Loadshedding: The Lights Went Out Again

I'm internet surfing when suddenly the clock strikes 5:00 a.m., and the lights go out. "Ugh," I say out loud. "Not again." I count the number of hours it's been since the last outage. Two. Guess we're back to the electricity going every two hours yet again, I think to myself.

Electricity outages, or loadsheddings as their commonly referred to in Pakistan, happen every day, multiple times a day. Most days you're lucky if it only goes out six times a day, but some days it goes out every other hour. Depending on where you are in Pakistan, the loadshedding can last anywhere from one hour to two or three hours.

The reason -- there's not enough infrastructure to support the rising Pakistani population which is over 172 million, according to a July 2008 estimate by the CIA World Factbook.

In an article by Sher Baz Khan in Tuesday's edition of the DAWN, Pakistan's leading English newspaper, he quoted sources as saying the Water and Power ministry was trying to reduce the amount of loadshedding to six hours a day. Though the Water and Power minister said the "sole solution" for the current energy crisis was to have eleven hours of power cuts daily in the rural areas and nine hours in the urban areas.

So what's life like during those hours the electricity is turned off?

Well for one, not everyone is sitting around in the dark for hours. Those who can afford them, have generators, which helps the electricity run during the loadshedding hours. Although generators can be great, they don't keep the electricity running at a high speed so the fans don't run as fast nor do the lights shine as bright. I really didn't notice how stark the difference was until I was reading one night when the generator was running. Suddenly, the electricity came back and the lights were so bright. It actual took me a while for my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the lights.

Also, the generators run on gasoline, so if you run out of gas and the electricity goes in the middle of the night you're shit-out-of-luck. In my house the AC units, the microwave, the deep freeze, the refrigerators, and the toaster aren't hooked up to the generator, thus we can't use those appliances when the real electricity is gone. Sometimes we have to wait until it comes back to eat because we can't heat up food. We also risk spoiling our dairy products because the fridge has to be turned off so much.

During the day loadshedding isn't so terrible, but at night it's horrific. Picture this: you're sound asleep when suddenly the electricity goes. You have to physically get out of bed to tell the guard or gatekeeper to run the generator, which he does by physically flipping a switch and then pulling a cord, akin to pulling a lawnmower cord, to get it running. Then you or someone else has to flip a switch to turn off the fridge and deep freeze and then turn a dial to let the generator's electricity run inside the house.

Then when the electricity comes back you have to turn the fridge and deep freeze back on and flip the switch to run the regular electricity. This is certainly not fun at 1 a.m. and even less fun at 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The generator itself is rather small, though most offices and shops have huge generators as they need it to supply constant power to more people. The first time I saw one, I was surprised because they look like lawnmower engines.

When the lights go out at shops, it's a bit scary. You're standing there shopping, when it becomes pitch black. I normally stand still until the lights come back on, but most people keep moving about doing what they're doing. It's just part of life.

At the charity school where I volunteer there are no generators. When the electricity goes we have to open the doors to let the sunlight in. It gets really hot around noon and all we can do is fan ourselves with books. Whenever the electricity does come back, we all say, "Thanks God."

But the real question is "how can this situation be fixed?" During the summer I attended a luncheon in the States with Mohammedmian Soomro, Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan. I asked, "What's Pakistan planning to do about the loadshedding?" He said hopefully they'd have it fixed within the next two years.

Until then all the people of Pakistan can do is wait and keep getting up in the middle of the night to turn the generator on and off.