The Pulse

Pakistan’s Blackout Reveals Infrastructural Fragility

A recent blackout caused by a rebel attack plunged 80 percent of Pakistan into darkness.

Over this weekend, Pakistan experienced a major nationwide blackout as 80 percent of the country lost access to electricity following a rebel attack on a power transmission line. The attack exposed the country’s immense vulnerability to attacks against its relatively fragile energy infrastructure. Pakistan, which remains an energy hungry developing nation, has not been able to effectively manage the growing strain on its aging electric grid. The attack, which was carried out by rebels in the country’s restive southwestern region of Balochistan, revealed the existence of major single points of failures in the country’s national power grid. The government was able to mitigate the longevity of the damage from the attack and power was restored to major urban areas within hours.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the blackout was Pakistan’s worst ever in terms of the percentage of the national population that was left without power. The power restoration process was split into waves. According to reports from Pakistan, Islamabad and Karachi (Pakistan’s most populous city) saw their power restored on Sunday evening while other areas had to wait considerably longer. Major cities such as Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta remained without power for several more hours.

The timing of the blackout will place additional pressure on Pakistan’s government and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif’s government recently grappled with another energy-related crisis when a severe fuel shortage hit Punjab province, resulting in a temporary shutdown of several gas stations in the province. The  government blamed the country’s national oil regulatory authority for the shortage — which somewhat ironically came at a time when global oil prices have been hitting their lowest point in many years — but the Pakistani media and public have grown increasingly critical of Sharif’s ability to address major infrastructural issues in Pakistan. Sharif, who spent the latter half of 2014 besieged by opposition protesters over allegations that he came to power via illegitimate means, has found little respite in recent months.

However, Pakistan’s energy problems are chronic and pre-date the current government. Owing to mismanagement and poor governance in the past, Pakistan failed to direct adequate public funds toward the country’s aging power grid. As The Guardian notes, government-controlled utility companies in Pakistan have set energy prices at artificially low levels — a problem given that many Pakistani energy consumers simply fail to make payments for their energy use. As a result, state-backed utility companies lose money and can hardly manage to pay for maintenance of critical energy infrastructure. The negative domestic publicity this attack brought to the Sharif government could encourage insurgent groups outside of Balochistan — including the increasingly desperate Pakistani Taliban — to carry out copycat attacks.