Flickering flames: Gas crisis adds to homemakers’ woes in Ramazan

For the last several years, there has not been any major gas discovery to compensate for shrinking reserves, creating a demand and supply imbalance in Pakistan.
Published April 9, 2024

Until a few years ago, gas was never a concern for the residents of Karachi. Multiple burners in homes were often lit with constant, reassuring flames, symbolising an uninterrupted supply. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly difficult to keep the stove burning.

Pakistanis are now confronted with the stark truth that the country is running out of gas.

A few days before the month of Ramazan began, the Sui Southern Gas Company Limited (SSGC) assured the public regarding uninterrupted gas supply for Sehri and Iftar preparations. According to the utility’s statement, gas supply would be guaranteed from 3am to 9am for Sehri, the pre-dawn meal essential for fasting, and from 3pm to 10pm for Iftar, the evening meal when the fast is broken.

“SSGC wishes a blessed Ramazan to its esteemed customers and would like to assure them of uninterrupted gas supply for Sehri and Iftaar preparations,” the company said in a statement.

The power utility’s statement — SSGC
The power utility’s statement — SSGC

Despite these assurances, many areas across the city experienced gas shortages during Sehri and Iftar, causing distress to residents, particularly the homemakers who bore the responsibility to prepare meals during the month and feed their families.

Where did the gas go?

According to SSGC spokesperson Salman Ahmed Siddiqui, the “constant eight to 10 per cent depletion of gas reserves in setups owned by upstream or exploration and production companies” is the main reason for the current gas crisis in the country.

“The situation has been compounded by the fact that for the last several years, there has not been any major gas discovery to compensate for shrinking reserves. The declining reserve situation has therefore caused a gas demand-supply gap,” he said.

In July 2023, it was reported that Pakistan witnessed a decline of around 5pc in its domestic natural gas production compared to the previous year.

According to the audit report submitted by the Petroleum Division to the Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) for the year 2022-23, the country’s natural gas reserves were estimated at over 63.248 trillion cubic feet (TCF), with approximately 43.736 TCF already consumed.

As of this year, the estimated proven gas reserves in the country amount to 18.34 TCF, according to the Oil & Gas Journal (OGJ).

Natural gas contributes significantly to Pakistan’s energy consumption, comprising 33pc indigenous gas, 10pc RLNG (Regasified Liquefied Natural Gas), and 1pc LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). However, a 5pc annual increase in demand has led to the depletion of indigenous gas reserves over time, exacerbated by a lack of “substantial new discovery since 2001”.

This imbalance between demand and supply has created a deficit of 0.628 TCF per annum, prompting the import of 0.328 TCF LNG to bridge the gap.

Currently, the shortfall of 0.30 TCF is managed through curtailment and load management across various sectors or is faced by the general public, as stated in the report.

Let’s talk about infrastructure

Decades-old pipelines, forming the backbone of Pakistan’s gas infrastructure, extend over approximately 150,000 kilometres. These pipelines not only contribute to “line losses and Unaccounted for Gas (UFG)” but also lead to fluctuating gas pressure experienced by consumers.

One such consumer familiar with these challenges is Numaira Malik, a homemaker, residing in Karachi’s Federal B Area.

“We don’t have a problem with the gas timings in Ramazan but the main issue is the fluctuation in its pressure. Sometimes, it’s very high and other times it’s extremely low, especially during iftar hours. If we want to cook one thing, we can only keep one burner on while turning off all other burners,” she said.

At the time of Sehri, the gas is completely fine and there is no issue for her, however, preparing Iftar is a different story. “We can turn on all four burners and they work fine. But for iftar, it becomes a problem. We start preparing iftar way in advance now,” she said.

Like other homemakers we spoke to, she speculated that “electric machines” that some people use to ‘pull’ gas can be one of the reasons for the low pressure. “If our neighbours use them, that makes the pressure of gas for us very low. But we don’t know that,” she added.

Malik’s concerns resonate with other homemakers, such as Mona Nayani from DHA Phase-V, who shared similar experiences of dealing with low gas pressure during crucial meal times. She suspects that the use of “electric machines” by neighbours could be contributing to this issue, depriving them of adequate gas pressure.

The challenges extend beyond just pressure fluctuations. At times, gas becomes entirely unavailable, forcing residents like Nayani to resort to alternative cooking methods such as preparing “rotian” for Sehri at night or purchasing chai from hotels to start the fast without having Sehri.

