BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s punishing summer heat will fuel angry street protests over the nation’s feeble power supply but the rallies are unlikely to topple the government, even if some ministers are sacked as scapegoats.
The electricity grid, hobbled by years of war and under-investment, will probably supply less than half of Iraq’s 15,000-megawatt peak demand this summer as temperatures head to 50 degrees Celsius plus.
An emergency plan to place temporary generators around the country is a year away and faces major problems, officials say.
The power issue is one of the most visible benchmarks for Iraq’s nascent democracy and among the most frustrating elements of Iraqi life more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed war and chaos.
“There will be crisis and shortage this year,” said Laith al-Mamury, head of contracts and investment at the electricity ministry. “The gas, diesel and thermal turbines which we made contracts to buy will not be ready ... this summer.”
What impact that might have on a fragile governing alliance of Shi’ite, Kurdish and Sunni political blocs is a big question facing Iraq in coming weeks, with sweltering heat likely to drive Iraqis out of their un-airconditioned homes and onto the streets in protest.
“I expect that a lot of people will go out. They will not endure the heat. That will put the government under pressure,” said Yaseen al-Bakri, a political science professor in Baghdad.
“But for the government to resign, no, I do not believe that will happen... I believe there will be firing of some ministers who will carry the burden ... they will be scapegoats.”
Electricity officials concede there will be little change in the power supply this year despite windfall oil profits pouring into Iraq. They expect the summer of 2012 will see some relief, and say the power shortage will end by 2013.
Years of wars and economic sanctions left the electricity infrastructure in tatters and the rebuilding has been slow as Iraq ramps up oil production and fights off a stubborn Islamist insurgency that sometimes targets the power supply.
The electricity ministry has signed multibillion-dollar deals to build power stations and to buy turbines which could add thousands of megawatts, but says it needs more time.
At the beginning of May, for example, Turkey’s Calik Enerji started work on a 1,250-MW plant near the city of Kerbala. But will not be finished until April 2013.
Calik also won a $389 million (240 million pounds) contract last month to build a 750-MW power plant near Mosul in northern Iraq but needs up to 20 months to complete the installation. A $1 billion deal Iraq signed in April with China’s Shanghai Electric (2727.HK) will nearly double the size of a plant south of Baghdad.
Supply this summer is projected at 7,000 MW, enough for just eight hours of power a day compared with peak demand of 15,000 MW, Electricity Minister Raad Shallal said in March.
An emergency plan to install 50 mini-power stations around the country with a total capacity of 5,000 MW could help while long-term projects get under way. But the turbines, which could boost daily supply to Iraqi homes to 16 hours, will not be added to the grid until next summer, the minister said.
Even that plan faces big logistical problems, Mamury said. The stations would be fuelled by diesel, which must be delivered to each location by truck on congested roads in poor repair.
“If all of them work, there will be fleets of oil tankers, because there are no pipes to reach these stations,” he said.
Long before the massive protests that swept the Arab world, toppling autocracies in Egypt and Tunisia and threatening others in Libya, Syria and Bahrain, Iraqis had taken to the streets to send a message to their new, democratically elected leaders.
Protests last summer led to the resignation of then- electricity minister Karim Waheed and awakened officials to public anger. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government this year promised Iraqis 1,000 kilowatt-hours of free power each month. It also cancelled a decision to double electricity fees.
But analysts said public anger may be greater this summer as patience with unfulfilled promises wears thin.
Bahaa al-Araji, a senior member of the Sadrist political bloc in parliament, a key faction in Maliki’s coalition, doesn’t rule out the possibility the fragile coalition could fall.
“If we see that dictatorship in other countries has led to the fall of governments, it is possible electricity in Iraq could lead to the fall of the whole regime,” Araji said.
But analysts note the government may be able to deploy huge oil profits — Iraq budgeted for $76.50-a-barrel oil but world prices have been running around $100 for months — to cool public anger with increased food rations and jobs programs.
“We are facing a considerable increase in oil prices and subsequently high revenues for the Iraqi government. It could play with these revenues to bribe the citizens,” said Yahya Kubaisi, an analyst at Iraq’s Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Yes, there will be protest movements. But we cannot say that these protests will lead to the fall of the government.”
Editing by Jim Loney and Elizabeth Fullerton