Karachi heatwave exposes the perpetual flaws in power supply system
Nadeem Siddiqui’s 50-year-old sister died of heatstroke as she could not receive urgent medical treatment. She had suffered heatstroke due to prolonged power outages in the downtown Saddar area, which is normally exempted from loadshedding by the power supply company K-Electric. Some areas in Karachi city receive round-the clock power because the consumers pay 100 per cent bills to the utility. But during the current hot spell, all the areas faced unannounced loadshedding due to overload on the distribution system.
The middle-class Siddiqui’s family, living in an apartment building in Elphinstone Street Saddar, first took her to Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), the largest public hospital in the metropolis in a taxi, but the doctors refused to admit her because of unavailability of beds due to heavy rush of heatstroke patients in the hospitals. The frustrated family then tried to move the patient to a private hospital, but this time the ambulances were not available. After hectic efforts and paying exorbitant fare, the family reached a private hospital in a private ambulance.
At the private Burhani Hospital, beds were also unavailable. With some efforts, at last, a bed was arranged for the patient, but she could not survive and died within hours.
The family went through another crisis as ambulances were already booked to move bodies to a cold-storage. Then there was no space in all the mortuaries in the city. There were long queues at the Edhi’s facility for bathing the bodies. After 24 hours, the family was able to perform the last rituals of their loved one and buried the body in an already saturated graveyard in the city.
Over 1200 people have lost their lives of heatstroke in Karachi within a week, starting from June 19, 2015. The total number of deaths in other parts of Sindh province might be much more as some areas faced temperature as high as 48 to 50 degree centigrade. But those deaths largely remained unreported.
The sufferings of common people in Karachi multiplied when at a peak temperature of 45 degree centigrade on June 20, most parts of the city were without power as the power transmission system was unable to sustain the high load. Even after June 20, the maximum temperature kept hovering around 40 degrees for many more days and power woes continued with people spending their nights walking on rooftops where natural air was also unavailable.
Although the hot spell subsided after restoration of the usual sea breeze in the city from June 26, the hospitals still continue reporting dozens of deaths due to heatstroke. On June 21, at least 136 deaths were reported, while the next day 309 more people were reported dead. On June 23, some 311 people lost their lives in Karachi.
Usually the months of May and June are quite hotter in this part of Pakistan when mercury shoots up in Karachi due to discontinuation of usual Arabian Sea breezes, but the weather this year became quite harsher. After May 1938 when the maximum temperature exceeded 48 degree Celsius, the highest temperature of 45 degree C on June 20was the highest one during early summer days.
Despite other reasons like lack of medical facilities and dehydration due to fasting, the prolonged power outages, spread over days, also heavily contributed to the death toll. Housewives, who usually stay at home, were the main sufferers and many deaths occurred because of prolonged power outages.
The Sindh government alleged the private power company K-Electric (former Karachi Electric Supply Company) was the main culprit behind hundreds of deaths in the city as it resorted to prolonged loadshedding and many housewives died due to heatstroke at homes. Even leader of the Opposition in National Assembly, Khurshid Shah, on the floor of House demanded the federal government take over the power utility as it was responsible for the deaths in Karachi. The prime minister, however, brushed aside the possibility of any takeover.
K-Electric, however, denied the allegations saying the provincial government was hiding its inefficiencies through the blame game.
K-Electric, on many occasions during the crisis, claimed that there was no extraordinary loadshedding in the city and power outages were because of local faults in the area, which were removed by the company’s staff.
In a press statement on June 22, K-Electric claimed that out of 1400 feeders, 1380 feeders were working properly and no unannounced loadshedding was being carried out in any part of the city.
The spokesperson for the company complained that people resorted to violence against the K-Electric staff and used abusive language, which was the main cause of delays in redressal of complaints.
"K-Electric has removed thousands of trained employees after the privatisation and had appointed "untrained, inefficient but influential" new employees on contract basis, who are unable to remove technical faults," complained Muhammad Akhlaq Khan, Chairman of K-Electric Labour Union (CBA). According to him some time and experience is required for handling technical issues. "Some politically influential people have been appointed at top posts who make all major decision. But they are unable to address technical faults," said Khan.
The K-Electric attributed the power crisis to the rise in temperature and increase in power demand to a record high of 3100MW against the company’s generation capacity of 1,010MW. "The supply of 70MW power from Karachi nuclear power plant (Kanupp) has been suspended for a long time and other independent power producers are also not supplying enough power to meet the growing demand. Moreover, low gas supply to the utility’s own power generation units was also one of the reasons of short supply of power," the K-Electric spokesperson admitted.
But it is also a fact that K-Electric, after its privatisation in 2005, has not taken any step for improvement in its capacity. The utility is also receiving 650MW from the national grid through Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) system and natural gas from Sui Southern Gas Company at cheaper rates.
"Instead of relying on its own generation, the K-Electric is saving huge amount by supplying WAPDA’s cheap power," said Majyd Aziz, an industrial and former President of Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Usually SITE’s industrial area is exempted from loadshedding, but during the hot spell the industries suffered huge losses because of unannounced loadshedding.
Aziz, who also remained a Director of KESC during 2008-9 before its privatization, said K-Electric had declared huge profits last year and launched Pakistan’s largest SUKUK bonds amounting to Rs22 billion in May 2015. But despite all these financial gains, the company has failed to provide quality service to its customers.
K-Electric had reported a net profit of Rs12.88 billion during the last fiscal year (2013-2014), which was double the previous year’s profit of Rs6.82 billion.
The K-Electric’s post-privatisation agreement in 2009 to supply 650MW power from national grid for the next five years had expired early this year, but the federal government continued the supply to the private utility at cheaper rates without any further written agreement.
Despite the fact the federal government retains 26 per cent of the share in the K-Electric, it has not played any role in improvement of its performance. "The federal government should come forward to make the power utility efficient," demanded Majyd Aziz.