Iraq broils in dangerous 120-degree heat as power grid shuts down

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BAGHDAD – Extreme heat is crippling Iraq, forcing shutdowns in the over-strained power grid as officials extend public holidays to protect workers from 125-degree temperatures.

Iraq is fifth on the list of countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and is warming faster than the rest of the world. Nearly 20 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the country is ill-equipped to deal with the stress.

In the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Kar and Maysan, officials said on Saturday that the electricity grid lost power for a second night in a row, plunging millions of homes into darkness. The food in the fridge went bad. Parents piled their children into cars and drove for hours — the only way to stay cool was the air conditioning in their vehicles.

As of Sunday morning, the governor of Dhi Qar province, one of Iraq’s poorest, said public holidays for state workers would be extended until the start of the religious festival of Muharram on Tuesday, “due to a significant rise in temperatures”.

Ten months after popular cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the most seats in parliamentary elections here, politicians from the country’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions are fighting bitterly over the form of a new government. As a result, no budget has been approved and major spending decisions have stalled.

But with forecasts indicating temperatures of around 120 degrees or higher in most Iraqi provinces this week, the power grid is not the only public service outage.

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Agriculture and fishing, two key pillars of the state’s efforts to wean itself off oil revenue, have been hit hard by the drought. Overstretched hospitals are treating cases of heat stroke or respiratory distress that may have been worsened by the toxic fumes trapped in the air, doctors say.

On the streets of Baghdad on Sunday, young children scooped water from iceboxes, shielding their faces from the sun with sweat-soaked scarves. Experienced traffic cops said their job is getting tougher day by day. “I’ve done this for 16 years,” said Falah Nouri, 37, as he rested on a sidewalk along the Tigris River. “It’s not just the sun. It’s the smoke and how the concrete heats up under our feet.”

He stated that his soles were burned and as a result he wore the shoes recommended by his doctor. “He wants me to take time off, but how can I get time off? We need to work,” said the policeman angrily.

At noon in many settlements, one sound was missing from the usual meal: the sound of construction. Although day laborers usually continued the building boom of Baghdad throughout the summer, it was very hot at this time. On the usually green Abu Nawas street, a construction worker looked dazed by the heat as he slumped against a dead tree. There was no shadow anywhere.

As government power systems collapse across Iraq, sites ranging from state ministries to family homes rely on privately run backup generators and legions of operators working in hot, dark trailers around the clock to keep them running.

But these are their own risks. Powered by diesel fuel, they release toxic fumes into the air, experts say, and make consumers pay high prices for electricity to unaccountable and often corrupt businessmen who own the machines.

In Zafraniya district, southeast of Baghdad, Habib Abdul Khadim, 49, could barely hear his voice over the shuddering roar of his generator. “We’re melting in here!” he shouted. “Me and 40 million other Iraqis, we’re melting.”

The heat was oppressive in his small office, and he said the smoke was forming a kind of film over his eyes.

The district was suffering all around. On the walls of his office, the lists of households with debts for their electricity supply grew longer. In his home, his newborn grandson, Adam, was crying as he struggled to breathe.

“Every year we think it can’t get any worse, but then summer surprises us,” Abdul Khadim said. He looked exhausted.

During the summer months, Baghdad’s heat only subsides when dust storms blanket the city with particles of sand and soil loosened by the wind as Baghdad’s green belt dries up. Thousands of people have been hospitalized this summer with respiratory problems. Doctors can’t do much.

“We give them hydrocortisone and some time away from the storm,” Saif Ali said on a recent day, his emergency room beds still sandy from his patients’ feet. “It’s getting worse every year.”

Iraq’s increasing heat and water scarcity caused by climate change, mismanagement and declining upstream flows There has been turmoil in the past. In the south, conditions are forcing families off their farms and into cities, where dwindling resources are increasing tensions with longtime residents.

In the city of Basra, where residents spent another night without power on Sunday, pollution and toxic waste contaminated the city’s water supply in 2018, sending more than 100,000 people to hospital with abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Mass protests followed, but the authorities crushed them with lethal force.

Across Iraq, small demonstrations protesting poor services occur weekly during the sweltering heat. In Iraq’s marshlands – some of which have now broken mud beds to replace the silver pools where the Garden of Eden is said to have stood – a protester’s sign expressed grief last month.

“If you ask me the status of my land, I will tell you,” it read. “Famine, poverty, forced migration, violence.”

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