Lights out in Pakistan as energy-saving move backfires

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Most of Pakistan was without power Monday as a government energy-saving measure backfired. The outage spread panic and raised questions about the financially strapped government’s handling of the country’s economic crisis.

It all started when electricity was turned off at night during off-peak hours to conserve fuel across the country, officials said, leaving technicians unable to start the system all at once after dawn. The outage was reminiscent of a massive blackout in January 2021, attributed at the time to a technical fault in Pakistan’s power generation and distribution system.

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

Officials announced late Monday that power had been restored in many cities, 15 hours after the outage was reported.

Earlier, a nationwide power outage left many in this country of about 220 million people without drinking water as pumps powered by electricity did not work. Schools, hospitals, factories and shops were without power due to the harsh winter weather.

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

According to the minister, electricity consumption usually drops at night in the winter – unlike the summer months when Pakistanis turn to air conditioning, seeking respite from the heat.

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

Dastgir insisted that the outage was not a major crisis and that electricity was being restored in stages. In many places and at key businesses and institutions, including hospitals, military and government facilities, backup generators were switched on.

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By late Monday afternoon, Dastgir told reporters at another news conference that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif had ordered an inquiry into the outage.

“We hope that tonight the power supply will be fully restored,” he said.

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

In Lahore, a notice was posted to close metro stations on the Orange Line, with railway workers guarding the sites and trains parked on the tracks. It was not known when the subway would be restored.

Imran Rana, a spokesman for the Karachi Electricity Supply Company, said the government’s priority was to restore power to strategic facilities, including hospitals and airports, first.

Internet access protection group NetBlocks.org said network data showed a significant drop in Internet access in Pakistan due to the blackout. He said indicators showed connectivity was at 60% 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 almost 27% of its electricity is generated from hydropower. The contribution of nuclear and solar energy to the national grid is about 10%.

Pakistan is grappling with one of the country’s worst economic crises in recent years amid dwindling foreign reserves. This forced the government to order shopping malls and markets to close by 8.30pm to conserve energy.

Talks are underway with the International Monetary Fund to ease some conditions on Pakistan’s $6 billion bailout, which the government believes will cause further spikes in inflation. The IMF disbursed the last major tranche of $1.1 billion to Islamabad in August.

Since then, discussions between the two countries have faltered due to Pakistan’s reluctance to impose 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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