AS INDUSTRIES close and the cost of living rises across Pakistan due to electricity cuts and gas shortages, widespread frustration is heating public sentiment to a boiling point.
“I think if this energy shortage continues, the public will get fed-up, and there are chances of an uprising like in Tunisia or Egypt, although the cause might be different,” said President of the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mahfooz Elahi, commenting on the potential impact of continued power shortages in the country.
The Pakistani government is imposing electricity cuts and gas rationing across the country in an effort to mitigate its energy shortage. The cuts have slowed production and increased the cost of operating businesses, forcing many small businesses to close and others to lay off workers.
The planned and unplanned electricity blackouts, known as load shedding, make daily activities a challenge for ordinary citizens across the country, leaving the populace angry and feeling marginalized. The public believes that mismanagement by energy executives and ministry officials is a leading cause of Pakistan’s energy woes, and the vast majority of Pakistani’s blame their government officials for corruption and apathy.
The country has the sixth largest coal reserve in the world but uses only about 5 percent for electricity. With nine to ten months of perpetual sun in the country, solar power, which the government has not yet developed, is another huge resource.
The government began load shedding three years ago and has doubled the cut-off hours over the past 18 months. Load shedding now affects the vast majority of the population and all strata of society, from the villager to the industrialist, to varying degrees. This past winter, electric power in most places in Pakistan was shut off for six hours at various times every day.
When the cuts come according to schedule, most people are able to plan their power usage accordingly, but when power is randomly shut off, which happens every few days, Pakistanis are often left without the means to get their work done. According to a report, industry in the country lost more than $4 billion over the last 18 months due to electric and gas shortages.
Small businesses are suffering financial losses, some up to 50 percent, with load shedding in shopping centers happening at peak sales times.
“Between 8 and 11 p.m. used to be our busiest time for sales, but now the power is turned off at 8 p.m.,” said Muhammad Wasim, a clothing-store manager in Islamabad. “Costumers don’t want to come out of their homes anymore, even if we have a generator, because it is too dark,” he said in an interview.
Manufacturing is also being hit hard by the cuts, with 8 to 12 hours a day of load shedding all over Pakistan contributing to a 30 to 40 percent rise in the cost of production. Operation costs have become so high for small industries like soap and smaller steel companies that some have been forced to close down.
Other companies can no longer afford to keep a full staff, which has lead to many layoffs or pay reduced to minimum wage, which is $85 a month in Pakistan. Shortages of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) have been increasingly disrupting household and manufacturing activities in urban areas.
The demand for LPG, widely used for cooking in Pakistani households, far exceeds the supply. When LPG is cut off, many people are unable to prepare meals, sometimes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The government also cannot supply enough CNG, which is used to fuel motor vehicles, to meet demand, and CNG stations around the country are now being closed Fridays and Saturdays, the busiest days of the week.
“I wait two to three hours on Thursday night and Sunday to fill my gas tank, but then the gas pressure is insufficient, and I cannot get as much as I need. I have lost a lot of profit and have had to raise my fare,” said Muhammad Manzoor, a taxi driver.
According to an official from state-owned Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO), the country faces an energy shortage of 1,500–2,500 megawatts per day during winter months and 3,000–4,500 megawatts in summer.
Load shedding is one of the government’s short-term measures to conserve energy until permanent energy solutions, like building hydro-electric dams, tapping gas reserves in Balochistan, and building coal power plants, are developed. But these mega-projects have failed thus far due to lack of finances, inter-provincial conflicts, and on-going security issues.
Pakistanis are displaying their anger and feelings of marginalization in protests across the country. People in cities like Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad often come out to protest the lack of electric and gas availability.
The economic gap in Pakistan is huge with almost one-third of the country’s 170 million people living in poverty and more than 60 percent living on less than $2 per day. With an average 15 percent inflation rate over the past three fiscal years, the poor can barely afford basic food items, let alone skyrocketing energy bills, which contribute to the rising tensions around the country.