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March 11, 2008

Welcome to the modern stone age


March 11, 2008

Half naked, half covered with leaves, barefooted, with shoulder-long hair and a spear in hand, hiding in a cave or on a tree, ready to ambush the prey--this is the scene that traditionally portrays the stone-age life. Fortunately, that time is gone, but the people of Pakistan are now having a new version of it, "modern stone-age," thanks to the energy crisis in the country.

The ingredients of modern stone-age are slightly different, however. Now the people in Pakistan would still be spending their days and nights in darkness, though not of caves, but of well built, spacious and modern homes and villas fitted with precious chandeliers and florescent lights. They would be having modern ovens in their kitchens but still unable to prepare food. Digital televisions, computers and hi-fi electronics would be there, sitting in drawing rooms and lounges, but soulless. Expensive air-conditioners and refrigerators, but non-functional. Credit goes to load shedding, and to the unplanned disruption of electricity and gas. The equation is simple and straightforward -- the life mankind cherishes today is totally dependant on secure supply of sufficient and affordable energy. No matter how luxurious and high-tech gadgets you have got, they are of no use unless you supply them with the energy they require to operate.

Man has become a slave of energy. The trend started with the Industrial Revolution in the West. The change in this part of the world, however, started appearing a few decades ago. The lifestyle over this period has transformed to become hugely dependant on energy. Presently less than 60% of population is connected to the electric grid. Back in 1947, the figure was much lower than 10%. What would be the energy requirement of an average Pakistani at that time? It was only a wee bit of oil that would be needed to light lamps and wood to prepare food. Electricity and gas would still have no role to play. Compared to that, as of 2008, an average Pakistani in

his everyday life relies on numerous energy run gadgets -- i.e., electric lights, fans and air conditioners, irons, fridges, heaters, ovens, televisions, computers, automobiles, pumps and motors. It is roughly estimated that compared to 1947, an average citizen of Pakistan now consumes 20-25 times more energy.

Societies can no longer exist and progress without sufficient and secure supply of affordable energy. Despite its crucial role, energy is becoming increasingly scarce in Pakistan. A dire energy crisis has already dawned upon the country. As of the beginning of 2008 there is a shortfall of nearly 4,500 megawatts of electricity. Bearing in mind that these are not the summer months (when the demand goes up due to the more frequent use of energy-intensive appliances) one can gauge the severity of the problem. It is not just the scarcity of electricity that is driving people crazy, but that of gas as well. Collectively, the trouble with the two sources of energy has driven an ordinary Pakistani into the Stone Age. The absence of electricity and gas for 10-15 hours a day has forced people to rediscover the long lost candles and kerosene lanterns. The energy crisis also affects industry, agriculture, businesses, health, education and transportation.

A student who has lived and studied under electric lights all his life how can be suddenly forced to use the candle and lantern. Exporters are missing their deadlines – reports from the textile sector indicate that textile exports have been seriously affected by the energy crisis and that this year's export targets are not going to be met at all. Industry is not getting the supply of electricity and gas at its required level in order to run on full throttle. Lengthy load shedding and power breakdowns have made its life extremely difficult. As a matter of fact, factories, running on gas, are being refused the supply of gas. Even their gas supplies are being disconnected leaving them in the middle of nowhere. Consequently, over the last couple of months tens of thousands of factories have locked their gates. It has made more than one million workers lose their jobs. It implies there are hundreds of thousands of families who are being made to pay the price the most – they are being ripped of their only source of income. The closure of industry is costing the country billions of Rs. every day. The situation is thus prone to lead immense socio-economic consequences. The whole country is in a state of chaos.

The implications of the crisis are so severe that no one is able to carry on with his daily routines.

People are crying and begging for enough electricity and gas that could meet their basic needs. They are hoping for things to get better in a matter of days. How innocent they are. They don't know the crisis Pakistan has plunged into is far too complicated. Country's indigenous energy resources, gas and oil are already stretched to limits. Hydropower capacity is also on a journey downhill. Contrary to that demand is on rise, resulting into a growing gap between demand and supply. The proportion of the indigenous energy resources is skewing in the overall supply mix. In recent years, energy security has added to the matrix of challenges. It is all going to be like a roller coaster. Apparently over the next few weeks, things may look getting better but the balance of evidences suggests any improvement would only be marginal and temporary. The remedy measures that are being promised are too little and far too late. The phrase 'one stitch at time saves nine' unfortunately perfectly applies here. The energy equation of the country has gone out of balance. The damage that already has been caused is not easy to repair now. It is going to take a good number of years before the crisis is truly over provided that momentous energy policies are prepared and implemented on war footing. Lets stay optimistic and hope this time honest and meaningful efforts would be made to address the crisis on long-term basis. Otherwise, things may get worst. Alarm bells are ringing. There are already scenes of deep unrest in the society. Protests are being seen across the country. Having in mind that energy is of utmost importance for national sovereignty and the socio-economic prosperity, muddling through is not an option any more as this situation could spin out of control and lead to irreparable damage.

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK. Email: dr.m.asif

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