Bari mushkil se Sehri banti hai [The Sehri is cooked with great difficulty]. Sometimes, it’s not even made,” she lamented.

Echoing Malik’s thoughts, she also complained about “machines”.

“Sometimes gas is coming but suddenly vanishes meaning people have machines at their homes. When they switch their machine on, people like us lose access to gas,” Nayani expressed.

“When we visit nearby houses, we notice food being cooked, indicating that people have machines in their homes. This results in us not getting access to gas between the hours when gas is provided. Sometimes, the pressure drops to almost zero, making cooking nearly impossible.”

Occasionally, they also have to buy chai from hotels for Sehri. “Sehri kiye bagair roza rakhna parhta hai [We have to fast without eating Sehri],” she expressed.

Living in Lyari, Saba Naveed also said that even though her area gets gas on time, its pressure only remains good for an hour in the morning and afternoon at its respective times.

“During the week, one or two days the pressure is extremely low where it just slowly goes away,” she added.

A schedule not for ‘all’

Saima Ishaq, a resident of North Karachi, expressed frustration with the inconsistency of gas supply in her area. According to her, gas never arrives on time in the afternoon, consistently running 15 to 20 minutes late.

“Even though the pressure is fine initially, if we want to cook anything after Iftar, the gas pressure is not up to the mark at all. Ap roti nahi bana sakte uspe [You cannot cook Roti using that]. And by around 9 pm, the gas supply completely vanishes,” she said.

Ishaq has no option but to prepare both Iftar and dinner between 3:30pm and 6:30pm, doubling her workload. She explained that after this time, the gas supply was insufficient for cooking anything.

Another significant challenge for women like Ishaq is catering to the needs of younger children. With the gas supply depleted after 9am, she “cannot cook anything for her toddler” or “even heat milk for them”.

“If you have any old or sick persons at home or people who are not fasting, you can’t cook or warm anything for them,” she said. “If I want to make anything for my child, I need to make it during Sehri hours or early morning hours because you can’t cook anything in the afternoon”.

A woman uses wood to prepare Iftar food for her family in the corridor of her home in the Korangi area in March 2023.
— Shakil Adil / White Star
A woman uses wood to prepare Iftar food for her family in the corridor of her home in the Korangi area in March 2023. — Shakil Adil / White Star

These fixed gas timings not only pose challenges for children, the elderly, and those who are unwell but also impact religious minorities.

Angel Thomas*, a Christian resident of PECHS, faces particular difficulties during Ramazan. Since she does not fast, she must either adjust her eating schedule or go hungry for most of the day. “How can I have lunch? Since restaurants are closed, I cannot get food during the day. If I do get takeaway, there is no place for me to sit and eat since the food court is closed,” she said.

Even if she returns home from work to prepare lunch, she encounters the issue of gas unavailability at the time. Consequently, Thomas often resorts to eating items like bread that do not require cooking.

Regarding complaints about gas pressure, the SSGC spokesperson emphasised the connection between gas pressure management and the supply of gas.

He explained that if there is insufficient injection of gas into the SSGC’s system, which is responsible for the transmission and distribution of gas, the company faces low-pressure situations.

“In the current demand-supply gap scenario, the company, however, carries out gas pressure profiling especially at night to ensure that its line pack or distribution system remains sustainable for the majority of the population to keep on getting gas,” Siddiqui said.

Earlier, sources within the power utility informed Dawn that the inadequate and deteriorating distribution system of the gas utility was a primary cause of the city’s low gas pressure. However, they noted that pressure further decreased during Sehri and Iftar due to the simultaneous use of stoves by the majority of the population.

The SSGC spokesperson also mentioned that the company is “implementing a master plan in its franchise areas of Sindh and Balochistan”. This plan includes laying down new gas lines and rehabilitating the old network to improve gas pressure, and supply, and reduce line losses or Unaccounted for Gas (UFG).

UFG is the difference between how much gas goes into the pipes at one end and how much comes out at the other end for people to use.

Explainer: What is ‘Unaccounted for Gas’? — American Gas Association
Explainer: What is ‘Unaccounted for Gas’? — American Gas Association

Previously, there had been reports indicating that neighbourhoods near the infrastructure of the Sui Southern Gas Company Limited, like Gulistan-i-Jauhar and Gulshan-i-Iqbal, had a consistent gas supply, while other parts of the city faced frequent gas problems.

