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The electricity crisis in Gilgit

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[author image=”” ]Ume Ayman The writer has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Zabist, Islamabad [/author]

Fatima was rushed to the hospital last week as she suffered a heart attack. She was brought to the General Headquarters (GHQ) Hospital in Gilgit city — the biggest such facility in Gilgit-Baltistan. During her ECG at the ICU, the electricity went out a number of times. However, it was restored soon. She was fortunate that the power outage did not occur at a time when she was being treated in the operation theatre, for 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. It is the major source of Sanaullah’s income. He has to feed a family of seven, including four school-going children. In winter, his income saw a dip. His shop had electricity for barely three hours during the day and the outages were not as per schedule. Sanaullah is just one example of livelihoods negatively impacted by the electricity crisis in Gilgit-Baltistan.

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 over two weeks. During this time, the general public was kept ignorant about the underlying reasons for this. Many believed it was due to the lack of technical expertise of engineers and technicians working at the hydropower plant. The major reasons for the shortage of electricity in Gilgit include the population explosion of the city; corruption and mismanagement; shortage of water in the rivers during winter; and the lack of technical staff. Since the 1960s, when residents of Gilgit city saw glowing light bulbs for the first time, the population has seen an explosion. In just over four decades, the city’s population has increased tenfold. As a result, the demand for electricity has escalated, whereas supply has remained meek at best.

The biggest manifestation of corruption in Gilgit’s power sector has come from the consumers. It is commonplace for households to 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. Another malpractice by consumers is the use of various methods to tamper with electricity meters. This allows households to consume greater units of electricity without paying for it.

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 winter. As a result, electricity generation comes to a halt and power outages persists for 15 to 18 hours a day. The main solutions for countering this crisis are to prepare a comprehensive policy on population control, introducing advanced electricity meters, constructing small water reservoirs and undertaking effective town planning. 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. The structural issue of population explosion has to be controlled. Otherwise, any effort aimed to ameliorate the energy crisis will fail to hit the mark. The introduction of smart tamper-proof meters can curb fraud and misrepresentation by consumers. It will ensure that the Water and Power Department does not suffer huge losses incurred due to evasion in paying bills. Stricter punishment should be imposed on consumers who are involved in the evasion of electricity bills.

The shortage of water in Gilgit during winter can be dealt with by the construction of small dams and water reservoirs. The Satpara Dam in Skardu is the only dam in Gilgit-Baltistan. Although the Diamer-Bhasha Dam project is still in the pipeline, it will be a while before the project starts functioning. It is evident that large dams have become the most controversial of technologies (Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, 2001). Effective town planning can help mitigate the electricity crisis. In addition, it can also ensure that electricity cables are not used in violation of regulations.

In the absence of political will and trained experts, it is unlikely that governance will see any improvement. Building energy infrastructure and adding more generation capacity will not suffice. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have to realise that merely complaining in the midst of a crisis will not resolve anything. The electricity crisis in Gilgit city cannot be understood unless the above-mentioned 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.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2016.

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