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In the dark

Publication Date : 27-02-2013


For the third time in a decade, Pakistan experienced a sudden and massive power breakdown, plunging swathes of the country into darkness on Sunday night. The technical details have quickly been released: one power station shut down due to a “technical fault”, triggering a domino effect that knocked out most of the power stations across the country. Also revealed is that there was spare capacity available in the system, but not the fuel to get the power stations up and running to pick up the slack. But behind those bare details lies a deeper set of problems, more troubling and intractable. Start with the technical fault. It was immediately blamed on the Uch Power Station but Hubco may actually have been where the trouble started - further investigations will reveal more. Was the technical fault unavoidable? Some power-generating units are being overworked across the country because there isn’t the fuel or money to overhaul other units to run them more efficiently. When machinery is asked to do something it wasn’t constructed to do, it will inevitably break down. Without scheduled maintenance and repair operations, power units will break down.

Once the technical fault had occurred, though, was it inevitable that the entire national grid would be affected? No. But the equipment required to contain problems and keep them localised is not installed in the national grid. Known as directional relays, had they been part of the national grid, they could have prevented a national meltdown. Why isn’t the equipment installed to plan for just such an eventuality? The distribution network has undergone some upgradation in recent years but the lack of a thorough plan, financial resources and the will to implement reforms has meant basic problems are still unaddressed. Finally, with some power units knocked out of the system, why was the spare capacity not utilised? Again, an old answer: no money for fuel and because the spare capacity is mostly offline, the units are in no shape to be quickly switched on.

If the mismanagement on the technical side was bad - though hardly new or surprising - could not the panic that spread through the country have been better handled? With information so scarce and administrators and government officials failing to quickly put out a coherent explanation, for a few hours on Sunday night all manner of speculation and conspiracy theories erupted. Had there been a coup? Was another Abbottabad operation unfolding? Was the government somehow being wrapped up? All completely avoidable had officials had a crisis-management and information-dissemination plan in hand. Will any lessons be learned? Probably not.


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