Lights out in Pakistan because energy-saving action is counterproductive

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Most of Pakistan was without power on Monday as a government energy-saving measure failed. The blackout caused panic and raised questions about the cash-strapped government’s handling of the country’s economic crisis.

It all started when electricity was turned off at night during low usage to save fuel across the country, officials said, preventing technicians from starting the system in one go after daybreak. The outage was reminiscent of a massive power outage in January 2021, attributed at the time to a technical glitch in Pakistan’s power generation and distribution system.

Many major cities, including the capital Islamabad, and remote towns and villages across Pakistan were without electricity for more than 12 hours. As the blackout continued into Monday night, authorities deployed additional police to markets across the country to provide security.

Officials announced late Monday that power had been restored to many cities, 15 hours after the outage was reported.

Earlier, the nationwide power outage left many in this country of some 220 million people without drinking water because pumps powered by electricity failed to work. Schools, hospitals, factories and shops were without power due to the harsh winter weather.

Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir told local media that engineers were working to restore power across the country and tried to reassure the country that power would be fully restored within the next 12 hours.

According to the minister, electricity consumption usually drops overnight in winter, unlike the summer months when Pakistanis resort to air conditioning to escape the heat.

“As an economic measure, we have temporarily shut down our power generation systems,” Dastgir said on Sunday night. When engineers tried to turn the systems back on, a “fluctuation in voltage” was observed, which “forced engineers to shut down the power grid” stations one by one.

Dastgir insisted the outage was not a major crisis and electricity was restored in phases. Backup generators were turned on in many places and at key companies and institutions, including hospitals, military and government facilities.

Late Monday afternoon, Dastgir told reporters at another press conference that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif had ordered an investigation into the outage.

“We hope that the electricity supply will be fully restored by tonight,” he said.

Before midnight, power was restored to Karachi, the country’s largest city and economic hub, and many other major cities, including Rawalpindi, Quetta, Peshawar and Lahore, the capital of eastern Punjab province.

In Lahore, a closure notice was posted at Orange Line metro stations, with railway staff guarding the grounds and trains parked on the tracks. It was not known when the subway system would be restored.

Imran Rana, a spokesperson for Karachi’s power supply company, said the government’s priority was to power strategic facilities including hospitals and airports first.

The internet access advocacy group, NetBlocks.org, said network data showed a significant decrease in internet access in Pakistan attributed to the blackout. It said statistics indicated connectivity was at 60% of normal levels as many users struggled to get online on Monday.

Pakistan derives at least 60% of its electricity from fossil fuels, while nearly 27% of its electricity is generated by hydropower. The contribution of nuclear and solar energy to the country’s electricity grid is about 10%.

Pakistan is grappling with one of the country’s worst economic crises in recent years amid dwindling foreign exchange reserves. That has forced the government to close shopping malls and markets at 8:30 p.m. to save energy.

Talks are underway with the International Monetary Fund to ease some conditions for Pakistan’s $6 billion bailout, which the government says will lead to further inflation increases. The IMF released the last crucial $1.1 billion tranche to Islamabad in August.

Since then, talks between the two sides have been tossed about due to Pakistan’s reluctance to impose new tax measures.

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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