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Tuesday June 18, 2024

The right to power

Since last week, the country has been in the grip of an extreme heatwave

By Editorial Board
May 24, 2024
A general view of the high voltage lines during a nationwide power outage in Rawalpindi on January 23, 2023. — AFP
A general view of the high voltage lines during a nationwide power outage in Rawalpindi on January 23, 2023. — AFP

Pakistani authorities have once again warned people about dangerously high temperatures across the country, urging them to stay indoors and stay hydrated. Since last week, the country has been in the grip of an extreme heatwave. Authorities have asked hospitals to set up emergency response centres to help people affected by the rising temperatures. The Sindh government has also thankfully addressed the prolonged loadshedding that exacerbates the severity of heatwaves. On Tuesday (May 21), the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a resolution, asking the federal government to take action against at least three power supply companies for their unannounced loadshedding. Discussions surrounding heatwaves mostly focus on climate change and how carbon emissions led to strange weather patterns. What is missing from this discourse is Pakistan’s energy situation where only a select few are able to use appliances that can help them deal with a sweltering summer. Policies made in the sector are often hijacked by the elite that seems more interested in putting its interests before anything else. Since last year, high electricity prices have caused indescribable anguish among people. We have had protests where men have cried on camera, explaining that they do not have means to pay the bills. As lower and lower-middle-income households struggle to minimize their power consumption as much as they can, the rich find ways to keep their consumption levels unaltered.

That a small segment of the country is responsible for its power woes is not an argument here; Pakistan’s power crisis is multifaceted, and the sector requires a well-thought-out reform plan. But it is also true that the backlash from the privileged class (which also produces our government representatives) forces the government to abandon correct policies. Around 113,000 households (0.3 per cent of total households in the country) have solar generation equipment with a net metering connection. While this is profitable for households, the cost thus paid by power companies is distributed to end consumers on the grid who end up struggling with inflated power bills. This will lead to two scenarios: first, grid-dependent citizens will have to switch off appliances, fridges, ACs and fans even during the time of the day when the temperature is the hottest, resulting in health challenges. Second, it will affect people’s ability to pay bills on time, resulting in non-recovery for power companies. These losses force power companies to take the collective punishment route, shutting off power supply in areas where non-recovery is huge. This leaves an already vulnerable population without electricity, creating more problems.

In 2023, Human Rights Watch released a statement saying that “the right to an adequate standard of living includes everyone’s right, without discrimination, to sufficient, reliable, safe, clean, accessible, and affordable electricity.” It is rather unfortunate that energy and power policies rarely acknowledge the deserving 99 per cent that is more vulnerable to facing the impacts of climate change but which does not have enough means to afford electricity-dependent appliances. Besides contributing towards an increase in power prices, the elite’s consumption habits of using ACs during summer – a major consumption habit that moves people to solar panels in the first place – also make the environment hotter. CFC gases released by these cooling units make the environment hotter. This leaves the vulnerable on their own. This is where the government should step in. It should invest more in setting up cooling places like air-conditioned libraries or cultural centres – ideally run on renewable energy – where people can go during the day. Authorities’ focus should also be on building green areas with lots of trees in residential areas across the city that can provide some respite to people. The individual use of ACs can be minimized if the government invests in accessible cool public places. The federal government’s prompt action to tackle the current spell of heatwave is commendable, but authorities also have to analyze how their short-sighted policies are leaving the vulnerable behind. In a country that has an abundance of renewable energy sources, it is criminal that a majority does not have access to clean and affordable energy.