PAKISTAN’S energy crisis may upstage terrorism as a major security threat faced by the country. Long duration of load-shedding in the blistering heat has triggered a spate of protests in KP, Sindh and Punjab, resulting in damage to government property and infrastructure.
While these protests have yet to gain sufficient momentum to become an organised movement against the government’s failure to provide basic services, the assumption of this happening is not far-fetched. For instance, some of these protests were not spontaneous but organised by political parties that are part of the government and/or opposition in the provinces: consider the protests led by PTI in KP, the PPP sit-in against K-Electric in Karachi, and the joint opposition protest (organised by 26 political parties) in Lahore.
These developments can be explained as the ‘politics of energy’ taking shape in the aftermath of the 18th Amendment whereby the provinces facing power outages have started protesting against the centre’s role in depriving them of their share of electricity. For instance, the deadly heatwave that has engulfed Karachi and claimed more than 1,000 lives has sparked a series of accusations and counter accusations between the federal and provincial governments in which the former’s role in extended power outages in Sindh is pitted against the latter’s responsibility in providing relief to the people affected by searing temperatures.
If prolonged, the power crisis may aggravate political instability.
If prolonged, the crisis may aggravate political instability by creating rifts between the centre and the provinces. In this regard, the energy crisis can be an effective mobilisation tool for opposition parties because of its direct adverse impacts on the economy and quality of life. In fact, failure to control prolonged power outages in urban and rural areas of the country was one of the major reasons behind the dismal performance of the PPP in the 2013 general elections.
Furthermore, resolution of the crisis in the shortest possible duration became a rallying cry for almost all political parties contesting the elections. The PML-N promised to end the crisis in matter of months. The duration has now extended to years as it is hoped that the government will be able to resolve the crisis by 2018.
The current state of electricity generation remains dismal. As of March 2015, the electricity shortfall in the country had reached almost 7,000 megawatts, resulting in power outages throughout the country. Provision of electricity in Ramazan remains a crucial test for the government as demand for an uninterrupted supply of electricity, especially during the sehr and iftar hours increases exponentially. The government claims that there is no load-shedding during these hours in most parts of the country.
In fact, prolonged power outages in certain localities are being linked to the non-payment of bills by the residents of these areas. This initiative is being seen as a major step taken by the government with regard to better governance in the power sector; however, in a politically charged atmosphere local outbursts of anger against load-shedding are being taken up by opposition parties to challenge the government’s right to rule.
In the longer run, the energy crisis in Pakistan is forcing governments to look for short-term alternatives to resolve the issue. These options may bring temporary relief but their detrimental impact on the environment will be considerable. For instance, Pakistan is considering coal-based power which will result in severe air pollution and resultant health crises. Similarly, the construction of twin nuclear power plants in the vicinity of Karachi is fraught with safety concerns.
But, the government’s consideration of these short-term alternatives as possible solutions to the crisis in Pakistan also reflects the critical role of energy sector development in ensuring a public mandate for the ruling party in the 2018 elections. Energy affects millions of lives in diverse ways and its absence can have major ramifications at the institutional and individual level as power shutdowns paralyse the economy and affect an individual’s capacity to perform daily tasks in a desired way.
Experts argue that in a restive country like Pakistan, the unremitting energy crisis and the government’s inability to resolve it destroys people’s trust in democracy. This may force them to consider other alternatives which may include supporting extremist groups promising utopias.
The recent heatwave in Karachi has again brought the energy crisis to the forefront of political discourse. The crises of governance, poorly equipped health services, and rapid changes in temperatures triggered by environmental deterioration and climate change have all been subsumed under the issue of the lack of provision of a basic service for the public.
It will be interesting to analyse the role of the energy crisis in shaping the strategies of different political players in the days to come.
The writer works in the development sector.
Politics of Energy | Hamza Hasan
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2015