Commuters in Islamabad are pictured on a dark street during a power cut. – Photo by AFP
Commuters in Islamabad are pictured on a dark street during a power cut. – Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: India may claim the world’s biggest blackout, but in Pakistan an endemic energy crisis blamed on years of mismanagement cripples the economy and makes millions of lives a daily misery.

Six weeks after the new prime minister in Islamabad promised the shortage would be his top priority, blackouts have reached a peak – reportedly up to 16 hours a day in urban areas and as much as 22 hours a day in the rural parts of the country.

But with political posturing becoming more acute as the weak coalition stutters towards general elections, there is no quick end in sight.

Unprecedented power failures blacked out over half of India for two days last week, affecting more than 600 million people when three national grids collapsed.

In Pakistan, however, shortages day in, day out highlight chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, long-term planning sacrificed to short-term expediency, lack of leadership, cronyism and corruption.

For ordinary people it is almost unbearable, particularly during the holy month of Ramazan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, coinciding this year with temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius.

Peak demand for electricity in the summer is around 18,000 megawatts, with a third of that coming from air-conditioning, but power companies only manage to supply 13,000 to 14,000 MW.

Angry protests and riots erupt every few days and the central bank has warned the energy shortages have effectively put a ceiling on economic growth.

The government’s Planning Commission says power cuts shaved three to four per cent off GDP in the financial year 2010-11, with industry bearing the brunt.

At the heart of the problem is so-called “circular debt”, which the commission says stood at $4.4 billion in 2011-12.

The dual effect of the government setting low electricity prices and customers failing to pay for it means state utilities lose money, and cannot pay private power generating companies, which in turn cannot pay the oil and gas suppliers, who cut off the supply.

“It’s a crisis of management, a crisis which has been born out of indecisiveness, born out of procrastination, not taking the decisions required at the right time,” said Shahid Sattar, the Planning Commission’s member for energy.

He dates the problem to the rule of military ruler Pervez Musharraf, when a massive boom in demand was not matched by investment in new power stations.

Raja Pervez Ashraf, burdened by corruption allegations from his time as water and energy minister but sworn in as prime minister on June 22 after the Supreme Court sacked his predecessor, promised to fix it.

In mid-July, a 12-billion-rupee ($127 million) bailout led to a noticeable let-up in the blackouts, but since then cuts have been as bad as ever.

Opposition leaders have sought to make hay, with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) backing protests and complaining vociferously that his province is suffering an unfair share of the power cuts.

He has been photographed working in a tent, without fans or air-conditioning, as a gesture of solidarity with the sweltering masses.

With polls expected by April and rivalry fierce between the PPP and the PML-N, led by Sharif’s brother Nawaz, there is little appetite for cooperation even on what analysts agree is a “genuine national crisis”.

But neither is there a quick solution for whoever wins. The government needs to pay its bills, but the country also needs to generate more power.

Major projects such as the $12 billion Diamer Bhasha dam, which is expected to generate 4,500 MW, will not come online for another five or six years.

The rivers and valleys of the mountainous north may offer more than 50,000 MW of untapped hydroelectric potential, but Sattar says power generated from it could be unreliable and cannot guarantee year-round supply.

Coal reserves have been found in the Thar desert, but the quality is uncertain and international donors are unwilling to pump money into such an environmentally damaging form of energy.

The government is keen to develop nuclear power as it tries to wean itself off expensive imported hydrocarbons – the country spends 7.5 per cent of GDP on buying fuel, according to the Planning Commission.

There are currently three nuclear plants generating a total of 740 MW of power and there are plans to expand this to 8,800 MW, but only by 2030.

Saeed Alam Siddiqui from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission said two new reactors to be built by the end of 2017 would generate an extra 680 MW.

But as Pakistan is not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it is excluded from trade in nuclear materials and technology, and can rely only on its neighbour China for help.

Parallel efforts to reform publicly-owned generating and distribution companies have met fierce resistance – an attempt to replace the CEOs of power companies last year ended in failure after industrial action.With Pakistan’s 180 million population growing rapidly and demand rising by around 1,500 MW every year, a daunting battle lies ahead.

If no solution is found and violent protests continue, political analyst Hasan Askari warns Pakistan’s ability to function as a state could be under threat. “If these people can challenge one government they can challenge any government,” he said. “Violence and agitation become the normal political style and you never have stability.”

