Electricity: Iraq’s endless shortage

Azhar Al-Rubaie

Jul. 01, 2024 • 7 min read
Image of Electricity: Iraq’s endless shortage Young Iraqis cooling down in Basra’s Shatt al-Arab river. (Photo: Azhar Al-Rubaie)

Many Iraqis rely on power generators as the government struggles to provide consistent electricity.

Ahmed Munir, an 18-year-old student from Nasiriyah, is approaching the end of his secondary education, with exams looming. He told The New Region of the challenges he faces, studying without consistent public electricity. 

“Without proper and continuous power, studying has become difficult and has ruined my schedule, especially in high temperatures without air conditioning to cool our house and my room.” 


In Nasiriyah, where Munir lives, hundreds of protesters poured onto the streets demanding better services, primarily electricity. By putting pressure on the authorities to hear their voices, they shut down the provincial council building, promising not to allow it to open until their demands were met.

As a result, PM Mohammed Shia' Al-Sudani ordered the ministry of electricity to agree to the protesters’ demands to increase the hours of supply, and stop the scheduled power cuts.

He said: “The electricity shortages are still ongoing, that is why we are relying on private generators. People pay as much as 50,000 Iraqi dinars (US$35) for just 5 amperes - not enough to turn on the ACs.


“We took to the streets to demand our right to live a decent life; electricity. It is so annoying that electricity sometimes comes for less than 10 minutes, then it is interrupted, and so on.”

Iraq’s persistent power shortages are no surprise. Decades of conflict, including the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and the first Gulf War (1990-91), severely damaged the infrastructure of power plants and transmission grids.

Even after the US invasion of 2003, improving the electricity grid has remained a troublesome challenge, due in part to corruption and ongoing political and security instability.

There are myriad issues facing the delivery of electricity, but the main complexities are:   

- Outdated grid: The country’s aging electricity grid needs a major upgrade to meet the increasing demand by a growing population at an annual rate of 2.7%.

- Corruption and lack of planning: A long history of poor planning and governance in the power sector, dating back to 2003, has hindered progress in addressing Iraq’s electricity sector. Corruption, political interference, and a lack of expertise among decision-makers have plagued the sector, leading to delays in essential reforms.

- Fuel shortages: Iraq’s bizarre inability to produce sufficient resources for power generation has forced the country to rely heavily on imported fuel, primarily from Iran. This dependency on external sources makes Iraq vulnerable to supply disruptions, impacting its energy security and self-sufficiency.

- Unauthorized use of power: Frequent acts of vandalism and sabotage targeting power delivery in some Iraqi cities, place further strain on the infrastructure. Illegal power usage by locals who live in slums, as well as businesses and farms add an extra burden to the already stressed power system.

- Scorching summer heat: High temperatures put a severe strain on the grid, leading to frequent outages and fewer supply hours as the load on power plants increases. 

For further details, The New Region interviewed Iraq’s former minister of electricity, Luay Al-Khateeb: “From 2005-2020 Iraq spent $35 billion on investment capital expenditures and $40 billion in operational expenditures. This spending upped the national grid capacity to 30GW. In summer 2019, only close to 20GW remained at peak supply, due to capacity destruction by ISIS that removed 6GW which hindered the progress and completion of 4GW.”

On the other hand, a parliamentary committee in December 2020 revealed that the ministry of electricity had spent $81 billion from 2005 to 2019, with no progress in electricity production. Does this indicate widespread corruption and the mismanagement of public funds?


Al-Khateeb added: “When it comes to developing the power sector, it is not only about increasing power generation: the transmission, distribution, fuel, maintenance and management actually cost more and matter most.”


He mentioned that removing subsidies is a must to fully recover the cost of the sold power, and to expand and maintain the grid. It must automate collection and secure 100% collection of unpaid dues without exception, otherwise it is impossible to continue supply, manage demand and maintain the national grid as the population grows.


Long-term deal with Iran

On 11 July, 2023, Baghdad and Tehran signed a deal that would enable Iraq to pay for the natural gas imports from Iraq using oil transfers. The deal expanded last March, as Iraq signed a 5-year-contract with the National Iranian Gas Company to supply Iraq with gas with an average import of 50 million cubic meters per day.

The agreement is supposed to meet the country’s power requirement, especially during hot summers when demand is higher.


Meanwhile, the flow of gas is often disrupted despite the US allowing Iraq to import Iranian gas for electricity. Disruptions occur due to Iran’s own domestic gas needs, alongside the unpaid Iraqi debts for past gas imports.


Iran supplies roughly a third of Iraq’s natural gas for electricity generation. 


In Iraq, summer temperatures regularly exceed 50°. Air conditioning and fans are necessities, and many Iraqis, like Munir, rely on private generators. They can only afford to operate a refrigerator, fans, and some basic appliances.


Widespread corruption

In July 2021 during his weekly meeting with ministers, former Iraqi PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi stated that corruption had seriously damaged Iraq's electrical sector, leading to massive financial losses. Iraq flares around 17.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year. 


For over a decade, gas flaring around the world has been dominated by nine countries: Russia, Iran, Iraq, the United States, Venezuela, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, and Mexico. In 2023, these top nine flaring countries were responsible for 75 percent of global gas flare volumes, while they accounted for just 46 percent of oil production, according to the latest World Bank Report released in June 2024.


Iraq's budget for 2023-2025 was approved at roughly $153 billion per year, raising questions about its legality and the government's ability to fund it. It also raised concerns about the associated debt burden and the country’s ongoing corruption and infrastructure issues.


“It is a nightmare”

Summer in Diyala province, Iraq, morphs into a nightmare for 25 year old Mohammed Gailan, who works from home as a project coordinator and human rights activist. “Baqubah, where I live, is unlike other big cities which have the option of 24/7 private-owned generators operating all the time during power shortages. For instance, our provider takes an 8-hour-break per day from 4am-12pm noon.”

Gailan is one of 41 million Iraqis who suffer disturbed sleep due to high temperatures which persist throughout the summer nights.  


"Imagine I have to check-in at work, but I wake up with no electricity. I usually lose work hours for this reason, but thank God sometimes the electricity powers up as I wake up. This privilege is not available all week.


"Limited access to power led me to lose my appetite. I ended up starting the day in a bad mood, continuous fatigue during the day due to a lack of sleep at night, which again had a significant effect on my productivity at work." 


Gailan pays 140,000 Iraqi dinars (US$100) to access a private generator for 10 amperes, but few can afford it because the city's poverty rate is at its highest.


“These constant outages do not just disrupt my daily routine; they also raise concerns about the potential damage to our domestic appliances. Frequent power cuts and the surges that happen when electricity returns fry lights, refrigerators, and other essential electronics.


“For over two decades, the government has signed contracts with big companies like Siemens and General Electric [GE], yet everyday life shows no improvement.


“I no longer care about their fake fancy promises,” Gailan said: “When it is 50 degrees, all I want is my AC running!”


To diversify energy sources in the country, the Iraqi Council of Ministers has taken significant steps to compensate summertime electricity shortages by approving contracts with two Kurdish companies; Mass Group Holding, to supply power to northern Iraq and the national grid for a period of three months, and KAR Company, which will facilitate the purchase of electricity from Turkey for the same three-month period, with a reduced-price. 


Despite the biggest budget in Iraq’s history, Iraqis sense the government won’t guarantee the basic necessities - such as providing electricity - amid the challenges of rampant corruption. Instability will lead the country into further crisis unless there is political will for changes for the better. 

Profile picture of Azhar Al-Rubaie
Author Azhar Al-Rubaie

Azhar Al-Rubaie is an Iraqi journalist and researcher.


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