Public utilities on a virtual collision course; industries, commercial ventures, and people at large, deprived of both electricity and gas, and compelled to take to the streets in protest against the government’s apathy: this, in a nutshell, is the energy and power status and outlook of Karachi, a city of almost 20 million people, this winter.

The federal government high-ups could broker agreements among public utility providers and the industrial sector to avoid total collapse, for the time being only, and that took place through the imposition of some emergency, quick-fix, conservation and cash injection measures. But there is no planning in place to resolve the aggravating energy crisis of this industrial and economic hub of the country on a long-term basis.

Had there been no agreement brokered by the Sindh Governor and Federal Petroleum Minister on November 26 among the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC), Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), the representatives of Karachi’s industries could go to the extent of defaulting in payment of their electricity bills, shuttering down their businesses, handing over their industries’ keys to government authorities as 12 hours of power load-shedding in industrial units had become absolutely unbearable and unacceptable for them.

The KCCI had also warned that workers associated with 17,000 small and large industrial units in the city would take to the streets in protest in the event that the 12 hours of power load-shedding continued any longer. Earlier, noted businessmen and industrialists associated with the KCCI and other trade and industrial organisations of the city, staged a protest sit-in against prolonged load-shedding in the city’s industrial areas, outside the Karachi Press Club on November 23.

The KESC, KCCI, SSGC, and Karachi Water & Sewerage Board, are all stakeholders in the energy and resources issue and profile of the city, but every such utility and institution is blaming the other for the deterioration of the situation, and no entity is willing to take upon itself the essential task of correcting the situation in order to prevent a complete collapse of power and energy provision in Karachi.

Obviously there is a perennially-present and crippling financial aspect of the lingering Karachi energy crisis whose highlights are: the SSGC demands that the KESC pay its Rs32 billion as gas dues, and the KESC in turn demands Rs15 billion from the KWSB as power dues and several other billions from numerous defaulting government institutions.

Then there are technical reasons, rather constraints, acting behind the present energy crisis in the city. The constraints are largely related to the depletion of indigenously discovered and produced gas resources and the non-availability of foreign energy resources. All plans to import gas from regional countries through transnational pipeline projects could not materialise, despite considerable passage of time, on account of the implications of regional and international politics.

Then there is the issue of use of costly furnace oil fuel for power generation, which is a scarcely used option exercised by the KESC, as they say that utilising this expensive fuel option would increase the electricity consumption tariff for commercial establishments, markets, and the masses alike.

The power, CNG, industrial, fertiliser, domestic, and commercial sectors in Sindh need gas for their energy needs while availability of natural gas in the system has been on the decline especially with the onset of winter.

According to SSGC officials, the gas utility system has 1,090 MMCFD gas available while there is a shortfall of around 250 to 300 MMCFD faced by it, due mainly to increased consumption of gas in winter.

Also, there are constitutional implications of the issue, as all the above concerned quarters believe that provincial reserves of gas should be used, first and foremost, for fulfilling provincial needs of energy as per the provisions of the Constitution. 

The November 26 tripartite meeting and agreement was struck at the Sindh Governor House to overcome the menace of 12 hour-long power load-shedding in industrial zones and for this purpose the immediate measures recommended by the authorities concerned included: gas curtailment to CNG stations two days a week, shutdown of industries for four consecutive Sundays following November 26, developing a payment plan for the KESC’s gas dues, and the curtailment of gas supply to fertiliser plants. 

The agreement said that with the implementation of these steps, gas supply to the KESC would be immediately increased to 180 MMCFD.

Subsequently, the SSGC announced a schedule for curtailing gas supplies to CNG pumps in the province, specifying days and timings for the closure of CNG stations between November 29 and December 11, 2011. The first significant closure of CNG stations came on November 29, when from 11 p.m. that day, CNG stations were shut down for the next 48 hours. However, in the face of mass public agitation, the SSGC officials were pressured to restore gas supply to CNG stations from 6 p.m. on December 1, five hours earlier than the scheduled time for the reopening of CNG pumps.

The November 29 prolonged closure of CNG pumps in Karachi was like a test case for the SSGC; it served to test the waters to gauge reactions and the level of cooperation it would receive from transporters, CNG station owners, dealers’ associations, and commuters at large, regarding a two-day curtailment of gas supply to CNG pumps each week.

