PAKISTAN, to state the obvious, is mired in an acute energy crisis. Continuous power outages, crippling line losses, and cascading energy debt provide constant reminders of its manifestations. And when people are unable to work, cook, or receive medical care because of power cuts, the human consequences of the crisis come into sharp focus.
The country’s energy security hangs by the thinnest of threads; the smallest snip can send it into free fall. When one transmission line conductor breaks down, lights can go out for millions. When militants blow up a single transmission line in Balochistan, nearly the entire country can be plunged into darkness.
Pakistan is so caught up in the throes of these energy woes of the present that it likely has not contemplated the troubling long-term implications. Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis, a new Wilson Centre report that I have edited, provides a window into the country’s unsettling energy future.
By 2019, peak power demand is expected to be nearly 32,000 megawatts — almost 10,000MW more than current installed capacity. However, actual power production today stands at just 12,000MW. Consequently, peak demand in 2019 could be nearly triple the amount of power produced today. Don’t expect to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel by 2020 (pun intended). Energy demand — impelled by growing industries, heavy urbanisation and increasingly extreme temperatures — will likely quadruple in the next 20 years. So what can be done?
The status quo — a heavy dependence on expensive imported hydrocarbons — is unsustainable. And those 175 billion tonnes of untapped Thar coal reserves? Pakistan will have to dramatically increase its technological and infrastructural capacities to exploit them successfully. It’s tough to be optimistic when the very basics — such as trains to transport extracted coal — are in such short supply.
Solar and wind are tantalising. Yet they can’t meet baseline demand. How about hydro? At the end of the day, large dams simply aren’t practical. Interprovincial disputes have stymied Kalabagh’s construction for 50 years. Diamer-Bhasha — more expensive and time-consuming to build than Kalabagh — also remains aspirational.
One hears that the urgency of Pakistan’s energy crisis requires the country to push forward with dams, despite environmental and displacement risks. That argument should be turned on its head: Pakistan’s energy crisis is so urgent that it no longer has the luxury of waiting around for dams that aren’t built.
In recent months, shale and tight gas have been championed as panaceas. Pakistan’s reserves of these unconventional natural gas sources are estimated at more than four times the remaining reserves of conventional natural gas (which constitutes about half of Pakistan’s overall mix). But here’s the rub: extraction requires a whole lot of water. In the US, an average of four million gallons of water is used for a single fracking job. In severely water-stressed Pakistan, large-scale extraction may be well-nigh impossible.
Then there are the envisioned international initiatives. One, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), entails about $35 billion in Chinese energy investments leading to 17,000MW of new electricity generation capacity. The other, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, could bring up to a billion cubic feet per day of additional gas. CPEC and IP would be game-changers for energy security. However, they wouldn’t solve Pakistan’s fundamental problem of energy mis-governance. Thirty-five billion dollars in energy goodies from China and a new gas pipeline from Iran won’t make the line losses and debt go away.
Fortunately, Pakistan’s energy situation — unlike that of water — is not a ticking time bomb. There is time, and there are options.
What’s needed above all is a coherent, well-coordinated basic strategy. Forget Plan B; Pakistan still needs a Plan A. It needs an energy policy that articulates exactly what is to be done, how, when, and in what order — both on the supply and demand sides. And the policy needs to be implemented — no small feat in a country where so many well-intentioned policies die slow deaths.
The only way to ensure an effective policy is to develop more effective institutions. Pakistan’s energy policies can only be as effective as the institutions that produce them. Energy sector reform must be the first step. Pakistan, as argued in Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis, should establish a new energy ministry with overarching authority to bring more order to a chaotic sector — one often paralysed by its 15-plus energy-related entities jockeying for influence. Pakistan needs fewer, not more, cooks in the kitchen of energy policy. Once the institutional framework is in place, the rest can follow.
Is this a politically treacherous path forward? Absolutely. But then again, succumbing to political expediency has rarely yielded policy reform success stories.
The writer is senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2015
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