A severe and worsening shortage of electricity and gas has been crippling the economy and destroying livelihoods for years, but what will it take to get the lights back on?
HASSAN GHANI, TRNN CORRESPONDENT, RAWALPINDI: We’re overlooking Islamabad from the Margalla Hills. It’s a beautiful view, especially at night. But see if you can spot what’s happening down below.
What you’re seeing is the effect of power outages on the city. Sector by sector, the electricity is cut off for an hour at a time, for several hours every day. Pakistan’s electricity network is struggling to fulfil the country’s power requirements, and it’s wreaking havoc with people’s lives, destroying jobs and even affecting education.
For those without generators or UPS systems, the high summer temperatures coupled with no power to run fans or air conditioners make it near impossible to sleep at night and difficult to work or study during the day.
To further add insult to injury, as the power outages have grown, electricity bills have also risen sharply over the years, adding further strain to Pakistani household budgets.
Occasionally, the frustration, especially among the impoverished and worst affected, boils over into anger and riots on the streets of Pakistan’s cities. This was the city of Faisalabad earlier this month, where furious residents attacked government offices in protest over the situation and were then themselves beaten by the police.
The energy crisis really highlights class divisions in Pakistan. The most affluent areas, like Islamabad, tend to suffer fewer power outages. Here in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s bigger neighbour with many working class areas, the power goes out for around 12 hours a day. But rural areas have it the worst, where the power’s off more than it’s on, with up to 18 or even 20 hours of load-shedding a day.
This is a printing press in Rawalpindi’s Saddar district. Like many small businesses dependent on the mains supply, work comes to a standstill several times a day as the power goes off, the workers left languishing in the heat.
By the time we’re ready to start our interview, the power has indeed been cut, to nobody’s surprise. For the last few weeks, as the temperature has risen, load-shedding has been even worse than normal here.
M MURSALEN, POLYGON PRINTING PRESS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Load-shedding has made life extremely difficult. All printing machinery runs on electricity, so when there’s no power, our work suffers a lot. If you have expensive machinery and it isn’t working, you’re going to suffer losses. It’s at the point where we use our savings (to pay workers). God only knows how we’re still open. The light is on for 2 or 3 hours, then we suffer without for 3 or 4 hours. We request from the new government that they make load-shedding their first priority. You can see the darkness here in front of you.
GHANI: The power outages have been ongoing for several years, worsening under the last government. They’ve crippled businesses and industry, particularly those unable to afford to run their own generators.
But there’s another destructive consequence to this crisis. This is the University of Management and Technology in Lahore. It boasts more than 6,000 students and an excellent academic record. But here too, life has become an exercise in frustration, as the students find their lessons interrupted and scientific experiments disrupted.
HIRA FAROOQ, LECTURER IN APPLIED PHYSICS, UMT: This happens mostly in the lab, because we have lab for three consecutive hours. Right? And the lab is, like, ongoing throughout, because there are a lot of students, a lot of classes, so a lot of labs going on. So whenever, like, there is a power failure, the students who were already taking the data, they’re all lost, because they have to go through the same system again to the forefront, where they started it, and take that data again, because it’s, like, consecutive data that is coming, because they have just three hours lab and they have to perform one experiment, and they might be unable to perform that.
Students physically suffer as well, because, you see, when I’m taking a lecture, I suffer myself physically because I’m unable to deliver the lecture with no light or light coming in and out. I have the multimedia on. For one and a half hours, if I teach in a room which is having a temperature of, like, 40, or 41, or 46, like nowadays it’s going on, so I will not be able to deliver my lecture with the same energy as I would have with a better environment. Same as with the students. They’re going to lack concentration.
GHANI: To help, the University has been working to reduce overall power usage and investing vast sums of money into newer and bigger generators that can match the mains supply. But that’s money that would have otherwise gone towards improving educational facilities.
FAROOQ: While the university has to incorporate the research and development scholarships and everything, area like that, their priority would be shifted towards taking control of the electricity and taking control of the energy. When I see the students, they say, this is the thing, how do we study, we don’t have light at home, we don’t have light over here, so how can we study actually, and they’re losing their interest towards studies, because the environment is not friendly at all. So if the environment is not friendly at all, they might be losing more of their interest, and it would be badly, badly affecting our young generation.
GHANI: But of course, it’s rural areas that are hit hardest.
