Chinese Highway to Energy Heaven?

The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is under fire for its failure to ease Pakistan's crippling energy crisis. But one analyst sees some promise in Islamabad's outreach to China for help.

Posted on 07/17/14
By Ikram Sehgal | Via ViewsWeek
Pakistan has a dismal record of building new water reservoirs and power generation projects. Tarbela dam remains the largest reservoir in the country both in power generation and water storage capacity. (Photo by U.S. Embassy Pakistan, Creative Commons License)
Pakistan has a dismal record of building new water reservoirs and power generation projects. Tarbela dam remains the largest reservoir in the country both in power generation and water storage capacity. (Photo by U.S. Embassy Pakistan, Creative Commons License)

Flanked by his Minister of State Abid Sher Ali and the Federal Secretary, Ms Nargis Sethi, Khawaja Asif, (Pakistan’s) Federal Minister for Water and Power, and of Defense, claimed that load-shedding (the crippling power outages gripping Pakistan because of yawning gap between electricity production and consumption in sweltering summer heat) was necessitated because of the rapid accumulation of circular debt to Rs280 – Rs300 billion (about 3 billion dollars). Some private power plants had shut down, reducing the power supply by 1500 megawatt and taking the overall shortfall to 7,000 megawatt. Forced into unannounced power outages to “save the system”, he said that the government had framed short, medium and long-term plans to end load-shedding in the country. Strangely enough he contradicted himself at the same time by admitting his government’s inability to remove deficiencies in the system.


Claiming that prevailing differences among (Pakistan’s five) provinces were likely to have an adverse effect on national unity, Khawaja Asif asked Wapda (Water and Power Development Authority) to coordinate with the provinces facing water issues and remove their complaints.  In a (newspaper) letter to the Editor ET Mohammad Khan Sial scoffed at this blatant travesty: “Handing the new assignment to Wapda to remove complaints of provinces is no less than a cruel joke, it is tantamount to making the wolf the custodian of the sheep – this is being said in view of Wapda’s controversial role. Wapda has mostly provided wrong data about availability and release of water so that it can usurp a large quantity of water to benefit Punjab.”


The present shortcomings in the energy sector notwithstanding, give credit to the Nawaz Sharif regime for assiduously pursuing investment from China. Zardari made a lot of sudden trips to China surprising and embarrassing his hosts but the nation had nothing to show for it. Kickstarting the process under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the PM recently chaired a Steering Committee on Energy Projects to fine-tune the concessions China is seeking for power purchase agreements and discussing the feasibility studies of coal-based power projects to be launched in the Punjab. These include  2×660 megawatt project at Sahiwal, 2×660 megawatt at Rahimyar Khan and 2×660 megawatt at Jhang, other than the Solar Power Project at Bahawalpur.


On a “fast track basis” the processing of 4,250 megawatt coal-based power projects include a 660 megawatt plant by HUBCO, 660 megawatt project by Global Benefit Malaysia, 420 megawatt project by Giga Energy, 660 megawatt by Yunus Brothers-Lucky Cement, two projects of 660 megawatt by Asiapak Hong Kong, 330 megawatt project by Siddiqsons Group and another 200 megawatt project by Asia Petroleum. China Power International has shown interest in developing two power projects of 600 megawatt each, while Thar Power Company, a joint venture of Engro Energy and the government of Sindh, has also shown interest in developing two 330 megawatt power plants in the Thar Desert. The “early harvest projects” on the priority list include 870 megawatt Sukki Kinari hydropower project, 720 megawatt Karot hydropower project and 1,100 megawatt Kohala hydropower project.


At the inauguration ceremony of Port Qasim Thermal Power Project in May 2014, Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong reiterated his country’s readiness to further augment energy cooperation with Pakistan. “We can exactly feel the energy shortage that Pakistani people confront at present. We will like to work together with the Pakistani side to further deepen energy cooperation, including the identification of priority projects, construction of supporting facilities, and control of risks.”


Within one year the Sharifs have successfully taken the CPEC forward to fruition, this envisages US$ 32 billion Chinese investment in industrial and special economic zones besides highways, railways and other transportation facilities, including oil and gas pipelines. Underlining China’s strategic economic interest, Zhang Chunlin, Director of the China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced that the Chinese government has allocated funds to build 1800 kilometer of railway line crossing the Pamirs and the Karakorams to connect the deepwater port of Gwadar.  Goods from China’s Xinjiang Province presently travel a huge land and sea circle to reach Pakistani ports. From Urumqi via Shanghai, the distance to Gwadar is 15858 kilometer. The mileage can be cut to 4712 kilometer, and from Urumqi to Dubai from 16833 kilometer to 5772 kilometer, saving precious time and making goods and commodities cost- effective.


The Express Tribune headline recently said it all, “Khawaja Asif looks heavenward” invoking God’s name to decrease load-shedding rampant across the land. Will the population remain patient and not get restive at the present widespread power shortages? Not only unable but also incapable of performing both his given tasks of being the Power Czar and the Defense Minister, what else can he do except pray to the Heavens?  He has good Federal Secretaries, consummate bureaucrat Ms Nargis Sethi is a real plus for the Water and Power Ministry for all the right reasons while Lt Gen (Retd) Asif Yasin, who will retire soon, has been excellent in the Defense Ministry.  Unfortunately the workload is such that even if the Minister-in-charge was an outstanding professional totally committed to his task, it would be humanely impossible for one individual to give both the time and effort necessary. Neither committed nor competent, Khawaja Asif does not enjoy a reputation of getting things done, to expect miracles from him to decrease load-shedding is asking for the moon.


Heavens will not fall if Mian Sahib sheds him of his one of his two ministries.  Not given to principles, Khawaja Asif has suddenly been “Born Again” in a vain attempt to impress upon the khakis that whatever he said badmouthing and spreading venom against the uniform for over a decade was now ‘inoperative” and should be forgotten. Mian Sahib needs to curb his trusted aides or face disastrous consequences. Indeed why should Mian Sahib wave the red flag that Khawaja Asif is as Defense Minister before those in uniform whatever the consequences? Let Khawaja Asif keep on invoking God’s name as we must all do if he should stay on in the Water and Power Ministry.


In the meantime kindly let Nargis Sethi get on with the job of making the Mian Sahib-contrived “Chinese Highway to Energy Heaven” real for the people of Pakistan.


The writer is a leading defense and political analyst of Pakistan. He can be contacted at

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