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Getting married in Pakistan? Make it quick

Facing an energy crisis, the government has announced radical steps — including shortening wedding receptions.

A man gauges liquefied petroleum gas in a cylinder at his makeshift shop in Karachi Apr. 22, 2010. The Pakistani government announced measures to cut state electricity consumption by half, as Pakistan battles a chronic energy shortage, which is inflaming public anger and stifling industry. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan has just turned into one of the world’s beacons of energy conservation.

Facing an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions and rising anger on the streets, the government here announced a series of radical steps to reduce the severe electricity shortfall that is crippling businesses and plaguing households.

The new measures, which range from shortening wedding receptions and forcing shops to close early to prohibiting military officers below a certain rank from using air conditioners, are sure to rankle the population further, but they will only make a small dent in the gap between electricity supply and demand.

Conservation measures are expected to save 500MW a day, but Pakistan’s daily shortfall is 4,500MW to 5,000MW. The government also announced new rental power contracts and agreements with independent power producers that should bring in an additional 2,000MW of generation capacity by year’s end.

The government’s plan failed to impress 30-year-old Ali Hussain, who has been working at an electronics store in downtown Islamabad for the past nine years. He said his store would continue to close at 10:30 p.m. in defiance of the ban because most customers prefer to shop in the evening when the heat subsides.

Hussain said the previous government had promised several years ago that load-shedding — the local term used for rolling blackouts — would be gone by 2010, but he said he still experiences up to eight hours of power outages a day and the situation is getting worse.

“They do nothing,” he said of politicians. “They just speak.”

Pakistan has failed to provide a comprehensive energy plan to accommodate the needs of its fast-growing population. Large projects have been mired in disputes between provinces, and the energy sector is vastly undercapitalized. Public utilities owe large amounts of money to private power producers, which in turn cancel new power plants for lack of funds.

The government said it would pay off about $1.4 billion of the public debt to power producers, but the day of the announcement the largest of them said it would shelve a 280MW power expansion project because of outstanding debt.

The United States has realized the threat the energy crisis poses to its ally’s stability. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, singled out the energy sector as the most important avenue for civilian aid, and USAID launched a $125 million energy program in the country this year.