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Comments (18) (Closed)


Raccchhhheeellll
Aug 20, 2012 10:33am
When is the power cut over? is there a certain date/time?
Lahori1
Aug 08, 2012 07:27am
It is a patriotic duty to support all the electricity suppliers - regardless of what they do. The voters come out on the streets to protest the absence of electricity - the government asks not to politicise the situation.
salim mastan
Aug 08, 2012 11:11am
Nepra has not given the tariff for solar power yet the question is why not? the whole world has gone solar as it is so cheap and sun light is free why the delay
Hari
Aug 08, 2012 12:06pm
I would suggest integrate closely all the southAsian countries and form a grid, in that way we can export and import power. I dont know if alteast this we cant be united ,where religion has no role?
Madan
Aug 08, 2012 12:32pm
Good Idea; instead of an occasional total blackouts Indians would start getting a regular 10-hours-a-day load-shedding whereas Pakistan's current and regular 18-hour load-shedding would come down to 10-hours in level with the new scheme for India. I wonder how many Indians would be so altruistic and agree to this kind of "sharing".
illawarrior
Aug 09, 2012 04:21am
The sunlight is free, but the solar panels and inverters are quite expensive
mkhan usa
Aug 09, 2012 04:11pm
Who said it is expensive. Now it is so cheap. I do this business and know it well. Educated yourself before talk. The return on investment is less then 5 years now. what else you want.
Razzaq
Aug 09, 2012 06:08pm
The government neither have a will nor any interest to go solar because it is easy does not need big plants or government involvement. Government fears harm to it's own vested interests in power sector.
A Shah
Aug 10, 2012 08:58am
For Pakistan there is no light at the end of the tunnel!
Ishrat salim
Aug 10, 2012 02:10pm
With due respect....on every forum it has been discussed that the present energy crises is self made.....there was shortage even during last govt but not to the present level which has broken all previous record.The present reason for shortage is mismanagement n corruption in the ministry n department level, if circular debt is taken care off, most of the shortages will be met but need political will..This being part of the vested interest agenda to bring our country on its knees...the govt is not reducing its own expenditure but keeps borrowing from banks but same method cannot be done to reduce circular debt....most of these circular debts are due from the govt depts, presidency n PM house, CM houses etc.....
Ghazanfar Ahmed
Aug 10, 2012 02:25pm
The following is from wikipedia on load shedding with reference to India: Due to a chronic shortage of electricity, power-cuts are common throughout India, adversely affecting the country's potential for economic growth.[3][4] Even in the nation's capital of New Delhi, rolling blackouts are common, especially during the hot summer season when demand far outstrips supply. Rural areas are the most severely affected; it is common for the 44% of rural households having access to electricity to lose power for more than 12 hours each day.[5] The states periodically and chronically affected by load-shedding are Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. The states of Punjab, Goa, Gujarat and Kerala are largely free of any load-shedding due to surplus power. Karnataka still occasionally experiences power cuts.[6]
yogesh
Aug 10, 2012 02:55pm
What was the need to divide the south Asian sub continent.
Syed
Aug 10, 2012 06:24pm
Solar is not expensive. It is better than using UPSs and diesel generators that causes pollution. Instead of giving 12 billion Rupees subsidy to the utility companies government should pay grants and rebates to the residential and commercial customers to install their own solar systems. This is how solar is being promoted in USA and Europe and thousands of MW of solar electricity is now being generated. Two third of India doesn’t even have electricity. They are filling this gap with solar electricity. India and Bangladesh both have gone far ahead of Pakistan in generating solar electricity. Why are Pakistanies keep depending on the government? Why the private companies can not invest in their own solar systems. If people and companies install their own solar systems and those solar systems get connected to the grid, the extra electricity going into the grid will help others. There is a lot of money available for private sector going solar from out side of Pakistan and we can help with that.
Hindi
Aug 10, 2012 11:05pm
After 65 yrs. of Independence both Pakistan & most of India is without 24/7 water & electricity. Years of incompetence & corruption of the Govts. is resposible for the misery of people in Pakistan & India. In India there are some exceptions. Mumbai & Gujarat have 24/7 water & electricity.In Gujarat-a semi-desert state, credit goes to the BJP Govt. led by the incorruptible, upright & focussed Chief Minister ,Narendra Modi. Today Gujarat is the most developed state. Even 18,000 villages, in Gujarat, get 24/7 water & electricity supply.
Amer Rao
Aug 13, 2012 09:17am
its because of Poor National Management [ P.N.M ]
illawarrior
Aug 14, 2012 04:19pm
Private business will ALWAYS invest where there are profits to be made. If they are not investing in this ... one can only ask why? Although sunlight is free, the infrastructure to deliver solar power is NOT. If the price is right ... private companies will supply.
illawarrior
Aug 14, 2012 04:21pm
In countries where electricity supply is reliable 24 x 7 ... the price is terrible
razalex
Aug 14, 2012 07:12pm
When will the load shedding crisis end :(