As power shortages spread, Pakistan switches off the lights

McClatchy NewspapersApril 21, 2010 

LAHORE, Pakistan — Amid fears that severe energy shortages could touch off riots, Pakistan will announce drastic measures this week to save electricity, including a shorter workweek and restrictions on nighttime wedding celebrations, government officials said Wednesday.

With power outages lasting up to 20 hours a day in cities and villages, halting industry and even farming in some places, the electricity crisis could further destabilize a vital U.S. ally. Already this year, there have been streets protests, some violent, resulting in at least one death, over the electricity stoppages.

"Children can't do their homework. Household work doesn't get done, as washing machines and other appliances cannot work. When you go home from work, you have no idea whether there will be electricity at home. Your whole life is disturbed," said Mahnaz Peracha of The Network for Consumer Protection, an independent Pakistani advocacy group.

The Obama administration says that helping Pakistan surmount its electricity crisis is one of the top priorities of its aid effort.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said this week that Pakistan's electricity situation was "not acceptable" and that Washington would help to "the absolute limits of what Congress will fund. It is a big issue."

Pakistan has been crippled by a shortfall in electricity generation, producing only about 10,000 megawatts of the required 16,000 a day. Further, some generators aren't working at full capacity because the government owes money to power producers. The government is expected to inject around $1 billion into the system to pay its debts, but energy savings can't make up for the shortages until new plants come online.

Industries such as the textile sector have had to shorten shifts and lay off workers, and farmers can't use their electric pumps to irrigate fields. Some businesses, such as tailoring and printing, are telling customers it will take weeks to complete their orders.

As well as suffering from outages, consumers have been hit by a steep hike in the price of electricity, as Pakistan eliminated subsidies to meet lending terms by the International Monetary Fund, causing further resentment.

The energy-saving measures are likely to extend the country's one-day weekend to a second day, push clocks forward by an hour and close industry for one day during the workweek, according to officials who were briefed on the plans, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity ahead of the government announcement.

Zafaryab Khan, a spokesman for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, said the proposals were being finalized Wednesday and would be unveiled Thursday.

Street lighting also will be cut back, so that only every second or third light is on, markets will close soon after sunset and wedding receptions — huge, ostentatious events in Pakistani tradition — will be required to end by 9 or 10 p.m. Individual provinces will impose further restrictions.

In the dominant Punjab province, where more than half the country's population lives, there will be a ban on electrical billboards, neon signs, decorative lights on buildings and the operation of fountains, and government offices won't be permitted to run their air conditioners before 11a.m. Analysts said enforcing the restrictions would be difficult.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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