Getting married in Pakistan? Make it quick

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.

Even in its recent plan, the government has remained vague about its long-term strategy except to say that it would look at its vast coal reserves, hydroelectric power, nuclear energy and alternative sources.

“We are not deliberately holding back electricity from our people,” said Raja Pervez Ashraf, the minister for water and power. “We need to have some patience.”

The problem is, time is running out. The ministry itself estimates that demand for electricity grows 8 percent a year and will reach 36,000MW — close to twice the country’s current capacity — in 2015 and 114,000MW by 2030.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, an opposition party chaired by the former national cricket team captain Imran Khan, sharply criticized the government’s plan, which it called a “quixotic scheme” that would do little to solve the country’s energy quagmire.

“The whole formula is based around conserving available electricity and no sound plan has been unveiled about generation of additional power,” PTI said in a statement. “Once again the hapless masses shall bear the brunt of this impracticable formula of energy conservation.”

At least when it comes to energy conservation, the government has been thorough.

Neon signs, electronic billboards, illuminations and “unnecessary” lights are banned. A second weekly holiday has been added for the public sector, and government offices may not use air conditioners before 11 a.m. All shops, except bakeries and pharmacies, may not stay open after 8 p.m., and every other streetlight will be switched off. Wedding parties, which tend to be elaborate celebrations here, will be kept under three hours.

One who is satisfied with the government’s strategy is Kashif Shabbir, the president of the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The city near the capital has been hit particularly hard by load-shedding with up to 18 hours of power cuts every day.

Shabbir acknowledged that the plan unveiled only addresses the short-term situation and that much remains to be done to secure adequate energy capacity, but he said this is a good first step toward solving the crisis.

“I’m being optimistic about this,” he said. “This is the only way forward.”