Shopkeepers and workers wait for electric power at a market (AP)
23 January 2023

Lights out in Pakistan as energy-saving move backfires

23 January 2023

Much of Pakistan was left without power on Monday after an energy-saving measure by the government backfired.

The outage spread panic and raised questions about the cash-strapped government’s handling of the crisis.

Electricity was turned off across the country during low usage hours overnight to conserve fuel across the country, leaving technicians unable to boot up the system all at once after daybreak, officials said.

The outage was reminiscent of a massive blackout in January 2021, attributed at the time to a technical fault in the country’s power generation and distribution system.

Many major cities, including the capital of Islamabad, and remote towns and villages across Pakistan were in darkness as authorities struggled to make even partial restorations of the power supply.

As the outage continued into Monday night, authorities deployed additional police at markets around the country to provide security.

The nationwide electricity breakdown left many people without drinking water as pumps powered by electricity failed to work. Schools, hospitals, factories and shops were without power amid the harsh winter weather.

Energy minister Khurram Dastgir told local media that engineers are working to restore the power supply across the country, including in the capital of Islamabad, and tried to reassure the nation that power will be fully restored within the next 12 hours.

According to the minister, during winter, electricity usage typically goes down overnight.

“As an economic measure, we temporarily shut down our power generation systems” on Sunday night, he said.

When engineers tried to turn the systems back on, a “fluctuation in voltage” was observed, which “forced engineers to shut down the power grid” stations one by one, Mr Dastgir added.

He insisted that this was not a major crisis, and that electricity was being restored in phases. In many places and key businesses and institutions, including hospitals, military and government facilities, backup generators kicked in.

By late Monday afternoon, Mr Dastagir told reporters at another press conference that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif had ordered a probe into the outage.

“We are hoping that the supply of electricity will be fully restored tonight,” he said.

Karachi, the country’s largest city and economic hub, was also without power on Monday, as were other key cities such as Quetta, Peshawar and Lahore.

Imran Rana, a spokesman for Karachi’s power supply company, said the government’s priority was to “restore power to strategic facilities, including hospitals,” airports and other places.

Pakistan gets at least 60% of its electricity from fossil fuels, while nearly 27% of the electricity is generated by hydropower. The contribution of nuclear and solar power to the nation’s grid is about 10%.

Pakistan is grappling with one of the country’s worst economic crisis in recent years amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

This has compelled the government earlier this month to order shopping malls and markets closed by 8.30pm for energy conservation purposes.

Talks are under way with the International Monetary Fund to soften some conditions on Pakistan’s six billion dollar (£4.8 billion) bailout, which the government thinks will trigger further inflation hikes.

The IMF released the last crucial tranche of 1.1 billion dollars (997 million) to Islamabad in August.

Since then, talks between the two parties have oscillated due to Pakistan’s reluctance to impose new tax measures.

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