LONDON — Just days before he is to be sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time, Nawaz Sharif has secured one form of power, yet now faces a fierce battle to find another.
Electricity shortages, bad for years, have reached crisis proportions. Lights go out for at least 10 hours a day in major cities, and up to 22 hours a day in rural areas.
As the summer heat pressed in suddenly in late May — touching 118 degrees Fahrenheit in the eastern city of Lahore — Pakistanis again took to the streets to protest the chaotic state of the country’s power system.
Doctors and nurses picketed outside hospitals, complaining about a lack of clean water and having to cancel operations. Demonstrators burned tires, blocked traffic or pelted electricity company officials with stones.
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Students cannot study for exams, morgues struggle with decomposing bodies, and even the rich complain that their expensive backup generators are straining badly — or, in some cases, blowing up from overuse.
In a bid to quell discontent, Pakistan’s interim government, which is running the country until Sharif takes over Friday, has ordered civil servants to switch off their air conditioners and stop wearing socks.
“Everyone is affected,” said Iqbal Jamil, a heat-flustered resident of Landhi, a neighborhood in Karachi.
The crisis is the product of multiple factors, from decrepit power plants to crumbling transmission lines to decades-old policy mistakes. One reason, however, stands above the others: Most Pakistanis will not pay their bills.
The system is paralyzed by $5 billion in “circular debt” — basically, a long chain of unpaid bills that cuts across society, from government departments to wealthy politicians to slum dwellers. At its worst, this leaves power providers with no funds to pay for fuel, so their plants slow or shut down entirely.
As a political issue, electricity has galvanized the Pakistani public — more so, even, than Islamist militancy. Sharif swept to victory in the May 11 election in part on the appeal of slogans promising a “shining Pakistan” and to “end the darkness.”
Analysts say the question is whether Sharif has the political backbone to take the tough decisions needed to change the system, particularly as some of his own supporters, along with other rich and powerful Pakistanis, are among the bill defaulters who need to start paying their fair share.
“This is not like finding a cure for cancer — people know what needs to be done,” said Robert M. Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., who has written a book on Pakistan’s electricity crisis. “The problem is implementation, and finding the political will.”
The crisis has hit hardest in Sharif’s home province, Punjab. In Kharian, Malik Mazhar Iqbal Awan, a businessman, fanned himself with a newspaper as beads of sweat rolled down his forehead.
Awan owns a small marble factory. In the yard outside, a handful of workers sat quietly beside a cutting machine, waiting for the power to return. Just four years ago, Awan said, he employed 25 people. Now he had just six.
“I can’t pay their salaries,” he said. “How can I if we can only work a few hours every day?”
Awan said he had voted for Sharif, a former steel baron, because he was “110 percent sure” the candidate could turn the electricity situation around. “He’s an industrialist,” he said of Sharif. “He thinks differently than the others.”
Although easing the $5 billion “circular debt” is the principal problem, experts say that money is only part of the solution. Deep-rooted structural issues, exacerbated by political interference and systemic graft, lie at the heart of the power crisis.
Electricity theft, by rich and poor, is common. Slum dwellers steal power through illegal connections; powerful politicians and government departments simply refuse to pay their bills. Electricity officials and the police, fearing retribution, dare not cut them off.
Corruption is notorious in the private power sector, where political supporters win lucrative contracts, often at inflated costs or without even producing a megawatt of power. In 2011 the auditor general noted that the government had committed to $1.7 billion in such contracts, yet added just 62 megawatts to the national power grid.
The crisis is exacting an economic toll equivalent to at least 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to economists — greater than the estimated economic cost of the Taliban insurgency.
At the same time, government policy is in shambles. Decision-making is centered in the notoriously corrupt Energy Ministry; no major new power plant has been built for decades, and the existing ones are falling into disrepair. As a result, Pakistan relies heavily on expensive furnace-oil imports.
In the short term, Sharif will seek to salve his power woes by trying to find foreign cash or fuel to get dormant power stations back on line. His officials have suggested that Saudi Arabia could offer up to $15 billion worth of emergency oil supplies.
But oil and money can provide only temporary relief, and Sharif may also seek other foreign assistance to tackle the structural problems.
He recently asked the visiting Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to provide Pakistan with help in building a civilian nuclear power plant.
Similarly, President Asif Ali Zardari signed a deal with Iran last year to run a gas pipeline across the border to Pakistan. The project would run afoul of U.N. sanctions on Iran — penalties that were championed by Washington.
The United States, for its part, has spent $225 million since 2009 in refurbishing Pakistan’s decrepit hydroelectric power plants, adding 900 megawatts to the national grid. American officials are also working with the government to improve revenue collection.
Pakistan’s leaders know they are running out of time. Population growth alone is adding 1,000 megawatts per year to the country’s electricity needs, said Hathaway, of the Wilson Center.
“We Americans also like to defer tough decisions,” he said. “But Pakistanis are approaching a point where they no longer have that luxury.”