Incapacitation in the energy sector

Dr. M. Asif

The last couple of decades have seen an enormous transformation in the global energy scenarios in terms of trends, policies and technologies. The situation in Pakistan, however, has been dismal. The country is suffering from a dire energy crisis for the last decade or so. The problem is apparently an issue of gap between demand and supply. The solution is to bridge this gap by boosting supplies. It will, however, be a short-lived and costly endeavour unless the causes that fostered this gap are addressed in parallel. This is a subject that is missing in the national debate.

The root cause of Pakistan’s energy woes is incapacitation in the energy sector in terms of vision, strategy and commitment. These traits have rapidly diluted since the 1990s. The situation inevitably led to a decline in professional integrity and competence. The effect has been catastrophic both in terms of magnitude and implications. The objective functionality of the energy sector has eroded, especially at the policy and decision-making levels. Consequently, most of the energy projects conceived over this period — including IPPs, Rental Power Projects and in the recent past Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park, Nandipur plant and Sahiwal Coal Power Project — are untenable for various reasons including financial irregularities and strategic as well as technical flaws.

Political interference has crippled the energy sector more than anything. Integrity and autonomy of energy departments, for example, have been practically overrun by successive governments. There is little regard for merit in key appointments; so much so that even in the midst of the ongoing energy crisis the most sensitive of the positions are given away to cronies. For years the ministries of water and Power and oil and gas were without full-time ministers. Instead, the present as well as the previous regime sought special advisers to run the show. The fact that these advisers were from the medical profession speaks volumes about the agendas and seriousness of the regimes. Arm-twisting of energy sector entities to serve cartels, lobbies and vested interests is a norm. Regulatory bodies have been made spineless. Energy departments have also been undermined by thousands of political appointments burdening them with a compromised, incompetent and potentially corrupt workforce. Dedicated and competent officials, not many left in the system anyway, are marginalised when it comes to vital policy and decision-making; thus resulting into unviable and toxic initiatives and projects. Given these ill-practices, the present energy turmoil should not be a surprise. This is just a wee reflection of the administrative irregularities while the mind-blowing financial scams clouding the energy sector — as even the highest offices, including that of prime minister, have attracted numerous allegations of corruption — are obviously not the focus of this article.

A classic example of the consequences of incapacitation in the energy sector is the famous water-car saga of 2012 which made a mockery of the whole system. It wonderfully exposed the shallowness of not only the policymakers but also the engineering, scientific and media elite. It started when a less than ordinary guy, with a history for fraud and robbery, walked in the policy corridors claiming to have devised a car running on water. Fine up to this point as this is a well-established technology, but the fun started when he made a series of earth-shattering claims that his car needed no energy input for the electrolysis of water and could run perpetually. The guy basically toppled the laws of science and thermodynamics. Interestingly, he was showcased with great pride by a senior federal minister on mainstream TV channels; and was invited in dozens of prime time talk shows receiving applause from top TV anchors. The minister then threw the joke of the century by expressing government’s concerns over the safety and protection of this guy from powerful lobbies as the oil companies were facing being out of business.

The comedy of errors didn’t stop here; this absurd water-car idea was appreciated by the federal cabinet and a special committee was formed by the prime minster to follow-up on the matter. It was sad to see this fraud appreciated by the leading scientists and executives of the engineering and scientific bodies. Only a handful of academics withstood to challenge this fraudulence. This water car-saga made the country a laughing stock in the scientific world. A favour it did, however, was that not only it exposed the people at the helm of affairs for their dearth of professionalism and technical intellect but also showed how easily they can be conned.

Wide-ranging capacity building is thus imperative for the revamping of the energy sector. Augmentation is needed in areas including but not limiting to the power generation and transmission, human resource development and technology-transfer. The most crucial of all, however, is to address the incapacitation at the policy and decision-making levels in terms of vision, strategy and competence. Credentials like sustainability and value-engineering need to be deeply embedded into the policy and decision-making processes. Without fostering an across-the-board culture of commitment and integrity, Pakistan’s energy problems cannot subside no matter how many megawatts are added.

The writer is the author of Energy Crisis in Pakistan: Origins, Challenges and Sustainable Solutions.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2017.

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