Power returns to Pakistan a day after massive outage

Vendors warm themselves as they light a bonfire at a market during a nationwide power outage, in Muzaffarabad on January 23, 2023. – A massive power breakdown in Pakistan on January 23 affected most of the country’s more than 220 million people, including in the mega cities of Karachi and Lahore. (Photo by Sajjad QAYYUM / AFP)
Islamabad, Pakistan | AFP | Tuesday 1/24/2023

The national power grid was restored in Pakistan, the energy minister said on Tuesday, a day after a nationwide breakdown left most of the country’s 220 million people without electricity and caused tens of millions of dollars in industry losses.

The outage started around 7:30 am (0230 GMT) on Monday, a failure linked to a cost-cutting measure as Pakistan grapples with an economic crisis.

Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said the grid was repaired at around 5:15 am (0015 GMT) but load-shedding would continue over the next two days as coal and nuclear plants were brought back online.

“There is a need to invest in the energy sector, especially to improve the distribution system, which has long been neglected,” he told reporters in Islamabad.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed “sincere regrets for the inconvenience our citizens suffered”.

An inquiry is under way and “responsibility will be fixed”, he said on Twitter.

Electricity returned to urban centres overnight, including the mega cities of Karachi and Lahore.

Secretary general of the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association Shahid Sattar estimated losses of $70 million to the sector, Pakistan’s largest exporter and a crucial booster of foreign exchange reserves.

Around 90 percent of factories were shut down on Monday, with natural gas supplies too “patchy” to stand in, he said.

“Each time there is a power cut the mill has to be restarted from scratch, which takes up a lot of time and resources,” he told AFP.

“We can’t pick up from where we stopped. All that thread that’s in the middle of being dyed and treated, et cetera, cannot be used again. So we face massive losses that way.”

Khan pledged that industries would be guarded from the load-shedding anticipated in the coming days.

The economy is already hobbled by rampant inflation, a falling rupee and severely low foreign exchange reserves, with the power cut piling extra pressure on small businesses.

– Water disruption –

Pakistan’s power system is complex and precarious, and problems can quickly cascade.

Khan earlier said a variation in frequency on the national grid caused the initial breakdown, as power generation units were turned on early Monday morning.

The units are temporarily switched off on winter nights to save fuel, he had told reporters.

Localised power cuts and load-shedding are daily occurrences in Pakistan, and hospitals, factories and government institutions are often kept running by private generators. But the machines are beyond the means of most citizens and small businesses.

In Karachi, hundreds of water pumps were also offline during the power cut, heaping more problems on the more than 15 million residents of Pakistan’s largest city.

Schools mostly continued either in the dark or using battery-powered lighting.

A similar breakdown in January 2021 affected the entire country, after a fault occurred in southern Pakistan, tripping the national transmission system.