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Winter power shortages grip Pakistan

Sagheerullah Khan huddles before a small fire outside his shop in northwest Pakistan, struggling to stay warm and keep his business alive despite five days without electricity.

Other shopkeepers join him and gather around the flames in the poor Badhber neighbourhood on the outskirts of northwest capital Peshawar, lamenting crushing power outages and gas shortages that have plunged them back in time.

"Long power cuts and a lack of natural gas have made life miserable for us during the extremely cold season," Khan tells AFP as he sets the flame of his ageing kerosene lamp to try and light up the pitch-black night.

"We had power cuts of between 15 to 16 hours since electricity load shedding resumed in December, but there has been no electricity in the area for the last five days," he said from a city where the mercury can drop below freezing.

Pakistan faces a catastrophic energy crisis, suffocating industry, making life unbearable as cold winter weather grips the country, and fuelling anger at a government already suffering plummeting approval ratings.

Queues snake from petrol stations as cars stock up on dwindling natural gas, generators rumble loudly at households that can afford them and protesters spill into the streets, furious at the disruption to their lives.

Since late December, Pakistanis have been suffering at least six hours a day without power, as a lack of rain to run hydro power plants exacerbates a long-running power shortage.

In rural areas and poorer city neighbourhoods, blackouts can last for most of the day.

"When I go to work early in the morning, there is no electricity and when I come back after sunset, the darkness welcomes me again," said Razia Khatoon, a  maid who lives in a one-room house in Islamabad's twin city Rawalpindi.

Compounding her woes is a shortage of natural gas, with supply unable to keep up with demand in the frigid winter months and gas pressure so low in crowded neighbourhoods that cooking is impossible.

"I earn 8,000 rupees (94 dollars) a month after working in five houses as a maid. How can I buy cooked food from market on daily basis?" said Khatoon.

Pakistan is only able to produce about 80 per cent of the electricity it needs, officials from the main power regulatory authority the Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO) say.

Production shortfall has been blamed on issues such as corruption, short-sightedness, debts, a creaking distribution system, and a lack of money to invest in renewable energy as demand grows.

Last July, during the sweltering summer months, chronic power cuts triggered riots in financial capital Karachi and the most populous province of Punjab.

Mild weather and rains offered a brief respite in the last three months of 2009, but power cuts resumed in December.

Rumbles of discontent have followed. Police baton-charged a crowd of 500 people protesting power cuts in eastern Lahore city in mid-January.

It comes with the government's reputation dented as ministers face court cases after the scrapping in November of a 2007 corruption amnesty.

Pakistan is also grappling with a Taliban-led insurgency that has killed thousands of people.

"We were already facing the brunt of suicide attacks and bomb explosions and now the government has dropped the bombs of power cuts and natural gas load shedding," said Fazal Karim, an auto rickshaw mechanic.

A PEPCO official told AFP that power cuts are not expected to ease until the winter snows melt, providing water for the hydro power plants.

Naeem A. Khan, a spokesman for state body the Sui Northern Gas Pipeline, said Pakistan can only supply about 80 per cent of gas demand right now.

Two projects to pipe gas from Iran and Turkmenistan to try and alleviate the shortage have long stalled, while investment and exploration for new fields in impoverished Pakistan remain limited.

The impact on the economy has also been immense, with independent analyst A.B. Shahid estimating that power outages have forced about 8,000 small manufacturing businesses to shut down in the past six months alone.

"The energy shortages have made Pakistani products expensive and less competitive in the global markets," he said.

Waiting for natural gas in a queue of cars at a Rawalpindi gas station, businessmen Mohammad Ehsan said he has not seen such chaos in years.

"I am really fed up with the performance of government. They are supposed to mitigate our suffering but instead they have become a source of quadrupling the problems," he said.


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