New Internationalist

Lights out

The recent blackouts in Pakistan have plagued cities and the countryside for up to 20 hours a day in some places, bringing industry and even farming to a halt. Riots have sparked across the country over the electricity crisis - a situation that will take months to quell. In the 21st century, when the rest of the world is pushing forward, this country is going backwards rapidly and there is no relief in sight as the bunch of élites rules the masses with their visionless and directionless attitudes.

It is worst in Sialkot, Pakistan's industrial hub, where hundreds of factories have been forced to close down, and protesters take to the streets almost daily to raise their voices against the situation, but to no avail. Imagine coming home in the blazing heat to realize there's no respite from the sun: the house is as hot as an oven, you can't work, finish household chores, watch TV or, for that matter, even get a glass of cold water. 

With a shortfall of 4,700 megawatts, the government of Pakistan is trying to figure out how to pull the plug on Pakistan's energy crisis. Unfortunately for them, it will take more than a bit of effort. Pakistan's daily requirement of electricity ranges between 13,000 and 13,200 MW and falling water levels in the dams has considerably impacted on power generation.

Power and Water Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has increased his promises up a notch and all the officials from Wapda, the water and power development authority, are playing to his tunes. Asharf spends more time representing his party co-chair in TV debates, participating in political negotiations, renaming roads and doing everything else that is not related to his portfolio. The public simply don't believe him anymore. They believe that as long as these thugs and thieves are controlling our power system, it will remain in limbo; we won't get any relief and 'load shedding' will remain an integral and over-whelming part of our wretched lives.

The protests right now are dispersed and not well co-ordinated. But this is just the start of the summer and of these protests. Rest assured, as the summer temperatures get more scorching, the load shedding will increase and it could very soon become a 24/7 situation: the protests will become violent and then eventually out of control. Already the Wapda has started securing its installations and converting its offices into fortresses. But that won't help them much if the people become utterly fed up of their situation. 

Pakistan is among a few countries moving aggressively towards energy saver products. But the major problem with Pakistan's energy crisis is bad planning. Electricity consumption has increased over the years, but successive governments failed to plan for the future. As a result, Pakistan now needs a huge supply of electricity, and has very few power generation plants that can cope up with the demand. A scheme was put into motion by the government for the creation of temporary power plants, but this has been plagued by allegations of corruption. The government, led by President Asif Zardari, says that its predecessor, the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, is at fault, as it failed to add any generation capacity and allowed inter-governmental debt to pile up. The trickle-down effect of inefficiency and mismanagement of the last nine years is in full flow now and the nation is now reaping what was sown by Musharraf's regime. Unfortunately, the elected parliament and government are as dysfunctional as their predecessors.

In the midst of the outages, provinces and cities have been trading allegations on the distribution of power resources. Power companies (both state-run and private) accuse each other of not paying bills, or blame consumers for stealing electricity and not paying bills. Government institutions rack up millions in unpaid bills. Recently, in Karachi, Pakistan's financial hub, electric supply was cut off to The Jinnah Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals, that caters to thousands of patients daily. Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) said it disconnected the electricity because the hospital owed millions of rupees in unpaid bills. Meanwhile, the hospital's administration said the government was unable to pay the bills on time. It is a miracle that no one died at the hospital. 

The government recently finalized a proposal that includes reducing the working week to five days from six, and having weddings end by midnight. But it seems impossible in a country where élites rule. A prime example was Shoaib Malik, a former Pakistani cricket captain, who allegedly violated the government's rules by using excessive power during his wedding reception, in spite of the energy crisis in the country.

The government must implement not just the power-saving proposals but also look towards building power plants and tapping into alternative energy resources. If politicians do not take heed, the government will soon be forced to realize that more than the Taliban, more than suicide bombings, more than insurgencies, it is really the power crisis - the product of years of bad planning at all levels of government - that most threatens Pakistan's present and future.

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