Electricity back in Pakistan after giant blackout

Electricity returned to Pakistan on Tuesday, a day after a gigantic blackout in much of the country of 220 million people, which resulted in tens of millions of euros in losses for the industry.

The blackout began around 07:30 local time (02:30 GMT) on Monday, affecting almost the entire country and its largest cities. The failure is linked to a cost reduction measure taken in the context of an economic crisis.

Power was gradually restored by zones and was again available across the country around 5:15 a.m. local time on Tuesday, Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan announced.

But load shedding will be frequent over the next 48 hours, the time to restart all nuclear and coal power plants, he warned. However, industry will be exempted.

“There is need to invest in the energy sector, especially to improve the distribution system, which has long been neglected,” the minister acknowledged at a press conference in Islamabad.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed his “sincere regrets for the inconvenience” caused to Pakistanis. An investigation has been opened and “responsibility will be determined,” he said on Twitter.

Electricity returned overnight in major urban centers, including the megacities of Karachi and Lahore.

The secretary general of the Association of Textile Factories, Shahid Sattar, estimated the losses in this essential sector, which accounts for around 60% of Pakistani exports, at 70 million dollars (64 million euros).

– “Huge losses” –

Nearly 90% of the country’s textile factories had to close on Monday due to the power cut, he told AFP.

“Every time there is a power outage, the plant has to be restarted from scratch, which takes a lot of time and energy,” he explained.

“We can’t pick up where we left off. All those yarns that are being dyed or treated, etc., we can’t reuse them again. It causes huge losses.”

People warm themselves in front of a fire on January 23, 2023 in Muzaffarabad, during a massive blackout that affected most of Pakistan. (AFP/Archives – Sajjad QAYYUM)

Pakistan’s economy is already faltering with rampant inflation, a plummeting national currency – the rupee – and low foreign exchange reserves. Such a power outage only increases the pressure on small businesses.

The country’s electricity system is a complex and fragile network where malfunctions can quickly multiply, and power cuts are a recurring problem.

According to Mr. Khan, the outage was caused by a variation in the electrical frequency on the national grid, when power generation units restarted on Monday morning and were temporarily switched off at night in winter to save fuel.

Most hospitals, industries and government institutions are equipped with generators. But households and small businesses often do not have the means to afford such equipment.

– “Sitting there, doing nothing” –

In Karachi, hundreds of water pumps could not work during the power cut, which accentuated the difficulties of the water distribution sector, already very fragile in Pakistan’s largest city (15 million of inhabitants).

In schools, classes have often taken place in the dark, for those without battery lighting.

In Karachi (south), Khurrum Khan, a 39-year-old printer, saw the orders pile up, without being able to respond to them.

Electricity problems are “a permanent curse that our governments have failed to get rid of”, he regretted.

Mobile phone services were also disrupted due to the outage, according to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.

A similar outage in January 2021 plunged most of the country into blackout, after a technical malfunction in the south triggered a chain reaction.

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