In Pakistan, electrical outages are political

A young boy pauses in front an electrical store on March 17, 2009 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s been having problems keeping the lights on -- power outages have lasted as long as 22 hours a day in the countryside and 10 hours in cities.

The failure isn’t just because of infrastructure. It’s political, something that sounds all too familiar to Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“We Americans have been known to also ignore problems if it’s going to cost money to fix them,” he says.

Unlike sequestration and the political gamesmanship in the United States, the energy situation in Pakistan today is critical. He says the new government understands the problem has got to be fixed or “they’re going to be tossed out of office,” especially during a rough summer.

“This week, temperatures in parts of Pakistan have soared above 110 degrees at the same time that there’s no air conditioning for most of the day around the country,” says Hathaway. 

The local economy has paid the price. A factory owner, for example, says he won’t know when he’ll have electricity to run his machines and can’t plan ahead since blackouts are unannounced.

Theft has contributed to the electrical grid’s failure as well: “You have illegal hookups. You have people including large businesses and including even government agencies that ignore their bills.”

That creates a cyclical problem.

“The generation companies don’t have enough money to run, so they produce less power which in turn gives even greater incentive to those who simply don’t want to pay their bills," Hathaway says.

Ultimately, the problems in Pakistan are two-fold.

“What Pakistan has lacked in the past is both a comprehensive approach to addressing its energy shortfalls but even more so, the political will.”

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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