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Outages in Pakistan risk empowering foes

Chronic disruptions threaten jobs and faith in government.

A man works in a textile factory in Faisalabad, a city in Punjab province, where power outages had cut industrial output 25 percent. One fear is that job losses could make workers militant.
A man works in a textile factory in Faisalabad, a city in Punjab province, where power outages had cut industrial output 25 percent. One fear is that job losses could make workers militant.Read moreVINCENT THIAN / Associated Press

FAISALABAD, Pakistan - Mohammad Rafiq has worked in Pakistan's weaving factories for 35 years, minding the looms that turn thread into cotton fabric. But long power cuts often leave him and his fellow workers idle and losing wages.

Outages of up to 18 hours a day are threatening the government's credibility while the United States is pressing it to intensify its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Mindful that a bad economy could mean more recruits to the militant cause, Washington has pledged $1 billion to improve the power supply, including upgrading thermal and hydropower plants and modernizing distribution.

Unless things improve, "I'm afraid I'll lose my job and the owner will close the factory," said Rafiq, 52. "I'll have no future."

The shortfall is estimated at 4,000 megawatts, one-fourth of maximum capacity, and practically no one in the nation of 180 million can escape the outages. They disrupt the workday. They shut down fans and air-conditioning.

Urban dwellers often return to a dark home, unable to watch a cricket match on TV or have a cold drink. The blackouts are even worse in villages.

The summer, when temperatures can reach 122 degrees, has only just started, and already rallies against blackouts are drawing hundreds of protesters. Some have smashed cars and property.

Markets that stayed open until midnight or later have to close at 8 p.m. under a government conservation program that has also nixed late-night weddings, which were the norm. Text messages offer "Brand New & slightly used Diesel and Gas Generators," but few can afford them.

Things will soon improve as new power plants come on line, promised Tahir Basharat Cheema, managing director of the Pakistan Electric Power Co., but he made no excuses for the state-run company's failures.

"I'll be very, very frank: Electricity should be available, and it should be available all the time," he said. "I apologize to the people like anything because it has been people like us who have missed the bus, who haven't really done their work at the right time."

The shortages began 10 years ago with a boom in spending on household appliances that drove up electricity use 15 percent in 2007 alone. It exposed deeply ingrained problems with the power supply: outdated transmission systems, widespread electricity theft, corruption and bureaucratic infighting that stalled power-generation projects, and even outdated records that leave bills unpaid.

Outages are particularly painful in industrial cities like Faisalabad, 160 miles south of Islamabad in Punjab province, the center of Pakistan's textile industry, which accounts for 40 percent of factory jobs. Garments and textiles make up more than half the country's exports.

Eighteen months ago, the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics surveyed 400 Punjab factories and said power cuts had slashed industrial output 25 percent. The situation has become only more dire since then.

On a rare day when the power was on in Faisalabad, sweaty men and boys shuffled between rows of clacking 1960s-era looms in a warren of worn brick workshops.

"This is the only work that I know. I'd be jobless if these factories close," said Mohammed Younus, 24. He has been working since he was 14 to support his parents and 10 siblings. "What else could I do, besides taking up burglary or theft?"