Generation gap: Uncertainty looming over Pakistan’s power sector
Muhammad Saleem, 37, grows wheat, cumin, watermelons and onions in Balochistan’s Nushki district. He uses an electricity-run tube well to irrigate 100 acres of land that he owns. Over the last several years, he has seen his crops suffer every season due to water shortage since availability of electricity for his tube well has become highly uncertain. Not only have scheduled hours for power outages been long, unscheduled outages have become even longer.
“We get electricity hardly six hours a day,” says Saleem. “That is insufficient to cater to our irrigation needs.” During peak seasons for such crops as wheat, cumin, watermelons and onions – that coincide with the summer months of May, June, July, August and September – unscheduled power outages can be as long as four to five days. This ruins crops and causes grave financial loss to farmers, he says.
Farmers in a number of areas in north-western and central Balochistan, such as Loralai (where almond farming has virtually collapsed), Chagai, Mangochar, Pishin and Kalat, have migrated to cities where they work as vegetable/fruit vendors and shop assistants, mostly living with relatives. Their farms are turning into a barren land mass because they are unable to irrigate them, Saleem says.
Even in Quetta, Balochistan’s provincial capital, electricity is not available five to six hours every day. In some areas of the city, duration for outages stretches to eight hours a day and this has been the case since 2007. “Load-shedding has brought me to the brink of closing down my business,” says Ghafoor Ahmed, who runs a tailoring shop on Sariab Road. While most other local shopkeepers use diesel generators to produce their own electricity during outages, Ahmed says he “cannot afford a generator”.
Shopkeepers, flour mill owners and those associated with the cottage industry have been affected the most. Tariq Mehmood, a former furniture dealer, has closed down his “furniture workshop due to non-availability of uninterrupted power” supply. “I was not able to fulfil commitments to my customers,” he says.
Also, unlike many other parts of Pakistan where decrease in temperature reduces electricity’s demand and subsequently decreases load-shedding, electricity vanishes in Quetta and many northern and central parts of Balochistan the moment it starts to rain and snow. Whenever it rained and snowed heavily in January and February this year in these parts, inclement weather disrupted power transmission lines and people had to make do without electricity for days.
Whenever people pray for rain and snowfall (which has become rarer in recent years), they also pray for continuous supply of electricity, says Mirza Nadeem Baig, a 56-year-old shopkeeper in a market on Quetta’s Jinnah Road. Officials of the Quetta Electric Supply Company (Qesco) do not deny these claims and complaints. They acknowledge that Balochistan is not receiving electricity “according to its requirement”. Rehmatullah Baloch, Qesco’s chief executive officer, says the province needs around 1,650 megawatts of electricity but is getting only 650 megawatts from the national grid.
That is only half the problem, though. Even if the national grid wants to transmit to Balochistan all the electricity it requires, Baloch says, transmission lines cannot handle that load. “We could only get up to 900-950 megawatts when we tried to [increase the transmission of electricity],” he says. “When we tried to get more electricity than that, the main transmission lines started tripping.”
A related problem is electricity lost and stolen during transmission. The province loses anywhere between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of its electricity (depending upon the area and the state of the transmission lines) to these two factors.
And, lastly, electricity bills amounting to 190 billion rupees have remained unpaid for the last seven to eight years in Balochistan. Owners of 29,000 or so tube wells comprise the largest number of these defaulters, even when the provision of electricity to them remains heavily subsidised: every tube well operator gets 10,000 units of electricity each month at a lump sum price of 75,000 rupees but he pays only 10,000 rupees out of it. Of the remaining amount, the provincial government pays 60 per cent and the federal government pays 40 per cent. The total amount of this subsidy reaches 22 billion rupees every year.
All these problems are emblematic of what is wrong with the electricity sector, not just in Balochistan but all over Pakistan. Are there any efforts to fix them?
This is an excerpt from the Herald's April 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.