The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pakistan’s nationwide power cuts highlight escalating economic crisis

Lights were back on in Pakistan after a breakdown in the national grid on Jan. 23 left the population of 220 million without power for nearly 24 hours. (Video: Reuters)
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Three weeks ago, Pakistani authorities ordered all markets, restaurants and shopping malls to close early, part of an emergency plan to conserve energy as the country of 220 million struggled to make overdue payments on energy imports and stave off a full-fledged economic collapse.

But the measures were too little, too late. On Monday morning, the country’s overburdened electrical system collapsed in a rolling wave of blackouts that began in the desert provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh but quickly spread to nearly the entire country, including the densely crowded cities of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi.

Power was restored in many areas by late Monday, and residents had long grown accustomed to periodic electricity cuts — known here as load-shedding — as fuel shortages have become a chronic problem. Twice before, in 2015 and 2021, similar nationwide blackouts occurred. But the massive scale of this one came as a shock. Hospitals were left in the dark for hours, textile factories shut down, and people overran gas stations to buy generator fuel. Cellphone communication was cut off in many areas.

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“Load-shedding has been happening two or three hours a day, but I’ve never seen a 24-hour breakdown like this,” Omar Salim, a shopkeeper in Karachi, told Dunya TV news. He said the government had pledged to solve the country’s economic problems, but that they had worsened instead.

“No power, no gas, no jobs, people waiting in long lines for flour trucks, inflation higher than ever,” he said. “It seems like we are living in a stone age.”

Liaqat Ali, 50, a garage mechanic in this capital city, said he used his small generator until it ran out of fuel but had no money to buy more. Then he turned on his cellphone flashlight to repair customers’ car engines in the evening until that finally died too.

“We are already struggling to keep our business going with the daily power cuts, but when the light goes out for 20 hours and we have to shut down, it ruins everything,” Ali told The Washington Post. “For poor people like me, life has become miserable because of these corrupt rulers and politicians. They talk about fixing things, but they do nothing for the common people.”

The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who took office in April after Imran Khan was forced from power in a parliamentary vote, has been grappling ever since with the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Experts have warned that the government is coming perilously close to defaulting on its foreign debt.

“I would like to express my sincere regrets for the inconvenience our citizens suffered due to power outage yesterday. On my orders an inquiry is underway to determine reasons of the power failure. Responsibility will be fixed,” Sharif tweeted on Tuesday.

The urgent problem of recurring fuel and energy shortages is an especially visible result of a larger and complex problem with many moving parts. Pakistani authorities are trying to meet the basic needs of a large and impoverished nation while under heavy foreign pressure to pay long-standing debts and to take unpopular austerity measures in exchange for debt relief from the International Monetary Fund, which has now been delayed.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani rupee has plunged to an all-time low of 230 against the dollar, and the country’s foreign reserves shrank by 50 percent last year. Experts say the country has barely enough left to pay for another month’s worth of fuel and energy imports. Inflation rose at unprecedented rates of 25 percent in the past year, hitting fuel and essential food items such as flour, rice and sugar especially hard.

“Pakistan’s economic condition is critical. It has reached a most dangerous point,” economist Zubair Khan said on Geo News TV on Tuesday. “The power cuts reflect that. We are now seeing the effects of a fragile economy every day. Pakistan needs to take economic decisions in a serious manner. It needs better economic management, and it needs to stop giving priority to politics.”

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As public frustration and concern spread Monday, officials said they were working hard to fully restore power but offered various explanations for the cause of the unprecedented crash. Some utility officials blamed one another for failing to anticipate the cascading blackout or for delaying needed repairs to the electrical power system.

Officials said the recent order to shut down markets and eateries in the evenings was expected to save the country about $273 million in electrical output, but experts said that amount fell far short of what was needed, and some business owners balked at the plan. Officials also said Sharif had ordered all government departments to reduce electricity consumption by 30 percent.

However, the government has been reluctant to take overly harsh measures with new elections planned for later this year. Khan, a popular leader with a large following, has held large public rallies in recent months. He survived an assassination attempt at a rally in early November and has relentlessly criticized the Sharif government as corrupt and incompetent.

“We want this government to go. Prices were high when Imran Khan was here, but now they are much higher,” Samia Khan, a homemaker in Peshawar, a city in northwest Pakistan, told Bol TV news. On Monday, she said, “the lights went out when my kids were getting ready for school, and [the lights] didn’t come back on until after midnight. I have to cook and clean in the dark, and the electric and gas bill are going higher and higher. Things are getting worse with each day.”

The power system collapse began at 7:30 Monday morning in Sindh and Baluchistan, and by midmorning, it had reached every corner of the country. By evening, officials announced that power had been restored in many cities but not nationwide. Many areas of the country were without electricity for 12 hours.

According to some reports, the blackout stemmed from an energy-saving measure to reduce power Sunday night, which made it more difficult to restart the system Monday morning. Others blamed poor conditions in old transmission equipment.