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Pakistan blackout: Cash-strapped nation cuts power to save money, then can't turn it back on

Pakistan Power Outage
A vendor uses a backup light at his stall in a market during a national-wide power outage, in Islamabad, Pakistan, January 23, 2023. Anjum Naveed/AP

Islamabad — Hospitals, schools, factories and tens of millions of homes across Pakistan were left without power Monday after the country's electricity grid suffered a nationwide outage. The huge blackout, right as parts of the country struggle through a harsh winter, was blamed by the country's federal energy minister Khurram Dastgir-Khan on a surge that knocked out the network. 

In a bid to conserve Pakistan's rapidly-dwindling fuel supplies, electricity is often cut off during low usage hours overnight, especially in the winter when demand is highest. Dastgir-Khan told the Geo News network that power units were switched off Sunday night, but when technicians tried to turn the system back on at dawn, the network failed.

Power was still being gradually restored on Monday evening, but the blackout highlighted the creaking energy infrastructure in the country of 220 million people, which is already in the midst of an economic crisis driven by overwhelming national debt and depleted foreign cash reserves.

Like much of Pakistan's national infrastructure, the power grid desperately needs an upgrade. The government, which has lurched from one International Monetary Fund bail-out to the next just to keep the country running, says that kind of investment simply isn't possible.

Pakistan Power Outage
A shopkeeper starts a generator at a shop during a nationwide power outage, in Karachi, Pakistan, January 23, 2023. Fareed Khan/AP

Pakistan has enough power generation capacity to meet demand, but it lacks the resources to keep its oil-and-gas-fired powered plants running, and the energy sector is so heavily in debt that it cannot afford to invest in infrastructure like new power lines.

The outage affected huge swathes of the country, from the financial hub of Karachi to the capital Islamabad.  

In Peshawar, a city of more than 2.3 million people, some residents said they were unable to get drinking water because the pumps are powered by electricity. Telecom companies and several hospitals said they had to switch on back-up generators.

"My kids and I could not take a shower this morning because there was no water due to the power crisis," said bank employee Hassan Imran in Karachi. "They went to school, and I came to the office without a shower."

Opposition leaders laid the blame squarely at the feet of the government. Former human rights minister and senior member of the opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Shireen Mazari, said in a tweet that the outage was evidence that an "incompetent cabal of crooks" was bringing the country down.

As Pakistan desperately seeks to alleviate its energy crisis, it has turned to a controversial helping hand.

Russian energy minister Nikolai Shulginov was in Pakistan for a meeting on bilateral cooperation during the outage. A statement released by Pakistan's government said Shulginov met Prime Minister Shebaz Sharif, and both countries had "agreed on the importance of (the) energy sector for the development of bilateral economic and trade relations. In this regard, views were exchanged on supplying oil and gas from Russia to Pakistan on a long-term basis."

Oil and other energy goods make up the largest portion of Pakistan's federal imports bill.

With domestic gas reserves being quickly exhausted, the country has begun to ration supplies to residential and commercial consumers. Local media have also reported that oil supplies remain tenuous as the government struggles to pay for imports.

A Russian government spokesman later said Pakistan would pay for any purchases in the "currencies of friendly countries," suggesting a possible arrangement that would could enable Pakistan to settle bills in something other than U.S. dollars, which are the international standard, but few and far between in Pakistani government coffers.

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