Before and after November 29, the closure of CNG stations, gas supply to domestic consumers and commercial ventures, especially eateries, was affected in certain areas of the city. According to SSGC officials, a drop in gas pressure, mostly affecting household users of gas, was related to winter’s increased demand for gas.

Resultantly, gas supply to the KESC could not be improved to the desired level of 180 MMCFD till December 2 and the power utility till then was unable to completely end power load-shedding in industrial areas. Moreover, hours-long and recurring instances of power load-shedding continued unabated in the rest of the commercial and residential parts of the city.

Industry and trade people say that prolonged hours of load-shedding are a severely crippling phenomenon for small and medium enterprises and industries lacking expensive power generation options. The cost of industrial production has also been steadily rising due to prolonged load-shedding hours in industrial zones and the use of alternate energy sources, rendering Pakistani products uncompetitive in the international markets on account of their high cost of production. 

The people relevant to the CNG business in the region say that given the huge volume of investment, contribution to the national exchequer, creation of thousands of employment opportunities, and saving of foreign currency reserves by the CNG sector, the budding public-service energy industry should not be destroyed by frequent disruptions in gas supply, especially considering the fact that the province has sufficient gas resources to meet its needs.

The CNG Association’s representatives say that shutting down CNG stations for two days each week is not an option for them as it would create serious and adverse repercussions for their businesses.

Malik Khuda Bux, Chairman of the CNG Station Owners Association of Pakistan, said that associations related to the CNG business, had conveyed to the Sui Gas Company their disagreement in response to the idea of the weekly two-day closure of CNG pumps as it could create a law and order situation that would threaten the security of CNG stations and related equipment and personnel. “We fear that people would be infuriated on not getting gas for prolonged durations and would go to the extent of setting CNG stations on fire or damaging them, so shutting them down for two days a week is not an option for us,” said Khuda Bux.

In the words of KESC’s Chief Executive Officer, Tabish Gauhar, the KESC had been fighting its case for a justified distribution of gas resources in the country and wanted for public utilities like the KESC to be given preference in the allocation of scarcely available gas so that the electricity needs of 2.2 million consumers of the city could be ably met. He said that there has been unjust distribution of gas under which industries get around 300 MMCFD gas pressure of which 150-175 MMCFD gas pressure is consumed by captive power plants of industries, which is a form of energy consumption for self-generation that should be discouraged.

The KESC Chief said that public serving utilities like the KESC should be supplied gas on a priority basis, while the industry, fertiliser, and CNG sectors should come afterwards in the preference list for gas distribution. He said that the KESC needs more gas volume to utilise its 500 or 600 MWs power-generation capacity that has been lying idle for several days for want of more gas pressure

After all this bickering, now it is up to the relevant state and government authorities to perform the much-needed balancing act and patch things up among these organisations, institutions, and utilities, having varying and divergent views, aspirations, findings, assertions, claims, and counter claims on the energy scenario of the province, whose upkeep, conservation, and improvement has become one of the prime tasks for all relevant state and government circles this winter. During this period, conservation and the careful use of energy resources remains an effective, time-tested, and inexpensively available solution for any emerging crisis in the power and energy sectors.



...and now the gas bomb

M. Waqar Bhatti

Unlike the people of Punjab, who, for the last couple of years, have been accustomed to living three days a week without Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), the people of Karachi had, until relatively recently, no idea how hard the non-availability of this domestically-produced, cheap fuel, for two days each week, was going to hit them.

For the last many years, dependence on CNG as an alternative to petrol, Liquid Petrol Gas (LPG) and even High Speed Diesel (HSD), increased to such an extent that even the diesel-powered public transport buses were converted to CNG-fuelled vehicles, while almost 80 percent of cars, taxis and rickshaws run in Karachi, as well as ambulances of welfare organisations here, also switched to the easily available, cheap gas.

But the closure of CNG stations on Tuesday night at around 11:00 p.m. proved to be a nightmare — equally dreadful for motorists and those who depend on public transport as their only mode of transportation — that would be hard to forget in the months to come.

The first victim of the city-wide CNG stations closure was the city’s fragile vehicular traffic system; the long queues of vehicles outside the CNG stations and petrol pumps, which are mostly located on the busy thoroughfares of the city, disturbed vehicular movement on the roads and people encountered immense difficulties in reaching their abodes and destinations.

