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PAKISTAN: Short on natural gas, locals are shivering and angry

January 18, 2011 |  6:16 am


Pakistan always seems to be short of something. Not long ago, a dearth of flour and sugar sent prices for those staples sky high. Farm fields parched by the country's severe water-supply shortage were submerged and silted over in last summer's catastrophic floods, but with floodwaters receding, the water-supply crisis looms once more. Electricity is always in short supply, so much so that rolling blackouts, known here as "loadshedding," are a daily scourge during the summer that cripples the economy.

In winter, Pakistanis cope with a different, though equally irksome, brand of loadshedding. The country relies on natural gas to heat homes and offices. When natural-gas supplies dwindle, the government resorts to rationing gas to equitably distribute the hardship of no heat and no fuel for cooking. This winter, episodes of gas loadshedding have been more frequent and have lasted longer than in years past.

As a result, Pakistanis rich and poor have been collectively shivering -- and getting increasingly rankled. In the capital, Islamabad, the average low temperature in January is 36 degrees. It's not Siberia, but without heat, the air inside households can get pretty frosty. Pakistanis have been flocking to appliance stores to snatch up electric heaters, but those heaters can't match the heat produced by the gas heaters relied on by most Pakistani families.

Underlying Pakistan's wintry woes is the country's lack of central heating. There are no radiators or thermostats. Instead, most houses have natural-gas piping that feeds into every living room and bedroom. Even in the balconied, marble-floored homes of the elite, iron pipes jut out of walls, linked to a portable gas heater by a few feet of plastic hose. It's not pretty, and most say the heat produced is never quite enough, but it suffices.

Though the country's political leaders have been meeting to brainstorm ways out of the crisis, no one expects any meaningful relief for the simple reason that demand, which goes up at a rate of 8% to 10% a year, is outstripping supply. Several long-term solutions are on the table, including pipeline projects that would bring to Pakistan natural gas from energy-rich nations such as Iran and Turkmenistan. But such projects are years from fruition.

In the meantime, Pakistanis have resorted to stockpiling firewood. Many clamber up on the roofs of their houses to cook meals on makeshift stoves that burn wood. Others have taken their anger to the streets; large protests against natural-gas shortages have broken out in Islamabad and the northwestern city of Charsadda. Speaking to a Lahore newspaper earlier this month, one Pakistani man huffed: "It seems we are living in the Stone Age."

-- Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad

Photo: Employees of Pakistani electrical company and cab drivers rally against the government to condemn gas shortages and inflation at the barricade to the President house in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Credit: B.K.Bangash/AP