Energy Crisis Cripples Pakistan's Economy

One business that flourishes in Pakistan these days is the generator business. Pakistan's chronic power outages are worsening amid stifling summer heat. Incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he has a plan but many are skeptical.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Most people will agree that the world wants Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, to be stable. That's not easy in a country where the Taliban and other militants are killing and maiming people every day. But ask Pakistanis what the country's biggest problem is today and they'll likely cite a different issue. Many will tell you it is Pakistan's severe energy crisis.

Constant power outages are crippling Pakistan's economy and, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, causing anger and frustration.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Dozens of students mill around a street in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. They're supposed to be in class but have walked out.

RATMET ALI: It's too hot, so we cannot work even half an hour.

REEVES: Ratmet Ali(ph) says the electricity keeps shutting off. Classrooms are like ovens and it's not just a matter of feeling uncomfortable. Ali says he's studying business administration.

ALI: So all the work we have to do on computers. How we can run computer if there not be any electricity?

REEVES: The students worry that constant power outages are damaging their educational prospects. They're from the Federal Urdu University for Science and Technology. Important exams are coming up very soon, says Arsalan Iqbal(ph).

ARSALAN IQBAL: Even if we go home, there is no electricity there so we cannot concentrate or we cannot prepare for exams. So it's going to affect a lot.

REEVES: Iqbal asks why students must suffer power outages while Pakistan's top politicians, judges and generals do not.

IQBAL: If we do not have electricity, then they do not deserve the right to get electricity.

REEVES: Mohammed Sadat(ph)'s from a remote mountain village. He is in town visiting a friend. They've come to a lakeside park just outside Islamabad. Mohammed says back home power outages are severe.

MOHAMMED SADAT: (Through interpreter) Sometimes there's no electricity at all for 24 hours and sometimes for 48 hours, as well.

MALEEHA LODHI: It has affected everybody. It has affected ordinary citizens. It's affected people who live in villages. It has affected Pakistan's industry and businesses. And we've seen some of this anger boil over into the streets.

REEVES: Political scientist and former top diplomat Maleeha Lodhi says here are several reasons for Pakistan's energy crisis. Firstly, even though the economy is in a mess, demand for electricity is rising.

LODHI: Secondly, Pakistan's public sector distribution and energy producing companies are hugely inefficient and afflicted by corruption and theft. A lot of people don't pay their electricity bills.

REEVES: Lodhi says the rates are too low. To bridge the gap, Pakistan's government pays huge subsidies it can't afford. That adds to the massive debts that are blighting the energy sector.

LODHI: There's still a part of capacity that's not even being used because Pakistan simply hasn't got the money, or the government of Pakistan simply doesn't have the money to get these companies to run.

REEVES: Pakistan's new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is working on major plans to tackle this crisis. His political fate could rest on their success or failure. Analysts say Pakistan's energy crisis was the biggest single reason that the last government were thrown out. Every crisis has a winner. Zuber Lashadi(ph) supplies generators to the minority in Islamabad who can afford one.

His business is thriving. Right now, with all these outages, the city's generators are seriously overworked. In a dusty roadside yard, his men work round the clock on repairs.

ZUBER LASHADI: In many cases, they work for 24 hours, for 48 hours, 48 hours continuous work. Then after 48 hours, I usually will give them a rest for 24 hours.

REEVES: Lashadi doubts Pakistan's government can fix the energy crisis anytime soon. The problem's just too big.

LASHADI: It will require almost 10 to 15 years of serious efforts.

REEVES: For the worried students out on Islamabad's streets, 10 to 15 years is far too long to wait.

ALI: Actually, we are the future of Pakistan.

REEVES: Ratmet Ali thinks it's vital Pakistan gives young people like him all the power they need. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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