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Pakistanis lash out at government as millions endure 20-hour blackouts

A Pakistani man jumps into a canal to cool off as temperatures reached 42 C in Lahore, Pakistan, May 26, 2013.

K.M. Chaudary/AP

On a Monday evening, overlooking the Arabian Sea, Karachi's glitzy Dolmen Mall is an air-conditioned safe space that offers respite from the heat, urban crime and the chronic electricity cuts that plague this megalopolis of more than 20 million – until, that is, the lights go out. Parents gasp, children scream.

While there is audible relief as the lights power up when the mall generators kick in, the rest of the country is roiling as rising summer temperatures are now well over 40 C.

Pakistanis, who have had to endure "load shedding," or rolling blackouts, are experiencing extra daily hours of no electricity, with the most populous and wealthy Punjab province witnessing 20 hours without electricity over a 24-hour period.

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Deep apprehension fills ordinary Pakistanis looking to their government to solve mountain-like problems – whether it is ending the Pakistan Taliban's reign of terror, alleviating poverty or stamping out widespread corruption in government. But no issue has quite vexed people as much as the power crisis – the single-most important issue in the May 11 elections.

That a nuclear-armed country of 180 million cannot solve its electricity crisis is another sign that their country is heading in the wrong direction.

"So deep is the penetration of the power-related anger in the public at large that even a hint of the continuation of the inaction of the past may bring the government down sooner than later," wrote columnist Pervez Tahir in The Express Tribune.

"Pakistan may be among the countries with the lowest consumption of energy per capita, but every power failure transmits the message of incompetence to almost all households in a split second," he added.

Without electricity, motorized engines that draw water from the ground into tanks do not work. The result is a water scarcity and hoarding as residents fill buckets and pots in case the water runs out. Without enough fuel for its power plants, a utility is forced to ration electricity.

Industrial growth has outpaced electricity generation, leaving a crippled distribution system that loses 20 per cent of its output. At its peak last summer, the shortfall represented about 40 per cent of the country's total generation capacity.

The outcome is idled businesses, silent textile factories and frustrated Pakistanis.

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In Karachi, citywide blackouts started on the weekend and saw some areas without power for stretches of three hours several times a day, totalling 10 to 12 hours, according to residents and businesses.

In the upper-middle-class neighbourhoods of Karachi's Clifton area, residents streamed out of their homes after sunset and sat on benches and curbs – escaping their apartments because it was too hot to stay indoors.

The area, which had seen practically no load shedding a week ago, was now experiencing six hours a day without electricity – half of what many other neighbourhoods are having to endure.

In the north of the country, protesters clashed with police on Monday in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. TV footage from Mirpur and Kotli showed police firing tear gas during running battles with protesters who refused to disperse even after assurances that their daily electricity blackouts would not exceed four hours.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), the party of Nawaz Sharif, won the May 11 elections in large part on a promise to solve the country's most pressing problem of electricity and restore robust economic growth. The incoming government will be sworn in in early June.

"Emotionalism of politics: PML-N hasn't even taken over yet and already it feels they haven't done enough to fight this *@$!# load shedding," tweeted prominent Pakistani political journalist Cyril Almeida.

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The frustration can be observed around the country: a printing business sits idle for several hours at a time and struggles to meet large orders; students studying for exams must concentrate in extreme heat; running a refrigerator and keeping food fresh proves nearly impossible.

Wealthier Pakistanis are able to run a household on a backup diesel-powered generator – or a battery-operated system that allows low-use household electricity over several hours during a blackout. But for the vast majority of people the solutions are costly and out of reach.

Pakistan's energy crisis has its roots in the largely oil-based independent power projects that produce electricity, says associate professor of economics Syed Turab Hussain of the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"The cost of that energy source [oil] is very high, so the cost of [electricity] generation is very high. So government subsidizes your consumer and industry … and the subsidy bill is huge – which adds to the fiscal deficit," explained Prof. Turab.

As oil prices rise, governments are unable to make the payments to the independent power projects, which then cannot purchase the oil needed to generate electricity.

"So the government defaults, and then [the independent power projects] default and that creates what we call the circular debt," said Prof. Turab, adding that converting power plants to cheaper coal or natural gas could be part of a short-term solution.

Another solution – although politically costly – would be to raise electricity rates for consumers and industry and cut down on widespread electricity theft.

The incoming government is reportedly in negotiations with Saudi Arabia for a soft loan worth up to $5-billion, according to the Financial Times.

Pakistan's civilian government is on the verge of running out of money and is expected to start negotiations with the IMF toward a $9-billion loan. The Saudi loan could help increase electricity supplies and avoid a balance-of-payments crisis while the incoming government is negotiating with the IMF.

In a rather bizarre electricity-related tale, reported in the Pakistani press, a cheeky bridegroom waited until the moment he was to sign his marriage certificate to make a demand on his bride-to-be and her family: a generator. The bride's father borrowed $420 and scrambled on a Sunday to eventually buy a generator.


16 to 18 hours

The amount of daily load shedding currently affecting the textile industry, according to the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association chairman Ahsan Bashir. "The whole supply chain from spinning to weaving to processing and garmenting is disrupted."

2 per cent

The estimated size of the cut to economic growth in Pakistan due to power outages, according to the Asian Development Bank. The bank's 2013 development outlook predicted it was unlikely the country would be able to move toward the 7-per-cent growth rate needed to generate adequate employment and meaningful poverty reduction.

42 per cent

The number of working professionals in Pakistan who face four to eight hours of load shedding in their workplace every day, according to a 2012 survey by market researcher Rozee Research. About 19 per cent face eight to 12 hours of load shedding; 9 per cent face more than 12 hours; and 29 per cent face two to four hours without power on a daily basis.

64 per cent

The number of working professionals who say they have significant productivity loss in their work routine due to excessive load shedding at home, according to Rozee Research. Some 27 per cent said they have moderate productivity loss. Only 9 per cent said they have no productivity loss due to load shedding.

Research: Liza Sardi, Stephanie Chambers, Rick Cash

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