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In Pakistan, Just Turning on the Lights Is an Epic Struggle


Forty-two-year-old Tabish Gauhar wants to turn on the lights in Karachi. But when he tried to make the necessary reforms to the Karachi Electricity Supply Company so that he and his fellow citizens could do something we all take for granted, workers rioted and looted his office, the government tried to arrest him, and gunmen threatened to kill him. This is what trying to provide consistent electricity in a violent megacity in Pakistan is like:

Pakistan’s power companies share similar woes. Staff are often corrupt and influential families won’t pay bills. The government sells power below the cost of production but pays subsidies late or not at all. Plants cannot afford fuel….

More than a third of KESC’s electricity was stolen in 2009. Those who got bills often ignored them….

Stealing power is easy. Makeshift wires with metal hooks festoon KESC’s lines in the sun-baked streets. Some lead to roadside businesses. Others head into the distance atop lines of makeshift bamboo poles….

Mafias control the illegal lines. KESC staff who remove them are often attacked. Ten were taken hostage in a single incident last month….

Some slums are held by the Taliban or gangs, and KESC staff can’t even enter….

The gleaming Chinese-built gas plant at the city’s Bin Qasim port can generate 560 MW. But Pakistan rarely has enough gas for the plant to work at full capacity.

Despite these seemingly unfixable problems, the Karachi Electricity Supply Company has seen some successes over the past few years. The company made its first profit in 17 years last year, and theft has decreased by 9 percent in the past four years. Power outages have also decreased. Two industrial zones receive uninterrupted power.

For Pakistan to emerge from its destructive cycle of religious and political violence and corrupt and ineffective governance, someone has to turn on the power. Without power, businesses fail. Aimless, unemployed young men seek opportunities in the criminal world or terrorist organizations. Hospitals and schools struggle to provide services. The poor stay poor.

Turning on the power requires tough decisions in the face of deadly threats. Karachi might have taken a few steps, but it’s only the beginning.

[Aerial photo of Karachi, Pakistan during nationwide blackout courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • AD_Rtr_OS

    A gas-fired generating station, but no gas.
    Perhaps they need to consider nuclear power, instead of nuclear weapons?

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