Gas Or No Gas

Why are we facing an unprecedented gas supply crisis and why is the government silent about it? Why are we being told that the current system is unsustainable without being explained why this is so? A few months back, Energy Minister Hammad Azhar, unapologetically engaged in a heated debate with an anchor of a local TV channel where he refused to answer a question about the impending shortage of piped natural gas in the country. Azhar said that there was no expected gas in the country and the possibility of a shortage was “fake news”. Another question the minister did not reply to was what arrangements had been made to overcome the expected shortage in the winter months, when demand rises in colder parts of the country as gas is used for domestic heating.

There has been silence ever since. While Azhar said there was no shortage, the government soon after announced a schedule of gas load-shedding across the country. Some cities are getting supply on and off, others have shut them off totally to domestic consumers. Since mid-November, many houses in Karachi saw a complete shutdown in supply. People are turning to using cylinders and alternative sources for heating. Nobert Almeida, a Karachi resident who comments regularly on social media, reported of a scene in Gizri, a suburb of Karachi that borders the upscale Defence area, where he went to have a gas cylinder refilled. Almeida tweeted that he witnessed massive queues with fights breaking out.

Sellers have also started rationing supplies — allowing for a lesser amount to be refilled as against what is asked for. Things seem to be getting out of hand. For a nuclear power, nothing can be more embarrassing. The issue came up for discussion in a recent meeting of the federal cabinet, as reported by the local media. In the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, Sindh Governor Imran Ismail expressed displeasure over the “nonchalant” behaviour of Minister Hammad Azhar.

He told the cabinet that while there is no gas in the country and both the domestic and industrial consumers are protesting, the attitude of the energy minister was deplorable. The Sindh Governor told the PM that Azhar “doesn’t even bother to answer our calls”. Another issue that caused much discomfort in the same meeting were the comments made by Shabbar Zaidi, who served as the FBR chairman from May 10, 2019 to April 8, 2020. Zaidi told an audience some days earlier at Hamdard University that the country had gone bankrupt.

Claims that the country is doing very well, achieving great success and changing “are all wrong,” he noted. He also said that it is better to accept that a country’s economy has gone bankrupt and find solutions “rather than deceive people by claiming that it is doing well”. Later, however, in a thread of tweets, Zaidi clarified that his words were taken out of context and had been misreported. While agreeing that he did say that there are issues of bankruptcy, Zaidi pointed out that “we must look at the solution too.” One wonders about solutions.

Experts had warned of a gas shortage during the winter season as Pakistan did not have the required number of LNG cargoes, but no action was taken to address the situation. Is the gas shortage connected to what Zaidi was pointing to? In the meantime, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has warned of a massive gas shortage in the country in the coming years. In a press conference, the information minister said that Pakistan would have no gas in years to come and that local supply was depleting by 9 percent every year for the last two years.

The minister claimed that the burden of 28 per cent population was incurred by 78 per cent of the gas being provided in cities on subsidized cost which eventually burdened those 78 per cent who were deprived of the commodity and still relying on coal, liquefied petroleum gas and other resources for heating purposes. Fawad added that this model is not sustainable because of the 9 per cent yearly depletion of the gas. Such statements only add to the confusion. While we are clear that we have a gas supply problem, it is unclear what we are doing about it. Does the government have a plan in place, and if so, what will it be doing in the days to come?

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