The South Asia Channel

Power plays in Pakistan

To say Pakistan’s power crisis is worsening on a daily basis is to say the least. With an electricity shortfall that is spiraling out of control and unannounced power cuts of up to 12 hours in many areas of the country, the government of Pakistan is trying to figure out how to pull the plug ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

To say Pakistan’s power crisis is worsening on a daily basis is to say the least. With an electricity shortfall that is spiraling out of control and unannounced power cuts of up to 12 hours in many areas of the country, 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.

The 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. The current government has announced plans to set up power plants and build dams to help generate power, but building power plants afresh takes a lot of time — and a lot of money, which this cash-strapped government will not be able to pay for on its own.

This afternoon, the Karachi Electric Supply Company, which supplies power to Pakistan’s financial hub Karachi, cut off Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center’s electricity supply. The Jinnah Hospital, as it is popularly known, is one of the largest public hospitals in the city, and caters to thousands of patients on a daily basis. KESC said it disconnected the electricity because the hospital owed millions of rupees in unpaid bills. On the other hand, the hospital’s administration said it had asked the Pakistani government for funds so they could pay the bills and would do so within two to three weeks. Yet KESC cut off the supply, affecting the lives of thousands of patients. The hospital’s backup generator could only provide electricity to a few wards. It is a miracle that no one died. After repeated assurances regarding the bill payment, the electricity supply was restored after two and a half hours, yet there was every possible chance that a patient could’ve died in the ER, the operating room, or the ICU.

On a personal note, at my home in Karachi I don’t have electricity for up to four hours a day, every day. 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.

The situation is even worse in Punjab: hundreds of factories have been forced to close down, and protestors take to the streets almost daily to raise their voices against the situation, but to no avail.

In the midst of the outages, provinces and cities trade allegations on the distribution of power resources, power companies (both state-run and private) accuse the other of not paying bills or blame consumers for stealing electricity and not paying bills, government institutions rack up millions in unpaid bills, and protests against the current status quo continue.

Over the past two days, Prime Minister Gilani has been consulting with the Chief Ministers of all provinces, trying to find a way that they can reduce the electricity demand. The finalized proposal includes reducing the workweek to five days from six, ensuring markets are closed by evening and having weddings end by midnight. While these conditions may temporarily help ease the crisis, Pakistan needs power to survive. It’s a thought that the U.S. administration has tried to help address. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on a visit to Pakistan that the country would receive $125 million for electricity infrastructure. Washington’s envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, has raised the issue several times, even giving a collection of fiction containing a short story about an electrician to President Obama to read.

Riots sparked across Pakistan last summer over the electricity crisis a situation that took days to quell.

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.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan.

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