Lights out in Pakistan as energy-saving move backfires

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Much of Pakistan remained without power Monday as the government’s energy-saving drive backfired. The outage sparked panic and raised questions about how the cash-strapped government is handling the country’s economic crisis.

According to officials, it all started when electricity was cut off during off-peak hours overnight to save fuel across the country and technicians could not start the system at once after dawn. The blackout was reminiscent of a massive blackout in January 2021 that was attributed to a technical fault in Pakistan’s power generation and distribution system.

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

Power was restored in many cities, officials said late Monday, 15 hours after the outage was reported.

Earlier, a nationwide power outage left many in the country of 220 million people without drinking water because electric pumps that run on electricity did not work. Schools, hospitals, factories and shops were without electricity amid the harsh winter weather.

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

According to the minister, electricity consumption usually drops overnight during the winter – unlike the summer months when Pakistanis turn to air conditioning for a break from the heat.

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

Dastgir insisted that this outage is not a major crisis and that electricity is being restored in phases. Many locations and key businesses and institutions, including hospitals, military and government facilities, put backup generators into action.

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

He said: We hope that electricity will be fully restored tonight.

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

In Lahore, notices were posted to close Orange Line metro stations, with railway workers guarding the sites and trains parked on the tracks. It is not clear when the subway system will be restored.

Karachi Electricity Supply Company spokesperson Imran Rana said that the government’s priority is to first restore power to strategic facilities including hospitals and airports.

Internet access advocacy group NetBlocks.org said network data shows a significant drop in Internet access in Pakistan attributed to blackouts. According to the agency, benchmarks showed connectivity at 60 percent of normal levels as many users struggled to get online on Monday.

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

Pakistan is dealing with one of the country’s worst economic crises in recent years amid a decline in foreign exchange reserves. This has forced the government to order shopping malls and markets to close by 8:30pm in order to save energy.

Negotiations are underway with the International Monetary Fund to ease some of the conditions on Pakistan’s $6 billion bailout, which the government believes will fuel further inflation. The International Monetary Fund released the last installment of $1.1 billion to Islamabad in August.

Since then, the debate between the two parties has fluctuated due to Pakistan’s reluctance to implement new tax measures.

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

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