Pakistani officials report that high temperatures caused the deaths of over 1,200 people in a week, the majority of whom died in Karachi.
The death toll is astounding, and may well be even higher given the likelihood that further deaths went unreported. In fact, twice as many people died during the heatwave as at the hands of terrorists in Pakistan in 2015; around 530 people died in terrorist attacks up until June, writes Michael Kugelman for Foreign Policy.
Pakistan’s energy insecurity causes higher death toll during heatwave
Power outages contributed to the death toll, as families struggled to operate fans and air conditioning units. Sadly, they are not a novelty to residents of Pakistan, who have had to get used to regular power cuts, as have residents of neighboring India. In Pakistan, there are usually energy deficits of between 4,500 and 5,000 megawatts (MW), but that figure has been known to rise as high as 8,500 MW.
Such deficits are common in developing countries, but Pakistan is facing a unique set of challenges. Governance is an issue, rather than supply, and bad equipment, poor maintenance and theft all contribute to the seemingly interminable energy struggles. The Pakistani energy sector is also in debt to the tune of several billion dollars because revenues are low.
Power outages increase the death toll during heatwaves, damage economic performance and impact an already volatile security situation. Hundreds of factories have closed, and some western companies have left the country due to electricity deficits. In addition, both militants in Balochistan and the Taliban have attacked energy installations such as gas lines and power stations in order to profit from energy insecurity.
Public aware of importance of energy security
The energy situation affects everyone, and public opinion polls cite shortages as one of the most important issues facing the country. Kugelman offers a number of recommendations in his book, Pakistan’s Interminable Energy Crisis. He claims that a program to reduce energy theft, improving infrastructure maintenance and given consumers incentives to use less energy would lead to vastly improved energy security.
If Pakistan can reduce its reliance on expensive energy imports and focus more on domestic coal, tight and shale gas, and renewables, its energy needs could be made far more affordable, as well as greener.
Another recommendation is that the government should encourage the full privatization of electricity generation companies, while maintaining control of the assets of distribution companies. Investment should be encouraged from outside, and not necessarily from China, whose investments are making other countries wary about the lack of a level playing field in Pakistan.
Significant action needed to improve energy situation
Although privatization could be useful, institutional reform is needed to bring some order to the energy sector. Current decision making processes should be streamlined to enable better energy policy to be implemented quickly, and a new energy ministry should be set up.
Such far-reaching changes may not be adopted by Pakistan’s politicians, but steps must be taken now to avoid the catastrophic consequences of inaction. The energy problems in Pakistan look set to get worse as urbanization continues at a rapid rate, and pressures on supply will be increased by the huge numbers of new arrivals to the cities, which tend to require more electricity from the grid than rural homes.
Overall demand is predicted to increase dramatically in the next few years, and a lack of action to improve supply could provoke huge shortages in the near future. Kugelman reports that peak demand was 20,800 MW for a period of time from 2014 to 2015, but that is expected to increase to almost 32,000 MW by 2019.
More deaths can be avoided by taking action on energy
Pakistan currently has 23,000 MW installed capacity, which could be exceeded by demand by almost 10,000 MW in four short years. In order to meet the predicted increased demand, an equivalent sum of new electrical capacity would have to be installed as during the past 60 years. Urgent action is required to prevent already grave problems becoming even worse.
Should heatwaves strike again in a few years time, when electricity demand is much higher, there could be longer and more widespread power outages. Given the high death toll which occurred as a result of last week’s heat wave, there could be many more deaths if significant action is not taken to improve energy security in Pakistan.
The problems with energy supply are impacting the country on various different levels, and more should be done to the ensure that the lives, and livelihoods, of Pakistanis are not endangered by poor energy policies.