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Power cuts test Pak's patience in poll year

world Updated: Jul 02, 2007 11:25 IST
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The last thing any government wants is hot, angry voters, but that is Pakistan's fate with elections just months away.

Near record summer temperatures can be blamed on global warming, but power outages aren't acts of God.

Blackouts happen every summer throughout Pakistan due to a poor electrical system, but this year they have been more frequent and lasted longer.

"We start our day in darkness and end it in darkness. There is no electricity for seven to eight hours daily," said student Mohammad Sarfraz in Multan, a city sweltering in 40 Celsius heat on the plains of central Punjab province.

Air conditioners shut off, fans stop whirring, water pumps stop pumping, fridges defrost, and lights go out.

The country is suffering acute power shortages due to inadequate generating capacity and hefty losses and theft of electricity during transmission.

Although power is unlikely to be a main election issue, the blackouts are far from ideal for a government that may be forced into calling early general elections before they fall due at the end of the year.

An outcry over President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to replace the country's top judge has already revealed many voters' desire for change after being led by a general for eight years.

While Musharraf looks like securing his own position, members of the ruling coalition are not as safe.

Thanks to the stellar growth in Pakistan's economy under Musharraf, more people own cars, air conditioners, washing machines and televisions.

But ordinary Pakistanis complain bitterly over hardships in the form of rising prices, unreliable electricity supplies, poor civic services, and deteriorating law and order.

"I don't know what kind of economic development the government is boasting of when it cannot provide electricity to properly run factories," said lawyer Bushra Naqvi in Multan.

While rich families turn on private generators when the current goes off, the rest of Pakistan simmers.

Last September, a nationwide blackout shone a curious light on what Pakistanis thought of the durability of their rulers as rumours swept round that Musharraf had been toppled in a coup.

"Don't call it a crisis"

This summer, outages have lasted for hours on end as temperatures soared in Karachi, and like every year, people came on the streets in Pakistan's largest city to stone cars and burn tyres in protest against load-shedding in their neighbourhoods.

The new Saudi and Kuwaiti owners of Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation, privatised in 2005, have a plan to bring on new generating capacity to meet demand within two years, but for now the problem is acute.

Power cuts are frequent but not so long in other cities, serviced by Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), a monolithic state utility.

"I agree that the situation may intensify during the next summer, but even then 'crisis' is too heavy a notion to be used," Fazal Ahmed Khan, a WAPDA board member, told Reuters.

The capital, Islamabad, is relatively unaffected, but people grumble bitterly in the Punjabi capital of Lahore, while folk in the other three provinces -- Sindh, North West Frontier and Baluchistan -- resent that Punjab is better off than them.

It's not just that power generation has to match economic growth, the government is also trying to hook rural areas onto the grid, as currently 40 per cent of households lack electricity.

WAPDA and independent power producers, according to Khan, will add another 4,350 MW of generating capacity in the next three years or so -- most of it from thermal power plants.

Pakistan's current installed capacity is around 19,846 MW, of which around one-third is hydel generated, and the bulk of the rest is thermal, fuelled primarily by gas and oil.

Furnace oil imports almost doubled in the 2006/07 (July/June) fiscal year to about 4 million tonnes, and while world prices have fallen, the bill will exceed last year's $643 million.

Proud of being nuclear-armed, Pakistan gets just two per cent of its energy needs from nuclear plants.

It is hard to believe that before Musharraf took power in a military coup eight years ago Pakistan had surplus generating capacity.

Musharraf is partly paying a penalty for the actions of civilian governments of the 1990s, who brought in foreign power companies to build generating capacity, then refused to pay them, having over-estimated Pakistan's needs as political chaos crippled economic growth.

International firms reduced tariffs bitterly, and when Pakistan needed more capacity the foreigners stayed away, leaving the field to less experienced local firms.

Harnessing the waters of the Indus basin to generate more hydel power is the clear answer to Pakistan's woes.

Musharraf has vowed to bulldoze through mega-dam projects and there are plans to build five dams by 2016 at a cost of more than $18 billion.

But the lack of progress during the last eight years shows the limits of Musharraf's mastery in a country riven by rivalry between provinces that refuse to compromise when it comes to divvying up the waters of the Indus.