Muhammad Ali is a fixture on the streets of Lyari Town, a notoriously lawless part of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital. Ali has the Sisyphean task of keeping the self-styled City of Lights lit — and electricity bandits at bay. Each day, he collects up to 20 kg of illegal connections, and each day, after he leaves, many residents tap back into the grid. Haji Umer, an 80-year-old who lives in the building that Ali is working on, says he doesn’t steal power, but he understands why his neighbors do. They find the electricity expensive, and the power cuts frequent and long. “It’s so hot and dark inside,” Umer says. “We don’t have any choice.”
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It’s besieged by militancy — over a few days in late September, three back-to-back attacks took place in the city of Peshawar, killing more than 130 people. After U.S. troops withdraw next year from neighboring Afghanistan, the bloodshed might worsen if the Taliban become emboldened. Such violence, coupled with widespread urban crime and the decades-old conflict with India, has made the government devote about 19% of its annual budget to the military — money that could otherwise go to development.
A strong economy would improve livelihoods, give hope for the future, and undermine extremism, often a desperate resort for the marginalized. But the lack of reliable electricity has contributed to holding back prosperity. Over the past five years, GDP growth has averaged 3%, too low to fight poverty and create jobs. Demand for power far outstrips what the country can produce and deliver. In recent years, planned and unplanned electricity outages of 12 to 16 hours daily nationwide have hurt business, aggravated unemployment and sparked angry protests. Over the summer, riots erupted in Bannu district in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the state shut off power because customers weren’t paying their bills. “The tolerance threshold has gone down,” says Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.
Pakistan has ample energy resources: an estimated 186 billion tons of coal, over 100,000 megawatts of hydro potential, and wind potential of up to 346,000 megawatts. But the technology and investment to exploit these resources are limited. An overreliance on imported fuel — over 30% of Pakistan’s energy is from plants that burn furnace oil — has exposed the country to high oil prices. There isn’t enough money to keep the system — a mix of private and state-run enterprises — running or to fix faulty infrastructure that leaks electricity. Nor is there enough capital to develop cost-effective, energy-efficient alternatives. “If we do not solve the energy problem in the next three or four years, [Pakistan] won’t be safe,” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Minister for Water and Power, tells TIME. “We will ultimately end up with no electricity, no water, no employment, no money. This is very critical to our survival.”—Krista Mahr / Karachi