After a few months in Diyarbakir, I’m flying back to Istanbul later today. I’m not sure for how long, but I hope to be back in my new base camp Diyarbakir very soon. What gives me no choice but to leave now is the totally deplorable electricity situation here, which makes it impossible to write the first chapter of my book. Luckily though, the situation has been rather educational too.
How bad is it? Very bad. The electricity is off several times a day, up to fifteen times, for shorter (2 minutes) or longer (hours) periods of time. I depend on electricity not only for light (and it gets dark at 4pm) and my internet connection, but also for my shower and for heating. I remember a few weeks ago I spent half the day in bed just to stay warm – the electricity was off from when I woke up till about 3pm for two or three consecutive days.
I tried to deal with it, for example by working at night because then the situation is usually better, but to no avail. It exhausted me, made me sleep till noon or later and at 4 it turns dark again – very depressing. Besides, the outages are so unpredictable that you can never plan to do anything at all, from having a few straight hours of work to something as simple as taking a shower. More than once I found myself suddenly under a cold shower in the total dark when I had of course just shampooed my hair. Stay warm by the heater? Think again. And don’t laugh!
“What causes these very frequent power cuts?” I asked the public relations office at the local branch of the state electricity company this week, when I went there to pay the bill. They asked me where I live. I named the neighbourhood, and their answer was ready: ‘There are road constructions going on around there as you know, and this causes some trouble now and then. The good news is: this all ends today, so starting tomorrow everything is fine again!’
I didn’t buy that, and of course it wasn’t true. Road constructions don’t cause ten electricity cuts in three hours. I asked: ‘Does it have to do with people stealing energy?’ They said they really couldn’t go into that.
I know it has a lot to do with the people in my neighbourhood stealing electricity. Recently an inspection was made and I heard from my next-door neighbour that a lot of people were fined for illegal electricity use. She said it can cost up to 2000tl (some €900) and if you can’t pay, you can spend a few days in jail instead. Tampering with the electricity meter is usually done by professional electricians, who ask 300 to 400tl to do the job.
My neighbourhood is ‘medium’
I’m not a power station expert so I don’t know exactly how it works, but the distribution stations just cannot cope with all this pilfering and it leads to outages all the time. That this must be part of the problem is also shown by the fact that poorer neighbourhoods, where more stealing is done, have outages more often. Two friends who live in Diclekent, a richer part of the city, hardly ever experience this problem. My neighbourhood is ‘medium’, and in Baglar, the poorest district, the power situation is the poorest too. I can imagine it’s the distribution stations themselves too that are part of the problem: old ones in Baglar that are not fit to serve the growing population, brand new and modern ones in much newer Diclekent.
Turks often get hot headed about the stealing of energy in the South-east of Turkey. Because all this energy has to be paid for and the richer parts of the country end up taking care of the bills. Of course, that’s not nice, and stealing is wrong. And now I’m going to do a ‘but’.
But, face it, people are poor here. The unemployment rate is around 60%, a local AKP politician recently told me. And if you have a job, the payment is often not enough to support a family, especially not in the more expensive winter months. Please also take a look at the background of people in Diyarbakir. How did this city get so big in the first place? Migration from the villages in the region. In the nineteen nineties, when the army burned down hundreds of villages and took people’s homes and lives away, confiscated their lands and animals and forced them to go to the city. In the villages they didn’t have the burden of paying for housing, they were often self-sufficient, life was cheap. By comparison Diyarbakir is incredibly expensive. Of course, part of these migrants did manage to build a life here, but many struggle to stay alive. Stealing energy is a way to make ends meet.
The little money I spend
But one of my friends in Diclekent told me it’s not only poor people who steal energy: ‘Some people can pay the bill, but have their meters tampered with anyway. They are angry at the state and want to get back at it or just be a nuisance to it. I don’t blame them, even though stealing is against Islam. What the state has done to these people is against Islam too, isn’t it?’
Still, the stealing is, as far as I can see, not the only cause. Part of the problem is that Turkey can’t produce enough energy for the whole country. For bigger cities which contribute more to Turkey’s economy, electricity cuts are considered more harmful, so electricity is directed there, instead of to Diyarbakir. Which causes a viscious circle of course: the power outages hamper Diyarbakir’s economic growth. As if the ongoing Kurdish issue isn’t doing enough of that already.*)
I too am now taking the little money I spend to Istanbul. That saddens me – I would have loved to spend it here. Luckily it’s only temporary: in the spring, when electricity usage goes down again, the situation will improve. I’ll be back in less than two months. Just in time for Newroz, the celebration of returning light!
*) Want to read a blog post about the negotiations between the PKK and the state, the topic everybody talks about in Turkey? You can, on my site Kurdish Matters, in English, Kurdish and Turkish!