This is Maqsood Ilahi, proud grandfather of two. He lives in the village of Sood Gangal, west of Rawalpindi, where the summer temperature sits at around 45 degrees Celsius. He remembers a time when the electricity supply was relatively reliable and the electricity bill reasonable.
MAQSOOD ILAHI, RESIDENT OF SOOD GANGAL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There was load-shedding five years ago, but not as much as this. In 24 hours, there was maybe two or three hours of load-shedding. But in those last five years, they’ve pushed us back into the stone ages. Now it goes for 18 or 20 hours on a daily basis. Neither the children nor the adults can sleep. It’s hot during the day and hot at night. You can’t relax during the day or at night. In my opinion, these people sitting in Islamabad, under the air conditioning, they only consider themselves human beings, only they are the “public” that deserves facilities. The rest of us in the villages, or the other poor classes, whether in villages or cities, we’re just like garbage, just cattle, not human beings; we can just be left like animals.
GHANI: And the chronic energy shortages are not limited solely to electricity.
Many vehicles in Pakistan, especially small ones like this, and public transport like taxis, vans and buses, run on compressed natural gas. It’s a much cheaper alternative to petrol. But it too is being rationed. Here in Punjab province, at best, the gas stations are open for three or four days a week, and this is the queue to get in.
This is a quiet period. On Monday mornings, when the gas pressure is first turned on, the queue can stretch for half a mile, leaving drivers standing in line for hours.
The gas shortages also hit domestic supplies, households in rural areas again the worst affected.
Mazhar is a Rawalpindi taxi driver. He doesn’t earn particularly much, but he’s finding his income being squeezed even further as natural gas is rationed and customers are unhappy about paying more to cover the raised costs of running on petrol.
MAZHAR, RAWALPINDI TAXI DRIVER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This time the gas has been closed for a whole week. And this is a real cause of worry for us, and for our customers, for everyone. It especially worries us because this is the only source of income for us and our children. If you look at basic life necessities, the cost of 20 kilograms of flour has gone from 300 to 800 rupees. Oil was 80 rupees per kilogram. It’s now 300 rupees. Nothing is cheap anymore. Only humans are still cheap. Nobody drives a taxi by choice, only through necessity. Now it’s a become an incredibly difficult job, in fact impossible. If you go back ten years, driving was great work. Now even feeding the kids is difficult. The children don’t relax, and we don’t relax. Where we used to drive for 4 or 5 hours, we now drive for 16 or 18 hours, and it’s still not the same, because the price of everything is so high.
GHANI: It’s worth mentioning that in Pakistan vehicles are retrofitted with CNG kits of varying quality, and substandard gas cylinders have led to explosions in the past, with fatal consequences. But its affordability means the working classes have little choice but to use CNG.
So what’s going on? Why is Pakistan, a nuclear power that had a surplus of electricity production a decade ago, today unable to fulfil the basic energy needs of its own citizens? Let’s start with electricity.
DR. SAMAR MUBARAKMAND, NUCLEAR SCIENTIST AND ENERGY DEVELOPMENT EXPERT: The installed power generation capacity in the country is in excess of 20 thousand megawatts, and the demand is about 16,000 to 17,000 maximum. So if all the installed capacity is in operation, we should be generating more than the required amount of electricity.
GHANI: Dr. Samar Mubarakmand is a well-respected nuclear physicist and energy expert, at one point the head of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission. He played a leading role in developing Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Today, he’s working on developing new power projects to secure the country’s energy needs in the long term.
He says the failure of previous governments to invest in new energy projects is part of the problem, while existing power plants are not in good health.
On top of that, the government doesn’t pay power companies on time, so they don’t pay fuel companies on time, who then don’t supply enough fuel to run the power plants at full capacity.
MUBARAKMAND: Average power generation cost from our plants, all our sources, is at the moment about 15 cents per unit. The government sells this power to the consumer at ten cents per unit. Now, first problem: there is wastage of electricity down the transmission lines and inefficient transformers, as well as corruption at the collection end, the revenue collection end, where people do not pay their bills, big industrialists avoid paying their bills. People sitting in parliament have large land estates, they don’t pay their bills on their tube-wells and their industrial meters, and so on. So this loss of recovery of revenue amounts to about 45 percent. So out of the ten cents per unit, the government only gets five and a half cents.
So when this huge gap per unit is being suffered as a loss by the government, this mounts the circular debt issue very rapidly.
GHANI: Pakistan’s circular debt for energy production has now reached $5 billion. The new government came to power promising to resolve the energy crisis and is acutely aware of the public’s expectations. It’s now announced plans to clear the debt within the next two months. But that alone will not be enough.
