Six weeks after the new prime minister promised the power shortage would be his priority, blackouts have reached a peak – up to 16 hours a day in urban areas and as much as 22 hours a day in the countryside.
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.
But in Pakistan, shortages day in day out highlight chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, long-term planning sacrificed to short-term expediency, lack of leadership, cronyism and corruption.
Peak demand for electricity in the summer is around 18,000MW, but power companies only manage to supply 13,000 to 14,000MW. 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 the 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.
Opposition leaders have sought to make hay, with Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) complaining vociferously that his province is suffering an unfair share of the power cuts.
With polls expected by April and rivalry fierce between the PPP and the PML-N, 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. 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 north may offer more than 50,000MW of untapped hydroelectric potential, but Sattar says power generated from it could be unreliable.
There are currently three nuclear plants generating a total of 740MW of power and there are plans to expand this to 8,800MW, but only by 2030.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2012.
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