Solar Streetlights Come To Baghdad

Baghdad has introduced solar streetlights. It's a remarkable achievement for a country with a war-ravaged infrastructure. But some residents are asking why the government is spending its resources on this while it can't provide electricity to their homes.

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In Iraq, five and a half years after the war began, the government is still unable to provide some basic services on a regular basis. For example, electricity that doesn't switch off every few hours. Now the Ministry of Electricity is putting up brand new solar-powered streetlights to illuminate many main streets in Baghdad. NPR's Peter Kenyon sent us this report.

PETER KENYON: The electricity ministry, a grim collection of dust-covered office buildings behind huge blast walls and heavy security, is not the first place you'd go looking for an Iraqi success story, nor would war-ravaged Iraq be an obvious choice to search for alternative energy breakthroughs. And yet, if you persevere, steering around the high-rise offices housing the senior officials in their meeting rooms, you might stumble upon a patch of trailers and low-slung concrete offices where a small group of Iraqis is quietly bringing a little bit of the 21st century to Iraq.

The tour of chief engineer Anhar Abdullah's(ph) workshop is very quick. A couple of tiny rooms and a courtyard filled with solar panels and metal boxes that will be fitted to light poles around the city. Several thousand are already up, and Abdullah seems proud of what they have accomplished, although he's a bit nervous about publicity. He's a technocrat who works best when he's not attracting attention from the politicians higher up the food chain. Abdullah says keeping main streets lit without relying on the national grid is a tangible benefit to the security of Iraqis.

Mr. ANHAR ABDULLAH (Chief Engineer, Ministry of Electricity, Iraq): I think we reach to improve the security position in Baghdad city, and help defense and the internal ministries to improve the security situation.

KENYON: Abdullah says plans call for the solar lights to be installed on main streets in several Iraqi cities, including Basra, Mosul, Karbala, Hilla, Ramadi, Fallujah, and elsewhere. Although the primary motivation is security, it does tickle Abdullah to think that Baghdad is part of the alternative energy movement.

Mr. ABDULLAH: All the countries in the world always think about alternative energy, so we are one of them.

KENYON: The change along Baghdad's boulevards in noticeable. There are more people out after dark these days. And 22-year-old policeman Ahmad Ali(ph) says the lights do make a difference.

Mr. AHMAD ALI (Policeman, Baghdad, Iraq): (Through Translator) Before, we struggled in the darkness. We couldn't see the cars clearly. But now we can do our job normally, and we feel more confident staying out late in the street.

KENYON: But these Iraqis enjoying a night out are also quick to point out that the novelty of solar-powered streetlights doesn't diminish in the slightest their anger at the government for the fifth summer in a row with barely any power. Twenty-eight-year-old Fouad Mohammad(ph) says in his house the power is usually on for one hour and then off for the next seven. He wonders how Iraq can ever progress if its people exhaust themselves scrambling for the most basic necessities.

Mr. FOUAD MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) We're tired all summer because there's no electricity. We spend all our time and money chasing after fuel for the generators, for water, for gasoline, and for power. This is why we suffer.

KENYON: Officials at the ministry of electricity did not respond to questions about when normal electricity service can be expected in Iraq. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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