Lessons from Pakistan's 2008 Power Cuts


This article was initially published in Today's Engineer on May 2008

My brother phones from Islamabad; there has been another bombing. He asks me to pass the word to the rest of our family that he and his wife are okay. No time for details, this evening’s scheduled power cut will begin any minute...

While historians and economists have written at length on how fundamental to modern society electricity has become, as well as on the societal changes wrought by electricity, and even on electricity’s effects on democratic change, recent power shortages in Pakistan are showing that electricity is even more basic than perhaps we knew. The assumption that — should the electricity go off — we could still eat our food cold by candlelight, needs revision. Recently, we are finding that, if the electricity goes off, there won’t be any food. Or even water.

The shortages of wheat flour in Pakistan last January, which caused a rise in prices and long queues were a case in point. The government blamed the food crisis — not on a shortage of wheat per se — but on the fact that the mills could not operate at capacity because of power cuts, as well as on distribution problems caused by computers and cell phones being unusable because of the power cuts. (This is in contrast to the situation in neighboring countries such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh where wheat and rice supplies have indeed been reduced because of damage to crops caused by heavy monsoon rains.) The power cuts were not the only factor in the wheat shortages — price differences in neighboring countries led to hoarding and smuggling — but they were certainly a major one. Water supplies were also affected, as pumping and purification stations shut down. By the end of January, the electricity shortage — which had been projected to remain between 1,000-2,000 MW in 2008 — had already broken out of that range and was pushing 3,600 MW, resulting in serious negative effects on the economy. The daily loadshedding was at first unscheduled, which increased the disruption and negative effects. Crowds protested in the streets of Karachi, and the discontent caused by the power cuts (unscheduled loadshedding during winter being unusual) was certainly among the many factors in General Musharraf’s electoral defeat in March 2008. Musharraf had not done himself any favors by linking himself explicitly to the electrical supply, commenting in an interview that the only things he looked after directly were the war against terrorism and future power needs of the country.

The fact that electrical power shortages could have such large repercussions in a nation where only approximately forty-six percent of the population has access to it in the first place, provides not only a vital historical lesson but also a cautionary warning to societies where electricity is ubiquitous.

The primary trigger — although not the long-term cause — of the January power cuts was a dry December. (Pakistan relies on hydroelectric power for approximately twenty-five percent of its electricity generation). Thus there are parallels with California’s energy shortage of 2000-2001, when draught reduced hydroelectric capacity. Pakistan’s Warsak dam, which has a capacity of 240 MW, was reduced to 10 MW. Meanwhile, Tarbella’s output was reduced to 200 MW from its total capacity of 3,400 MW. The close connection between food and electricity is further underscored by restrictions on Tarbella’s water release; because it is also an irrigation reservoir, there are restrictions on the amount of water it can release for electricity generation.

Even when the rains came, and the electricity supply increased, that did not guarantee that the power would stay on. The state utility WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority) was forced to cut off electricity to Karachi’s city power authority because the city power authority had not paid its bills to WAPDA. WAPDA, and other independent power producers in turn were having problems providing fossil-fuel generated energy because they were unable to pay for oil from Pakistan State Oil.

However, at least by February the loadshedding could begin to be scheduled, which improved the situation for industry as well as for the consumer. The Planning Commission developed a set of energy conservation measures designed to reduce electricity consumption by thirty percent.

Many of the elements in the history of the crisis will sound familiar in other parts of the world. Until approximately 1993, Pakistan’s generation capacity was sufficient to meet its needs. However, government-instituted tariffs on retail electricity prices kept revenues too low to make it worthwhile for utilities to invest in their delivery or generation infrastructure, preventing the network from keeping up with rising demand and unable to catch up quickly when low rainfall triggered this particular shortage. Transmission losses (i.e. power theft) are thirty to thirty-eight percent, as opposed to the ten percent which might be expected through unavoidable line losses inherent in the distribution system. Balochistan, where much of the country’s energy resources are, is also where much of the political unrest is. Transmission towers and natural gas supply infrastructure have been blown up. Meanwhile, the independent power producers have announced fast-track plans to install 2,300 MW of capacity by 2009 and a total of 3,120 MW additional capacity by 2010.

Like so many crises, the factors which have led to Pakistan's energy woes are multiple and overlapping. Moreover, some of those factors can be found in many power generation and transmission systems throughout the world in countries across the economic and developmental scale. The history of Pakistan’s current shortages of electricity, and their economic and political effects in shaping the country’s course, is likewise a cautionary tale for the rest of the world.