This contrast was evident in the experience of Fatima Ansari, a resident of Gulistan-i-Jauhar, who said she was fortunate to have gas “24 hours of the day” and faced “no problems due to gas”.

When Dawn.com asked the SSGC regarding this matter, Siddique acknowledged that “areas which are at the tail end or are at a sizeable distance from the distribution network do feel the pinch of low supply”.

He said that their “rehabilitation plan includes expanding the distribution network to those areas that are at a considerable distance from the supply lines”.

Over the past few years, SSGC has made significant efforts to expand and upgrade its network, particularly in areas like DHA, Clifton, and old city regions such as Lyari, he added.

The infamous ‘machines’

Munira Ali, who resides near Boat Basin in Clifton, mentioned that the gas supply adheres to the schedule provided by the SSGC during Ramazan but sometimes experiences a delay of about 10 to 15 minutes.

However, when she cooks at her mother’s house on II Chundrigarh Road twice a week, she faces a “very distinct” story. Last winter, they didn’t receive any gas at all, forcing them to install an electric machine. “We live on the top floor of the apartment complex where it is very difficult for gas to reach us because it’s usually consumed by floors that are lower than ours.”

“At around Iftar and Sehri times, we do receive gas, but the quantity is significantly low. With the rush of preparing meals before Iftar, we need to use the machine to pump out gas quickly for timely cooking,” she explained.

Contrarily, Eman Ahmed from North Nazimabad expressed discontent with the use of such machines.

Despite gas supply resuming at 3pm, “its pressure is very low because people with compressors suck it and then we get the bachi kuchi gas [leftover gas] after a while”, she said.

“We resorted to buying an electric hot plate last Ramazan due to the gas shortages. Now when we get gas, we cook using that. Otherwise, we just use the hot plate to cook food,” Ahmed added.

Moreover, she expressed reluctance towards purchasing gas cylinders due to safety concerns such as leakage and the risk of explosion.

Suction pumps or gas compressors are deemed “illegal and dangerous” by the SSGC, as stated by Siddique. He stressed that using compressors is not just unethical but also robs neighbours of gas, which is already scarce.

“Residents in tail-end areas have been found using compressors, with little regard for the risks involved and of course, the law to this effect, since as per Gas (Theft Control and Recovery) Act. 2016, they carry a penalty of Rs1 lakh fine and 6 months imprisonment,” he pointed out.

To combat this issue, the SSGC has taken proactive measures. They have conducted raids on residents using illegal pumps and launched mass media campaigns to raise public awareness about this problem.

“If residents find their neighbours using illegal pumps while depriving them of gas, they must immediately report to SSGC’s 24/7 Call Centre or social media platforms,” he said.

So, what will happen next?

In areas such as PECHS and Nazimabad, homemakers told Dawn.com that despite adapting their routines to the gas schedule, they still face ongoing struggles.

Zulekha Farooq, residing in PECHS, noted that while the gas pressure is acceptable in her area, its timing is not prompt enough, especially in the afternoon. “In the afternoon, it should be coming earlier than it does that is at 3:30pm.”

“For Sehri, timing isn’t a problem, but afternoon gas schedules need adjustment,” she said. Farooq highlighted the challenge of preparing Iftar due to delayed gas availability, affecting their house help’s schedule as well.

“Gas supply should start earlier so that our Iftar can be cooked on time and our house-help can go home early as she also needs to prepare Iftar at her home,” she said.

Lubna Arshad, a resident of Nazimabad, explained that they have “shaped” their daily routines according to the gas schedule, which has enabled them to avoid any problems. “But households with young, elderly, or sick members face difficulties as they need everything [such as food] on time,” Arshad explained, noting the burden on women managing household tasks.

She wondered whether these gas timings would continue after Ramazan. “I hope [the gas] issue can be solved as soon as possible and whatever are its causes, are resolved.”

It’s not just Arshad who has this question on her mind.

Siddique, addressing the future, assured that the gas utility’s “system is more or less intact, contrary to the general perception. Out of 3.2 million SSGC customers, only 1pc is facing supply and pressure issues”.

He said that in Ramazan, due to “greater gas usage”, the “overall supply situation gets affected”.

“Our plan is never to restrict customers to only a certain number of hours of supply. Hopefully, with usage returning to normalcy post-Ramazan, the gas supply situation should improve,” he stated.

*Names have been changed as per the participants’ preferences.

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