photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, April 20, 2012

Electricity for the rich

Every morning at nine the electricity failed. The roar of the generator starting up filled the street, and a little later the lights were back. Iraq? No, I spent a month in the Lebanese capital Beirut writing my next novel. Yet in this aspect I was reminded of Iraq every day.

How can it be that Lebanon 22 years after the civil war ended still does not have full time electricity? Even though the capital is rebuilt, economics are booming, and Beirut is the hub for many of the rich from the Gulf who spent millions to buy the new luxurious apartments at the Corniche? How can it be Beirut has a superdelux new harbour, Zaytuna Bay, but it does not have access to 24 hours electricity? Surely that would be the priority of any politician?

On my daily walks by the sea I wondered about the background of this. Because if this is happening in modern day Beirut, then what can we expect for Iraq? And what can Iraq learn from what is happening here?

For those of my readers who do not know the situation in Iraq: in Iraqi Kurdistan we have almost continuous electricity in Spring and Autumn, when the air-conditioning is not needed for heating or cooling. Summer and Winter are another story, then generators fill in some of the gaps but not all. The situation is much better than in the rest of Iraq, where in the hot Summers often just a few hours of electricity may be offered by the government.

Both in Iraq and Lebanon the generator is needed. In both countries, there are molida's that serve whole neighbourhoods, as well as private generators that are used for apartment buildings, companies, shops and in some of the richer houses. Problem with the electricity from the molida is that it is not enough to run more than one AC-unit. In Iraq most people solve the problem by using less effective, bulky air coolers.

In Iraqi Kurdistan the situation has improved largely when electricity plants were set up that run on the gas that is available in large quantities in the Kurdish soil. The government in Baghdad is working on power plants that run on gas from Iran, and on oil from its own reserves. Yet nine years after the American invasion, we are nowhere near 24 hours raisy electricity there.

In Baghdad solar panels are used to light the streets, but otherwise this clean energy is not very much in use yet. Partly because the many dust storms lead to a lot of maintenance, partly because the panels are expensive. Yet in a country with a lot of sun, like Iraq, this seems a solution worth considering. 

Back to Lebanon. I asked around what causes the lack of electricity in the mornings and part of the afternoons. The answer is far more simple than one would think. It is money. Influential people are earning money from the petrol that is sold for the generators, and from the running of the generators.For that reason there is no political will to solve the problem.

I think of Iraq, and the rising corruption. Generators mean work. In Iraq, people are often rewarded with jobs by parties and politicians. There are not enough jobs in the government. To get a job running a generator, is a job too. Petrol is business - as we know from the thousands of petrol trucks on the roads in Iraq. So as long as generators need petrol, some people are earning.

Lebanon will never have 24 hour electricity provided by power plants. At least the gaps between the different kinds of electricity can be small - even though I have seen many shops in Beirut that were without electricity at the end of the afternoon, probably because the owners did not want to put a generator on their doorstep, or more simply because they could not afford to pay for the petrol, or for the molida.

The only people who have 24 hours electricity, have enough money to afford it. 

Is this also Iraq's future? I sincerely do not hope so. But who is going to make sure that this scenario will not be followed? It is politicians who earn most by the Lebanese situation. The same could go for Iraq. Will there be the political will to provide what people need: electricity for all?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who needs a phone when the summit is on!

Life came to a standstill for a couple of days in Baghdad. Banks did not transfer money, people did not go to work, and worst of all: no mobile phone networks were available. Not just for an hour or a part of the day, for two whole days, for fear of terrorism.

So fears of terrorism deprive citizens of Iraq of their most essential rights. The Arab League meeting was to blame for this. Arab heads of state and presidents came to Baghdad to meet in the Green Zone. A hundred helicopters were in the air to monitor their safety, thousands of troops were on full alert. Part of the town was put under a curfew. And on top of that mobile telephone networks were cut. The move is part of a security plan approved by the Office of the Commander General of the armed forces.

Even though Iraqi parliament members protested against it, the Iraqi Ministry of Internal Affairs decided to cut all mobile telephone traffic to make sure terrorists would have no possibility to communicate about the execution of any plans concerning the summit.

In Iraq we are used to not being able to use our mobiles at times. When an American military convoy used to pass you on the road, the mobile phone would go dead. When you pass certain government or military buildings in Baghdad, the same happens. We put up with it, understanding the security reasons behind it.

But now the circus of the Arab League came to town.You'd expect extra security, because Baghdad wanted to show the world how safe a place it really is - while the whole world still sees on the TV networks the deadly explosions that target random Baghdadi's. You'd expect that some mobile phone traffic will be cut, at some times. You'd even expect your phone to be tapped to make sure any plans for attacks can be foiled.

But in stead, no phone coverage at all. Just imagine. Little Ahmed falls down the stairs and needs to be taken to hospital. Who to contact, and how? Pregnant Fatima has started her labour, who to contact and how to make sure she gets help in time? And another, almost daily occurrence: a bomb explodes in your street. You can see the dead and injured, and want to contact the police and get ambulances to take care of the wounded. How?

Because of all the violence, Iraqi's are addicted to their mobile phones. 'Did you get to school/home/your friend safely?' is one of the questions you may hear frequently. 'No problems at the checkpoint?' or 'What is taking you so long?' People need to check on each other to make sure nothing has happened. And especially when they hear about an attack, they will grab the phone and inform about the well being of their beloved ones.

Let's not even calculate the cost of all the bank traffic that was not possible because of the networks being cut, or the business transactions that could not be finalized for the same reason. And let us forget about the increase of the prices of food because of the summit and the curfews (tomatoes tripled to 6000 dinar per kilo). Let's just stay with the fact that politicians in power in Iraq feel  that their foreign guests are more important than the people who put them in charge by voting for them in the first place.

Just listen to Prime Minister Al Maliki's speech after the Arab summit. ,,The government is serious in moving towards building projects for the rehabilitation of infrastructure and providing necessary services for citizens'', he said. But not during visits of foreign heads of state, who's safety goes far beyond the well being of the citizens in Baghdad. And worst of all: all those measures did not even keep terrorists from staging bomb attacks. It might even have made it even more interesting for them to show that they were still capable to...