“We still get the gas bills every month, whether anything comes through the pipe or not,” Shah said in disgust one chilly morning last week. Two of the children were coughing, and a small pile of ashes from a wood fire remained in the front yard. “The government tells us to keep waiting, but we still have a long winter ahead.”
Like millions of Pakistanis, these families are victims of a protracted nationwide energy and fuel shortage — exacerbated by domestic mismanagement and international tensions — that has aroused public unrest in this young democracy as temperatures have plunged to their lowest levels in years.
Power-rationing blackouts are routine in Pakistan, which suffers from a shortage of electricity amid soaring consumer demand. But the unprecedented level of wintertime cutoffs of cooking gas and the simultaneous closures of many gas stations have been a double blow to poor communities.
Last week, angry residents staged demonstrations in Rawalpindi and nearby Islamabad, the capital, with some rallying outside government power offices. The protests spread over the weekend to other neighborhoods in both cities, and demonstrators burned tires in the streets. Many said the fuel crisis has dashed their confidence in the six-month-old government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which has provided little explanation or hope for relief.
In November, the federal minister for petroleum and natural resources acknowledged that the country was facing its worst gas crisis — a shortage of about 3 billion cubic feet per day, or about 75 percent of national demand. Experts said this was a result of a mix of depleted domestic reserves, rising consumer use and stalled plans to import gas from overseas.
To date, however, the most visible government response has been a contentious decision to order a sharp cut in prices for vehicle fuel. In return, nearly half of Pakistan’s 3,400 gas stations have closed, leaving frustrated cabbies, minivan drivers and others to scramble desperately to find fuel.
“We have no other way to earn a living,” said Raja Wahid, 38, a taxi driver who had been waiting since 4 a.m. in a line of vehicles inching toward a gas station in Rawalpindi one recent afternoon. “It’s obvious Nawaz Sharif and his policies are to blame. We voted in a new civilian government, and what have they done for the people?”
Shakeel Awan, a leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party in Rawalpindi, said he was keenly aware that “everyone here is yearning for gas. The supply is very bad, and men, women and children are affected. But let me tell you, people also know that only Nawaz Sharif can solve their problems, and they are fully behind us.”
The waiting game
Pakistani experts said there is little that Sharif can do to alleviate the crisis in the short run, and they noted that major energy initiatives by his two immediate predecessors have backfired or become mired in international disputes.
Pervez Musharraf, the general who ruled the country from 1999 to 2008, launched a campaign to wean Pakistani drivers off imported petroleum-based fuel and promote compressed natural gas, the one energy source that the country produces in abundance. The effort was so successful, though, that millions of drivers are dependent on compressed natural gas, and the reserves have been heavily depleted.
A second, more ambitious proposal to build a gas pipeline from Iran has been stalled by opposition from Washington and the inability to obtain international financing. In March, then-President Asif Ali Zardari endorsed the deal and broke ground on the pipeline with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But Sharif, whose administration is heavily dependent on U.S. military and development aid, has been reluctant to pursue the project and risk violating American sanctions by dealing with Iran. Meanwhile, a proposal to import liquefied natural gas from the Persian Gulf region has become bogged down in domestic policy disputes.
In meetings in Washington with Pakistani energy officials in November, U.S. officials reiterated warnings of penalties if the Pakistan-Iran pipeline proceeded but reportedly endorsed proposals for a pipeline from Central Asia and India and pledged technical help to increase Pakistani gas production. Those projects, however, will take considerable time to implement.
“People are just going to have to wait,” said Sakib Sherani, a Pakistani economist. “We need more hard-core conservation and better management of our resources, and we need officials to start explaining the bad news.”
Sherani said illegal and inefficient connections drain 30 to 40 percent of gas service nationwide. “This should be on the government’s front burner, and it’s not,” he said.
More bad news
On Dec. 31, officials of the state gas company announced that the shortfall was almost 2 billion cubic feet per day, despite the closures of the gas stations and other cutbacks. At the same time, they asked to raise prices for new home gas connections by 800 percent.
In a lot with squatters’ tents in Rawalpindi last week, families were putting sweaters on their goats and scrambling to find any source of fuel they could. Light bulbs dangled from illegal power lines, and dense smoke billowed from wood fires. People shut off gas cylinders, now 30 percent more expensive to fill than a few months ago, as soon as their water boiled.
For some, such as 60-year-old Rahnawaz Maksood, who sells flowers on the street, even the price of wood was a strain — about $7 for a month’s supply.
“If the ministers and the politicians don’t fix this, all we can do is wait and pray,” he said.