Wednesday was even more trying for hundreds of thousands of Karachiites, who mostly depend on the fleet of around 19,000 buses and minibuses to reach their workplaces, schools and colleges, as hardly 3000 public transport vehicles were brought out onto the roads by their owners, on account of the CNG shortage.

Those who earlier used to commute via overcrowded public buses were compelled to station themselves on bus rooftops in order to reach their workplaces. Others were seen making hitchhiking efforts as there was no room for them in, or even on, public buses.

The situation was even worse for women and girls as they found the ladies compartments of public buses filled with male commuters, and unlike them, they could not hang on to the gates or climb on to the roofs of the packed-to-capacity buses.

To add to this sorry situation, the state of transportation in the city was already bleak on account of Muharram; pillion riding had already been banned by the provincial home department so motorcyclists could not offer rides to their colleagues, friends, or even brothers.

In the absence of public buses and given a ban on pillion riding in the city, rickshaws and taxis become the only available mode of transportation; but owing to closure of CNG stations the previous night, many rickshaw and taxi owners could not refuel their vehicles; therefore most three and four-wheelers stood idle in the face of a transportation crisis.

This led to a chaotic situation in the megalopolis where thousands could not reach their workplaces. Those who managed to reach their destinations did so by paying exorbitant fares to the few available taxi and rickshaw drivers who charged double the normal fares because they were running their vehicles on ‘petrol’.

Motorists perhaps had some idea that the two-day weekly closure of CNG stations in the city from Tuesday night would cause them inconvenience, but what they faced was much worse than what they had feared.

Queues began forming early on in the afternoon, and by evening tens of thousands of motorists were waiting for their turn for a CNG refuel – cheaper than petrol but short in supply as the winter demands soar.

Despite waiting for hours outside CNG stations, few had the good fortune of returning triumphant with refuelled tanks, before the stations closed for the day. Even the owners of petrol-run vehicles faced difficulty due to the long queues.

Authorities said that the decision to keep the CNG stations closed for two days a week was taken after talks with Federal Petroleum Minister Dr Asim Hussain and industrialists, in order to save on natural gas, whose shortage is cited as the reason, by the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC), for hours-long outages in the metropolis. But as the supply of gas to industries and the KESC increased, the shortage hit most of the people in the city who venture out daily to reach their businesses, workplaces, educational institutions and other destinations.

At the same time, the two-day weekly shutdown of CNG stations also exposed the city’s dependence on gas. For their part, taxi and rickshaw owners took full advantage of the opportunity and hiked up their fares in an effort to maximise profits. The drivers, however, defended the raised fares by claiming that they were running on petrol, which is far less economical than CNG.

Fortunately, ambulance services run by welfare organisations such as Edhi and Chhipa Foundation, switched to petrol to avoid any inconvenience to patients after gas cylinders of their vehicles dried up; they realised full well that they could not leave the needy at the mercy of public transport, or unattended in their homes and accident sites.

The two-day nightmare ended on Thursday evening but the shutdown left behind exasperated motorists, many of whom took their vehicles to mechanics to make provisions for dual-fuel options.

The two-day CNG shutdown also exposed the wisdom and expertise of our policymakers, who promoted CNG as an alternative fuel a few years back, announced that they would bring large-capacity CNG-powered public transport buses on the roads and issued thousands of licences for the establishment of CNG stations in the city, without telling the people that the era of green, cheap fuel would prove to be remarkably short-lived.

At the time of promoting CNG as an alternative to petrol, people were apprised by government functionaries that CNG would not only be cheaper as compared to petrol but would also be an environment-friendly fuel and would improve air quality in the city where hundreds of thousands of vehicles contribute daily towards air pollution.

These authorities, however, have no answer now as to why they convinced unsuspecting people to adopt CNG as an alternative fuel when the country was going to face a massive shortage of gas that would not only hamper industrial activities but would also deprive the people of electricity and transportation, thereby crippling urban life to an unbearable extent.

And the nightmare is not over for Karachiites; the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) has already announced the weekly CNG shutdown schedule to be followed till December 11, while there is also no guarantee that in future, similar to what transpired in Punjab, the weekly closure may even be extended to three days a week, keeping in view the ever-increasing gap between CNG supply and demand.


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