VIEW: Energising Pakistan —Saleem H Ali
Short-term planning on energy policy in Pakistan will lead to rash decisions that might lead to a decline in economic growth as well as in environmental indicators
Like other developing countries, Pakistan is also witnessing a rapid growth in the demand for energy both because of demographic pressures as well as industrialisation. This offers a development predicament.
While growth is considered a sign of progress and potentially a means to poverty alleviation, it can also lead to errant euphoria and rash decision-making. The ambition to push ahead regrettably relegate environmental concerns to ‘low politics’, which are dismissed as short-term gains are calculated on the basis of prestige projects such as large dams and sky-scrapers.
The fundamental concern about Pakistan’s current energy policy relates to how the government is defining success. There is a perception that somehow reaching our energy extraction potential is necessarily a positive indicator of development. Such definitional mistakes have led to major environmental policy concerns in previous years. For example, during the early decades of the twentieth century the Bureau of Reclamation in the United States had defined ‘conservation’ of resources as the ability to harness every kilowatt of energy that flowed through a river. There was a perception that not harnessing such energy and letting the water flow to the ocean was ‘wastage’.
The bureau has since then realised that conservation is not synonymous with extraction but rather efficient use of resources with minimal impact on the systems that sustain those resources in the first place.
Particularly troubling are the cost-benefit analyses with regard to the fuel cost for nuclear energy. In most cases, the capital costs are the major component of such analyses while operating, maintenance, and fuel costs are frequently underestimated. The price of uranium fuel can fluctuate dramatically as we can see from observing the past five years of the price of uranium oxide, which was around US$6 per pound in 2001 and has jumped to over $40 per pound in 2006.
Nuclear energy is also not very reliable at this stage since plant upgrades can take years to accomplish. For example, Pakistan’s only nuclear generator, the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) was shut down for refurbishment in December 2002 after exhausting its 30-year design life (it is still undergoing upgrades before being ready to reach capacity again).
The environmental challenges of managing radioactive mining have become evident by the recent case of the village of Baghalchur in rural Punjab. From 1978 to 2000 this region provided the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) with yellow cake for the country’s nuclear programme. The nearly half-million tribesmen in this region near Dera Ghazi Khan, mostly Baloch, are said to have leukaemia rates six times the national average. In a rare show of support for environmental enforcement the Supreme Court agreed to hear the petitions of the residents of the area in March, 2006 — a decision is still pending.
The prestige factor with large-scale hydropower also appears to be resonating with the Pakistani government as several large dam projects are in the pipeline. While the advantages of dams such as Tarbela and Mangla at the time of construction are widely appreciated, the long-term viability of these projects remains questionable.
In its case study on Tarbela dam, the World Commission on Dams generally concluded that the dam had made a positive contribution to the Pakistani economy, particularly the energy sector. However, what is less clear is whether the dam and other such large irreversible hydropower projects can sustain benefits over the long run in comparison with alternative energy sources.
The useful life of a dam such as Tarbela is about 100 years, for which approximately 100,000 people were displaced, not to mention the inundation of 23,000 hectares of arable land. Even the increase in cultivable land requires further ecological study in cost-benefit terms since in many cases mismanagement of the irrigation schemes led to salinity and water-logging, and an eventual loss of arable capacity in 22 percent of the Indus basin. Evaporation losses can greatly diminish irrigation benefits as well. The flood control advantage of dams must be balanced with the risk of dam failure in high-risk zones.
Seismic hazards and the vulnerability of such sources in times of armed conflict and droughts also need to be considered following the Kashmir earthquake of October 2005. The vulnerability of dams to earthquakes remains considerably high throughout this region as exemplified by numerous studies of faults in the area. A large dam failure can be utterly catastrophic as illustrated by China’s experience with the collapse of the Banqiao reservoir dam in 1975. It killed over 175,000 people and displaced 11 million residents. Even though China is proceeding with the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze river, despite the refusal of the World Bank to fund it, the Chinese are having second thoughts about some of their other dam projects including a moratorium on 13 proposed dams on the Nu River.
The first step to solving any technical problem is to have a better estimate of the status quo. At present there is hardly any data available on the energy performance of Pakistan’s industry. To that end is required a detailed audit of industries and households in urban and rural areas. A modest study of energy conservation potential, including audits, was performed by the government in the late eighties which included industrial units, residential and commercial buildings and appliances, turbines and tractors in agriculture and passenger and freight vehicles. Apparently the Asian Development Bank and the German Development Agency (GTZ) have shown renewed interest in revising this study which should subsequently be an important tool for energy policy-makers in Pakistan.
Individual studies of energy consumption, particularly in Pakistan’s rural areas, have revealed some counterintuitive insights. These the government might also consider.
For example, one doctoral study of rural energy consumption in Punjab found that electricity is only used for lighting which is a negligible proportion of the total household energy consumption. The researcher concluded that “supply side energy policy...only encourages increasing the supply of energy resources, [and is] most often based on inaccuracies and extrapolations of past growth or historic elasticity of energy supply.”
By one estimate of Pakistan’s private energy systems’ thermal efficiency in energy generation tends to be around 32-35 percent when the global average is around 54 percent. We could thus have a 60 percent improvement in energy generation by simply switching to newer production technologies. Distribution losses in these systems tend to be around 23 percent, whereas the technical losses should be no more than 3 percent. By this estimate, Pakistan could increase its energy availability by a staggering 80 percent simply through more efficient distribution systems that could be updated at a fraction of the cost of mega-energy generation projects being proposed. Furthermore, these numbers do not even account for energy conservation measures in buildings and factories that would result from proper energy audits across sectors mentioned earlier.
Pakistan has tremendous potential for having a sustainable energy policy, if appropriate planning measures are put in place. However, the current development trajectory that the government is pursuing raises serious ecological concerns which inevitably translate into impaired development in the long-term.
The first step towards an environmentally conscious energy policy would be to have a nationwide audit of current inefficiencies in the generation and distribution system for power. This must be followed by appropriate pricing and compliance enforcement to prevent losses and perverse incentives for wastage of energy. Once these conservation matters have been addressed, the remaining shortfalls should first be met with plans for expansion of renewable sources, primarily wind, solar, biomass and small-scale hydroelectric. Large hydroelectric generation projects should only be considered after the guidelines enunciated by the World Commission on Dams have been followed, rather than hastily pushing forward such projects under the banner of national pride or patriotism.
Short-term planning on energy policy in Pakistan will lead to rash decisions that might lead to a decline in economic growth as well as in environmental indicators. Conversely, human security and environmental risk management, coupled with a long-term approach to energy planning can sustain the enviable economic growth rates that we are witnessing today.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com