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Pakistanis Hope For Brighter Future Amid Energy Crisis

Field of dreams? The new Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (left, at a preelection rally in Sindh Province), campaigned for the May 11 elections on a pledge to resolve the country's energy crisis.
Field of dreams? The new Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif (left, at a preelection rally in Sindh Province), campaigned for the May 11 elections on a pledge to resolve the country's energy crisis.
Muhammad Abid, a tailor in Islamabad, is among the tens of millions of Pakistanis who propelled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to power in early May on the promise he would show them the light.

Ending a severe energy crisis that often restricts citizens to only four hours of electricity a day was a key campaign pledge made by Sharif and many other members of the newly elected parliament.

Electricity shortages cost the Pakistani economy more than $13 billion a year, according to a recent survey, which says the lack of power slows economic growth by 1.5 percent annually.

The coming heat of summer brings more demand for energy, resulting in more engineered blackouts, or "load shedding," to relieve pressure on power grids, and voters are anxious to see a solution.

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It's safe to say the situation in the bustling capital is better than in much of the country of 180 million, but tailor Abid says his life and livelihood are suffering nonetheless.

"The blackouts affect us negatively in every possible way. I used to work eight or nine hours a day but I now work 14 or even 16 hours to do my job," Abid says. "This is the only way I can make a living. If I don't work, what will we eat? We all are deeply troubled by these outages but we don't know what to do about it."

After The Campaigning

Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province, the country's industrial heartland, is also the most populous and prosperous. There, summertime power outages lasting for up to 20 hours a day have in the past sparked angry protests and even prompted angry mobs to ransack government offices.

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Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party tapped into this anger during the campaign for the May general elections and rode it to a sweeping victory in Punjab.

Prior to being sworn in as prime minister, Sharif personally supervised a team tasked with devising a detailed plan to end the rolling blackouts.

Former Finance Minister Sartaj Aziz, one of the team members, says a key component of the plan is to clear the debts incurred by private energy firms so the country can produce energy at full capacity.

The energy sector is burdened by more than $5 billion in debt, in part due to the high cost of importing the fuel needed to run the country's massive power plants.

No Quick Fix

Corruption and the inability of successive governments to reform the sector have meant that the privately owned power-generating companies went unpaid, forcing them to withhold fuel payments, contributing to the chain of debt.

Aziz says that the new government will devise new payment schemes for consumers along with new ways of conserving energy to help reach the country's energy potential.

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"In the medium term, we have to improve our energy mix," Aziz says. "We need to rely more on coal and hydroelectricity. We have this crisis because 40 percent of our electricity is produced by thermal power plants that burn imported diesel and furnace oil. This, obviously, is a very expensive undertaking."

Pakistan currently produces some 11,000 megawatts of electricity, but the country needs more than 17,000 megawatts of power to meet the rising demand of a growing population.

Former International Monetary Fund (IMF) economist Miftah Ismail is one of the key architects of Sharif's energy plan. He says that after clearing the debt and reforming the management of power, the government will attract new investment to produce electricity using the country's abundant coal and water supplies.

Ismail admits that there is no quick fix to the problem, but says people will soon see some relief.

"We want to show to the people that in the next two to three months they will see the direction this country is going," Ismail says. "They will be satisfied with the direction, whether it is electricity, whether it is the economy, whether it's gas, whether it is the law and order. We will try to set the direction of this country right. It is still a long journey. We will not become a rich country in the next few years, but we have to at least be moving in the right direction."

For Pakistanis like Abid the tailor, it is difficult to envision a brighter future while living in darkness.

His three children and wife scrape by on his income of $400 a month, and the blackouts cut his profit by half. And this, in turn, makes it even more difficult to deal with rising inflation.

"I hope they can do something soon," he says.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He also writes the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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