MUBARAKMAND: If the government clears their past debt now as they say they will do it within 60 days or so on, the new debt will again pile up. So first of all they have to pull up their socks on the administrative side and recover the full cost of electricity which the people are billed. That is an administrative issue. But secondly, the power generation cost has to come down, from 15 cents to ten cents, or even lower, so that government can make a little profit on the power they sell.
GHANI: But with the cost of electricity now so high, how can the price be brought down to a level that Pakistan’s working classes can afford?
MUBARAKMAND: In future we don’t want to use furnace oil, which has become very costly, and use coal instead of furnace oil for power generation, because we have our own coal in Thar, which will be mined shortly, and which will be available in three to four years’ time. But in the meantime, if we immediately replace those boilers with coal-fired boilers and we import coal and we use imported coal on those boilers up to the time till our own coal from Thar is made available, then we can have about an additional 6,000 to 7,000 megawatts right away, within a period of about two and a half years.
The most important source of renewable energy which I can think of in Pakistan is that the water is coming down from the rivers, down the rivers from a height of something like 6,000 metres to sea-level, and this tremendous source of potential energy, as in physics we call it, is available to us for exploitation which we have not yet exploited. Of course, it’s true that we have built very large dams, like the Mangla Dam and the Tarbela Dam, and each of these dams take ten years to build, and the feasibility is five years, and so on, and they cost mammoths, costing tens of billions of dollars.
But in the extreme north of Pakistan, in the Swat area, there are lots of small streams. When the glaciers melt, this water flows down into the Swat River in the valley, at the bottom of the valley, and people over there, on a co-operative basis, have set up small turbines and generators on these small streams of water. And after sunset everybody in their homes, they have free electricity, because they contribute equally to the generators. So this is a concept which is also practiced all over the world, in many countries of the world, where there is fast-flowing water in streams and rivers and canals. And Pakistan has a potential of about 50,000 megawatts to be generated from our fast flowing rivers and streams. And the investment in these projects is not very high. In China they have put rubber buffer dams across rivers, and they inflate them with compressed air and they stop the water, and they have a fall of about 20, 30 metres, and they put up turbines downstream, and this generate power. So it doesn’t cost very much.
We have to experiment on these and we have to refine this technology. This is the only way to go. If you keep getting oil from the Middle East, we are going to sink deeper and deeper into the circular debt issue, which ultimately translates into more IMF loans.
GHANI: In terms of Pakistan’s gas shortage, experts are divided on how to proceed. But Dr. Mubarakmand believes the answer lies at home.
MUBARAKMAND: By the time the Iranian–if the gas pipeline is commissioned in two years’ time and we get gas from Iran, the shortage will be about 2,250 MMCFT per day, and Iranian gas pipeline will provide 750, which is one-third of the shortage. So it’ll only meet about 30 percent of our shortage at that time, in two years’ time. And at what cost? At the moment our gas is about $5 per MMBTU. Iranian gas is at the moment $15 per MMBTU. It’s three times the cost of our own natural gas.
So we have suggested to the government that we go for intensive underground coal gasification in the Thar coalfields, where the coal is very amenable to gasification, which we have in plenty. It’s 175 billion tonnes. We may resort to mining of that coal, certainly, for power generation, but we can also do gasification of this coal and utilise this coal-gas for power generation, for diesel production, for methanol production, for fertilizer production, for plastics, for pharmaceuticals. And there are 20 different items you can produce from coal-gas. And of course you can use it for burning in the home, in domestic kitchens.
GHANI: Some environmental groups have expressed concern about burning coal to meet Pakistan’s energy needs and are worried about the construction of two new nuclear power plants, which will add to Pakistan’s existing three.
But after years of load-shedding and price hikes, the average Pakistani is, for the moment, more concerned with getting the lights back on, and at an affordable price, than with how that power is generated.
It’s obvious that administrative corruption, both at lower and higher levels, needs to be tackled; the industrialists, landowners, and even government institutions that refuse to pay their bills brought to book; and ultimately a competent long term plan for Pakistan’s energy needs put in place, if things are to get any better. What happens next is down to the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
But back in the village of Sood Gangal, Maqsood Ilahi has a warning for the politicians in Islamabad.
ILAHI: We hope they’ll consider us humans, that God softens their hearts, and they work for us. If not, they’ll suffer the same fate as the last government.
GHANI: Hassan Ghani, for the Real News, Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.