By Ume Ayman
Fatima was rushed to the hospital last week due to a heart attack. She was brought to the General Headquarters (GHQ) Hospital in Gilgit city which is the biggest such facility in the whole of Gilgit-Baltistan. During her ECG at the ICU, the light went out a number of times which caused great difficulty in monitoring her constant cardiogram. However, after a brief light out, the electricity was restored. She was fortunate that the power outage did not occur at a time when she was being treated at the operation theatre – others haven’t been as fortunate as Fatima.
Sanaullah is one of the many photocopiers at Garhi Bagh Gilgit. His shop can hardly fit four people at a time. This shop is the major source of Sanaullah’s income who has to feed a family of 7 which includes 4 school going children. Since the arrival of winters his income has seen a dip. The electricity during daylight is hardly 3 hours and it does not even go out as per schedule. Sanaullah is just one such example whose livelihood has been negatively impacted due to the ensuing acute crisis of electricity in G-B.
Abbas is a die hard cricket fan. He has hardly missed an international cricket match featuring Pakistan. However, he has been resorting to the radio broadcasting for commentary. The electricity outage has made it impossible for him to watch the match. As a consequence he has come to the local mechanic who fixes generators and washing machines. The mechanics in Gilgit city normally witness a surge in their business during winters when the electricity crisis is at its pinnacle, however, this has happened at the discomfort of thousands of citizens of Gilgit city.
In the summer of 2015, Gilgit city had to suffer through one of the worst power outages in over a decade. There was no electricity for more than 2 continuous weeks. During all this time, the general public was kept disillusioned on the underlying reasons. Majority of the people believed it was due to a mechanical failure in one of the essential components of the turbine at the 18 MW Naltar Hydropower plant. For others it was due to continuous rains triggering flash floods and landslides. Yet, many believed it was due to the lack of technical expertise of engineers and technicians working at the Hydropower plant. They reminisce the first year of completion of Naltar Hydropower plant in October 2007. During the winters of that year, people of Gilgit city were least bothered about electricity outages because there were hardly any load sheddings or blackouts. They may be correct at arriving on such a conclusion, however, silt deposits at the reservoir of Naltar may have depreciated the efficiency of the plant causing cracks on the walls accumulating debris from the mountains.
The major reasons for the shortage of electricity in Gilgit are population explosion of the city; corruption and mismanagement; scarcity of water in the rivers during winter; and the lack of technical staff.
Firstly, ever since the residents of Gilgit city saw glowed light bulbs for the first time in 1960s the population has seen an explosion. In just over four decades the population of the city has increased tenfold. Over the years, due to an upsurge in socio-economic and political activity residents of different districts of Gilgit-Baltistan have migrated to Gilgit city in search of livelihood. As a result, the demand of electricity has escalated, but the resultant supply has remained meak at best.
Secondly, corruption has plagued Pakistani society since forever. Due to embezzlement and misappropriation of funds the national exchequer has suffered a lot. Education, health, energy, and governance have received major setbacks resulting in degradation of institutions and depreciation of growth and development. The biggest manifestation of corruption in the power sector of Gilgit has come from the consumers. It has been a common practice that households use power lines connected directly from the utility poles. The electricity meters installed in households are not able to read the units of electricity consumed via these cables. Such utility cables are used by households to supply electricity to operate appliances which use the most power. These include refrigerators, heaters, electric geysers and water pumps. Another malpractice by consumers is the use of various methods to tamper with electricity meters. One such method is the use of strong magnets to saturate the magnetic fields in the meter so that the drag resistance of the internal disk motor portion is enhanced.This allows households to consume greater units of electricity while effectively consuming power without paying for it and defrauding the Water and Power Department of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Thirdly, the biggest source of electricity generation in Gilgit-Baltistan is hydel power. Home to the giant soaring rivers and gigantic glaciers, the whole region is abundant in water for most part of the year. However, water is scarce in the rivers during winters. As a result, electricity generation comes to a halt and loadsheddings (announced and unannounced) subsist for 15 to 18 hours a day during winters.
In lieu of the power crisis, the main solutions for countering the crisis of electricity in Gilgit are a comprehensive policy on population control; introduction of advanced electricity meters; construction of small water reservoirs; and effective town planning.
Firstly, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that a comprehensive policy on population size and growth, fertility and family planning is introduced in the region. To tackle the shortage of electricity in Gilgit, the structural issue of population explosion has to be controlled. Otherwise, any effort aimed to ameliorate energy crisis will fail to hit the mark. Secondly, the introduction of smart tamper-proof meters can curb fraud and misrepresentation by the consumers. It will ensure that consumers do not employ means to tamper with electricity meters and that the Water and Power Department does not suffer huge losses incurred on it due to evasion in paying electricity bills. In this regard, an effective billing system will substantially decrease the amount of unpaid bills in the upcoming years. Moreover, stricter punishments should be imposed on consumers who are involved in evasion of and tampering with electricity bills such as heavy fines and incarceration.
Thirdly, the scarcity of water in Gilgit during winters can be responded by constructing small dams and water reservoirs. Satpara dam in Skardu is the only dam in Gilgit-Baltistan. Although, the project of Diamer-Bhasha dam is still in the pipeline, it will take a long time for the project to start functioning. Big dams also require huge investment and it is evident that large dams have become the most controversial of technologies (Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, 2001). Fourthly, effective town planning can help mitigate the crisis of electricity. In the absence of planned towns, houses emerge before installation of electricity grids and water supply systems. In addition, it can also ensure that electricity cables are not used in violation of regulations, and that there aren’t any “special lines” of electricity.
Given the challenges and structural constraints, Gilgit has to live with the energy shortfall for a long time. There is prompt need to limit losses during transmission, distribution and thefts. Moreover, the city has a lack of experts trained in the energy economics and infrastructure, which needs to be catered to.
In the absence of political will and trained experts it is unlikely that governance will see any improvement; therefore, it is time to avoid taking shortcuts and reactionary measures. Building energy infrastructure and adding more generation capacity will not suffice. The people of G-B have to realize that merely complaining in the midst of a crisis situation will not resolve real issues. The anatomy of electricity crisis in Gilgit city cannot be understood unless the abovementioned structural constraints surrounding the issue are not resolved. The electricity crisis of Gilgit is affecting the lives of ordinary citizens – and the crisis is real.