Energy-rich countries across the Middle East and North Africa are struggling to keep power flowing to their own citizens during intense summer heat, with Egypt the latest to impose rolling blackouts.
The outages here have prompted concerns that Cairo’s domestic gas supply is running low.
Iran and Iraq, both oil exporters, are also facing blackouts as blistering temperatures envelop the region, with the thermometer reaching 122 degrees Fahrenheit in Baghdad, buckling aging power grids.
A lack of electricity to run air conditioners, fridges and fans led to small protests on the streets of Baghdad this month. Similarly, in some cities in Iran, where electricity usage hit a record last month, the weight of demand has caused power networks to collapse in recent weeks.
The Iranian government shut banks and public offices for two days to discourage residents from going outside in the heat, and officials have urged people to consume less electricity.
In Egypt, analysts say that extreme summer temperatures have been exacerbated by a lack of maintenance of some power stations, rising demand from a fast-growing population and falling output at the country’s largest gas field.
“It’s very likely that Egypt has a shortage in gas,” said Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Production is down and there are no exports at a time when they’re desperate to export.”
The Egyptian government denies it is facing a gas shortage and says power cuts are necessary because of rocketing demand during the heat wave. Blackouts this summer have been especially painful. Temperatures topped 114 degrees Fahrenheit in late July, according to the Egyptian Meteorological Authority.
Still, the country’s gas exports, which peaked in December, according to commodities data firm Kpler, fell to zero in June and rose only slightly in July.
Problems with power and gas supplies were among the grievances that contributed to the downfall of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Electricity outages persisted after President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi came to power, leading him to spend enormous sums to increase the capacity of the country’s power network. The 2015 discovery of a mammoth gas field in the Mediterranean, known as Zohr, allowed Egypt at one point to increase gas production and decrease imports.
But pressure by the government to accelerate the development of Zohr caused water infiltration problems that have persisted and which are in part responsible for lower gas output this year, according to Egyptian officials familiar with the matter.
In a speech in October, Sisi said that he had told Eni—one of the developers of the Zohr gas field—it had 18 months to develop the reservoir, compared with the five-year timeline the Italian firm had proposed.
Egyptian gas output will likely fall to a new three-year low of 64.9 billion cubic meters this year, according to BMI, a subsidiary of credit-ratings firm Fitch, amid “ongoing water infiltration issues” at Zohr. The field has produced about 40% of the country’s total gas output in recent years.
Eni and the Egyptian government say it isn’t true that technical problems at Zohr have caused a decline in production capacity.
“A number of projects [are] now running to improve the processing capacity and…to ultimately sustain the production,” a spokesman for the Oil Ministry said about Zohr.
Cairo is now exploring whether Israel can pipe more natural gas to Egypt, according to some of the officials.
Israel agreed last year to step up gas exports to Egypt for the purpose of liquefying it for re-export to Europe. But when Israeli Energy Minister Israel Katz said this month that his country would increase its own exports, he said that Egypt was facing “a serious crisis” and needed more gas for local consumption.
In poorer parts of Egypt, including in the south, households say electricity cuts are lasting for hours and some complain of lack of water because their water pumps also rely on electricity. Other Egyptians say that outages aren’t equally dispersed and don’t affect wealthy coastal towns of the north including Alamein, where Sisi and the country’s elite are known to spend the summers.
The prime minister’s office said in a statement on Facebook last month that authorities’ power-saving plan excluded three coastal governorates, including where Alamein is located, because of what it said were low consumption rates there.
In the northern city of Port Said, Dina Tal’at blamed the heat during power outages for her 5-year-old son’s vomiting. The family lost electricity for more than two days, leaving much of the food in their fridge to rot as temperatures became unbearable. When the power did come back on, it was only for three hours.
“I have never ever seen such a disregard for the average citizen,” Tal’at said of the government.
Mina Rafaat, a teacher living on the outskirts of Cairo, said her elderly mother fainted after the electricity in their home went off for five hours, leaving them without air conditioning.
“It’s really tough,” she said. “I’m afraid that this will happen to her again since this crisis seems to be persisting.”