Last Friday in Islamabad, the Federal Minister for Finance & Economic Affairs, Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, presided over a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) which, among other things, approved two hydel power projects in the heavenly regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. The same day in Karachi, President Zardari was given a briefing on wind power projects by the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) and other concerned departments, and he was informed that three projects would start producing 50 megawatts each within a year.
The President is reported to have said that Pakistan needs to tap all available sources of energy including solar. For a government whose energy policy has almost exclusively focussed on setting up numerous Rental Power Projects (RPP) that produce dirty and expensive electricity from oil and gas, what do these tokens signify? Not much.
It would have been so much better if the government had discovered its love for cheaper and renewable energy a bit earlier in the day, when it took over more than three years ago to be precise. That could have saved us from the prohibitive and unabated escalation in power tarriffs and the unacceptable environmental costs that the outdated RPPs have brought with them. In the coming elections, the government would have had more to show to the electorate and the businesses and industries, that have suffered from the consequences of its indefensible energy policy in terms of excessive loadshedding and constantly rising power rates. The above mentioned projects, and other similar initiatives, announced with a flurry after the government’s dirty RPP-centric policy became indefensible and the stink of corruption emanating from it became too strong, are useless second thoughts. At best, they will serve as electioneering slogans for the PPP, thrown at us as the government’s achievements-in-the-making.
Somehow it sounds strange that now, when the government’s tenure is drawing to a close, at the Karachi briefing the President asked for periodic reports to be submitted to the presidency indicating the progress made and the bottlenecks encountered by the wind power projects, most of them yet to be launched. His enthusiasm for alternative energy sources would have been more credible if it had come when his remote-controlled government was pushing the RPPs as if there were no alternatives and no tomorrow. Had the hydel and alternative energy projects benefitted from the speed with which the dirty RPPs were approved and given unwarranted advance payments according to contracts that seemed to have been customised to maximise their profits, things would have been very different on the energy front. After all, the technology for wind power was not invented yesterday and it was available when RPPs were being prescribed as the only possible solution to our energy woes. The AEDB was also around when the government assumed office and started preaching the virtues of RPPs.
The point is not that the government should not talk about it now because it didn’t talk about it then: It is never too late to start moving in the right direction. The point is that the government is still not moving in the right direction and its tokenism regarding cheaper and renewable energy sources is insufficient and insincere. Otherwise, instead of announcing this or that small-time project and sounding gung-ho about renewable energy, the government would be unveiling a comprehensive policy based on its newfound love for alternative energy sources, a policy that is not completely preoccuppied by the number of megawatts added to the power generation capacity but also addresses issues of sustainability, conservation, costs, distribution and a host of other issues that must be tackled to overcome the energy crisis faced by us. After all it would take more than a few high-tech windmills and a couple of environmentally unsound hydel projects to realise a Green Pakistan, a country that puts the needs of its citizens before the profits of multi-national energy industry that is only too happy to dump its dirty and discarded inefficient power generation plants here.
The ADB-funded Shagarthang project in Skardu District is estimated to cost Rs 4.8 billion and will produce 26 megawatts of electricity. The 48-megawatt Jagran-II project in District Neelum, AJ&K will be built with a French loan and is expected to cost Rs 6.5 billion. The cost estimates in both the cases are revised, and further revision of these costs are not unlikely. Did the government evaluate the cost-benefit of these projects or did it decide in their favour simply because the ADB and the French government had shown their willingness to fund them? Could they be built cheaper? At a better site? Do we have better projects planned that have been shelved because the usual funding sources do not favour them? Will they be environmentally and technically sound? Or will they be like the USAID-funded Sadpara dam near Skardu that, for 18 megawatts of energy, has transformed a beautiful and priceless natural treasure to look like a battlezone and turned it into a monstrous threat for the inhabitants of Skardu city? Were there no cheaper and environmentally sound ways of meeting the energy needs of the people there?
In fact, there are better and cleaner ways of meeting the energy needs of our people but you have to put them before kickbacks, foreign funding, and profits of power generation companies and construction contractors. Most of the communities living in Pakistan are blessed with natural and renewable sources of energy, but enabling them to benefit from these God-gifted resources might not be so profitable to the crippling web of international finance, the greedy global economy and their partners in our government who make policies and approve plans tailor-made for their unethical profiteering. There are no indications that this debilitating partnership has broken and the government has a new vision for meeting our energy needs. Approving a plan here and a plan there and making noises about cheaper and renewable energy do not signify a change of heart and these useless tokens mean nothing.
The writer is an independent columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org