for water in the shops. And with all this terrorism, I can’t even let my daughters go out for ice cream.”
Even in a place accustomed to stultifying summers, the heat seems especially rankling to Baghdad residents this season. In the streets, where traffic is perpetually jammed and many cars are without air conditioning, tempers and radiators frequently boil over in the long lines at checkpoints set up by U.S. Army patrols and Iraqi police.
Obviously, it’s hot in Iraq. It’s in the middle of a desert, after all. But please. The oldest known civilizations lived there and it has been continuously occupied for thousands of years. They’ve had widespread air conditioning for, what, twenty to thirty years? And, rather clearly, the infrastructure was in awful shape before last year’s invasion, so it’s not as if everyone had air conditioning then. Certainly, few of the American soldiers over there have it now.
If one wades far enough into the story, it’s clear that something else is going on:
Iraqi officials said this week that they had made considerable progress in rebuilding damaged power plants and transmission lines but that they continue to encounter vandalism and illegal power diversion. They said that only one gas turbine in Baghdad was in operation and that construction of a second one had been suspended because of terrorist threats. “We are trying to be fair, and we are doing much better than last year,” Electricity Minister Aiham Alsammarae said in an interview. “Our lines can carry the bulk of power with no problem, but the plants are old and poorly maintained, and the terrorists keep hitting us. We can produce 5,200 megawatt hours now, but to keep everyone happy, we need to produce 7,500.”
Alsammarae noted that most electricity was being provided free, because it has not been safe to monitor use or collect fees. He also said many poorer consumers had stolen power with hand-rigged cables, while many wealthier ones had purchased air conditioners and run them at full blast, putting a heavy drain on the system. “People say we have democracy now, and they are free to do whatever they want, so they turn on every light and every air conditioner to the max,” he said. “We are trying an experiment in certain districts, saying that if they cut down on electricity use, we will restore power there 24 hours a day. We’ll have to see how they respond.”
So, the problem is a combination of terrorist attacks and people taking advantage of newfound freedom to upgrade from crude cooling devices to more energy-intensive but modern air conditioning units.
A bit of perspective:
Across town, in a more modern building, a family was watching television Friday when the power cut off. A teenage boy rose from the couch, flipped on a generator switch, and the cartoons flickered back to life. His uncle said he thought people complained too much about minor postwar problems such as lack of electricity. “At least we have freedom now,” said Haider Jawad, 40, an electrician. “My brother was executed by Saddam in 1983, and when I bought a satellite receiver in 2000, I was always terrified of a knock on the door” because such devices were illegal. “People should be patient and give the government time to work on these problems,” he said. “Compared to the past, a little hot weather is nothing.”
One would think.