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Posts Tagged Power

Raja Rental Pervez’s Gift: Lights Out

Lights Out

Pakistan’s chronic power shortagesUnknown-20

 

Energy shortages, much like any widespread natural disaster, affect everyone within a given geographic range. Unlike any controversial government mandate, or newly passed legislation, Pakistan’s power cuts do not discriminate. When the population at large is deprived of something widely considered to be a publicly provided good, a common, anti-government animosity can easily fester, transcending social, political or ethnic boundaries.
Pakistani automechanics at a market repair a car during a power shortage in Islamabad late 16 January, 2010.

Pakistani automechanics at a market repair a car during a power shortage in Islamabad late 16 January, 2010.

Pakistan is no stranger to power shortages. For the better part of the past decade, the country has been battling endemic energy droughts, as both consumer purchasing power and demand for electric goods have drastically risen in tandem. Insufficiently robust infrastructure has only compounded the persistent crisis over the years, as has the country’s publicly stated mandate to reduce its dependence on oil by pursuing hydroelectrically produced energy.

With the summer season fast approaching, however, the country once again finds itself mired in an electricity shortfall so serious, its effects may extend across not only economic and social spheres, but across Pakistan’s political architecture as well. 

Experts estimate that, to date, Pakistan remains some 4,000 megawatts short of its power needs—a full one-fourth of its maximum capacity. Although it’s not uncommon to find advertisements or text-messaged promotions for electric generators, such devices are normally priced well outside of most Pakistani budgets.

All across the country, markets and storefronts are closing early, houses are dark, and, for an estimated six hours per day, a wide swath of Pakistanis are disconnected from the world.

The pernicious impact on Pakistan’s economy, therefore, is all too self-evident. A 2008 report from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics estimates that power outages have decreased output by 25 percent across textile factories in the province of Punjab, where much of Pakistan’s textile industry is concentrated.

Meanwhile, governmental response to the energy shortfall has often been heavy on rhetoric, but noticeably light on results. In 2009, Federal Minister for Water and Power Raja Pervaiz Ashraf boldly predicted that the country would enjoy steady access to power by the end of the summer, thanks to a slew of new plant facilities that were making their way down the pipeline.

In April, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani unveiled an ambitious new energy policy, aimed at limiting individual power usage in a wide array of consumer and domestic settings, including neon-lit storefronts and wedding halls.

As the BBC reports, the country’s leaders are also looking into alternative sources of energy, in addition to the hydroelectric-generated power upon which most of the country relies. It has even been reported that the administration may choose to explore nuclear power as one such alternative.

The PM has also promised that his government will grab the crisis by the horns, and has assured that his administration will do everything within its power to further tighten usage quotas. With this new plan alone, officials are hoping to save an estimated 1,500 megawatts per day.

As Gilani bluntly affirmed, “We are taking these decisions in the best national interest.” For the average Pakistani consumer, however, results won’t be apparent until the lights are back on—and until they stay on.

Moreover, by taking such a proactive, top-down approach to tackling the shortage, Gilani and his government are implicitly assuming responsibility for the predicament. The onus is now on the country’s political leaders to not only save power, but to begin work toward installing newer, more sustainable infrastructure within its energy sector, in order to allow Pakistanis greater autonomy over their consumption patterns.

As history has taught us time and again, whenever a palpable miasma of discontent begins wafting through the streets and airways of a sovereign nation, political upheaval is never far behind. Economic hardship breeds social antagonism. And more often than not, that antagonism manifests itself in political tumult.

Some frustrated citizens have already begun voicing their displeasure with the outages in Pakistan, having vandalized cars and other personal property in protest. Time will tell whether or not the governmental leaders are able to douse these flames of acrimony, but the mere fact that citizens have begun taking to the streets in defiant action is still an ominous harbinger, by any country’s standards—and even more so in Pakistan.

A state historically plagued by its fractious ethnic and social composition now finds itself firmly entrenched within a decidedly more Manichean political landscape. At a very cursory glance, Pakistani politics has suddenly become substantially more binary, with upset citizens on one side of the aisle, and elected officials making promises on the other. But should Pakistan’s leaders fail to deliver solutions—and fail to do so quickly—the pupa of public restlessness may soon blossom into a full-blown, political pestilence.

Energy shortages, much like any widespread natural disaster, affect everyone within a given geographic range. Unlike any controversial government mandate, or newly passed legislation, Pakistan’s power cuts do not discriminate. When the population at large is deprived of something widely considered to be a publicly provided good, a common, anti-government animosity can easily fester, transcending social, political or ethnic boundaries.

It would be easy to write off Pakistan’s problems as part of the inexorable and often painful process of development. The country need look no further than next door in India, where, despite having enjoyed sustained and robust economic growth for the better part of two decades, the country still struggles mightily to develop public infrastructure efficient enough to keep up with its burgeoning economy and population. China, meanwhile, has likewise risen to the upper echelons of the world’s economic strata, yet continues to swim upstream against many of the same infrastructural growing pains.

The difference between Pakistan and India, China, or any other mid-level developing country, however, is that the majority Muslim nation’s political might is already stretched thin on one major international front.

It’s no secret that Pakistan is crucial to US military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, and, according to many reports, the Obama administration has made significant progress in stabilizing the notoriously tumultuous Islamic Republic.

Any domestic discomposure spurred by energy-starved Pakistanis, however, could undermine that progress, effectively throwing a major wrench into the machinery powering the coalition-led war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The US, apparently aware of these potentially dire consequences, has already promised more than one billion dollars in energy aid to its critically important ally, through modernized distribution systems, as well as upgraded thermal and hydropower plants.

At this point, however, there’s no end in sight, and as the situation escalates, there’s no telling which party or faction could seize the issue, and use it to their own political gain. And with the impending summer heat raising tempers in concert with the thermometer, it’s impossible to predict how an exasperated voter constituency might respond.

Given the protean political and social winds that have blown across the country in recent years, however, injecting even the slightest modicum of uncertainty into such a brittle body politic is enough to raise the eyebrows of leaders from Islamabad to Washington. 

Electricity, in and of itself, may not be as fundamentally crucial a consumer need as say, clean water or food. But in today’s hyper-industrialized social and economic ecosystem, it’s more or less essential. And if the Pakistani government doesn’t act quickly to provide it on a level that measures up to contemporary standards, it may be “lights out” for many of the country’s incumbent leaders. 

 

Amar Toor – Freelance journalist and former consultant in the Trade and Agriculture Department of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

 

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