Tuesday, June 29, 2010

No Relief from Sweltering Heat in Iraq

While Iraq’s politicians attempt to knit together a coalition and a new government, everyday Iraqis are left coping with even more fundamental problems: severe shortages in electricity and water. Combined with political limbo and violence, surging temperatures are resulting in a torrid summer in Iraq.

Protests in Basra over the Iraqi government’s failure to provide the population with consistent electricity turned violent when police fired into the crowd on June 20. The crowd had been demanding the resignation of electricity minister. After revolts later spread to Nasiriya, Karbala, Baquba, and Ramadi, electricity minister Karim Wahid al-Aboudi resigned last Monday.

Basra, like most Iraqi provinces, receives about five hours of electricity on the best days and only a single hour on the worst. In recent weeks, electricity has been even more scarce, leaving most Iraqis to swelter in temperatures as high as 120 degrees. Even hospitals, though connected to an emergency power grid, have had power failures during recent weeks forcing some to relocate patients outdoors for the night.

Despite the electricity minister’s resignation, the crisis is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Although he promised that he would "give priority to the electricity sector in the next government," President Nouri al-Maliki also stated that it will be two years until the national grid can provide reliable electricity to the entire country. Now, many families must compensate by buying electricity from privately-owned neighborhood generators, which can cost between $50 and $100 a month.

Electricity is not the only necessity in short supply; persistent water shortages both dehydrate Iraqi civilians and undermine their faith in their government’s ability to deliver basic services. Twenty-five percent of Iraqis do not have access to safe drinking water. As a result, citizens have called on the government to devote more of its budget to revitalize water infrastructure and to implement sustainable management policy. The Red Cross and other NGOs truck thousands of gallons of water to neighborhoods that the dilapidated pipe system doesn’t reach.

Like the Red Cross, other actors have stepped in to fill the gap in basic services. Since the onset of the war, a vibrant Iraqi NGO sector has arisen that provides access to water and other basic services. The Women and the Environment Organization, founded by Iraqi academics, trains women in the Iraqi marshlands to make the most of what natural resources are available through conservation and sanitation efforts. In another project, Muslim Peacemaker Teams are supplying water filtration systems to schools and hospitals because sewage still leaks into the existing water infrastructure.

What policy wonks would call a deficiency in state capacity--Iraq just landed at #8 on Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index--has concrete repercussions for a hot, thirsty population. While non-governmental efforts are invaluable, they cannot replace national infrastructure that will ensure Iraqis a stable, secure quality of life. When the new government is eventually seated, it must deliver on its promises and meet the basic needs of its populace.

This post was written by Anna Mysliwiec.

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