What’s at Stake in Pakistan’s Power Crisis

In Brief

What’s at Stake in Pakistan’s Power Crisis

Worsening blackouts are the latest manifestation of Pakistan’s economic distress. A brewing debt crisis could plunge the country into financial chaos.

A wave of darkness engulfed Pakistan on January 24 as its aging power grid strained to meet the country's demand for electricity. The massive outage was the latest in a series of blackouts that have become a chronic symptom of Pakistan’s ailing and climate-vulnerable economy, under duress from devastating natural disasters, a colossal debt load, and the mounting risk of sovereign default. With Islamabad rushing to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), experts fear the response will not be enough to avoid a crisis.

What caused the January power outages?

Local officials blamed a surge in voltage at a power station in Sindh Province that cascaded throughout the country, bringing down the grid and leaving more than two hundred million people without power for nearly a day. 

A street vendor cooks by headlamp as the darkness encroaches on the background.
A vendor cooks by headlamp during Pakistan’s nationwide power outage. Farooq Naem/AFP/Getty Images

Such blackouts are becoming increasingly common. Analysts say the electricity grid, established prior to Pakistan’s 1947 independence and largely constructed in the 1960s, is suffering from a dangerous lack of maintenance and investment. Pakistan is also running low on the imported fossil fuels that power the grid, with prices skyrocketing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

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“Given how rickety and dilapidated the electricity grid is, and the associated infrastructure, it doesn’t take all that much to deliver a catastrophic shock to the system,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center.

What’s at stake if the power outages continue?

Pakistan’s electricity woes have added to the country’s precarious financial dilemma, with the blackout inflicting an estimated $70 million loss to the country’s textile industry, its largest export sector by a wide margin. Meanwhile, Islamabad’s total national debt had soared to over $200 billion [PDF] by late 2022, amounting to roughly 90 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to state bank statistics. A series of compounding factors have shaken Pakistan’s economy: double-digit inflation has made everyday goods such as food and fuel more expensive, and interest rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks have resulted in rapid devaluation of Pakistan’s currency, the rupee. Meanwhile, an estimated $40 billion in damage caused by last year’s catastrophic flooding, a budget deficit worsened by large government subsidies, and an unforgiving debt load have brought the country to the precipice of default. 

Last week’s blackout aggravated this economic adversity. Extended power outages could also affect Pakistan’s agriculture industry and force the country to import more food, a troubling prospect given that the prices of staples such as grain and vegetable oil have soared in the past year. Though Pakistan has been a net importer of food for much of the past three decades, its reliance on food imports surged last summer, when floods destroyed millions of hectares of farmland.

“If these power outages and these broader electricity problems continue over time, you’re going to see major deleterious implications for the economy, both right away and further down the road,” Kugelman says.

What do Pakistan’s struggles mean for other countries?

An economic crisis in Pakistan could have implications for Islamabad’s close relationships with Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, its growing climate disruptions could ring alarm bells for other vulnerable countries. 

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Beijing has invested over $60 billion in the country via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through both debt and equity financing; Pakistan has borrowed $30 billion from Chinese lenders. While China has already reduced its lending to Pakistan, analysts say a sustained crisis could make Beijing wary of investing more money in the country. And default in another BRI country—Sri Lanka and Ghana both defaulted in 2022—could resurface other lenders’ concerns about China’s notorious reluctance to take losses on its loans. Pakistan borrowed more from China than Sri Lanka or Ghana did, so another round of contentious debt negotiations could raise questions about Beijing’s leverage over countries that owe it money. A default could also give pause to other countries considering Chinese investment. 

“Chinese state banks have been acting like most commercial creditors—they seem determined to get their money back with interest as quickly as possible,” says CFR’s Brad Setser.

The United States has sought to bolster Pakistan as a stable partner in a region stricken by terrorism and violence, providing tens of billions of dollars in military aid and other assistance over the past two decades. With Pakistan and other climate-vulnerable countries suffering increasingly severe economic consequences from climate change, many experts say what’s needed now is aid tied to climate adaptation. However, some of them argue that the $200 million Washington has provided to Islamabad since summer 2022 barely registers in terms of Pakistan’s need. That paucity of aid could portend lackluster financial support from wealthy nations for climate adaptation policies in other low-income and climate-vulnerable countries.

Will an IMF bailout stave off an economic crisis?

Pakistan hopes to forestall default by unlocking a paused $1.1 billion disbursement from the International Monetary Fund, the world’s controversial financial firefighter. Islamabad has implemented a series of reforms aimed at complying with the lender’s conditions, including hiking fuel prices and instituting a market-based exchange rate for the rupee. The funding is part of a $7 billion bailout that Pakistan and the IMF agreed to in 2019, their fifth such deal in the past two decades.

What would be coming from the IMF would be a drop in the bucket.
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program, The Wilson Center

IMF conditions have often proved unpopular in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan imposed subsidies that derailed the country’s IMF program before he was ousted from office last year. With the rupee falling to an all time low, imports, especially fuel, have become much more expensive, and officials worry about how the country’s forty-six million poor people will survive the spike in prices.

But even Khan has now said the country has “no choice” but to negotiate with the IMF. To stay afloat, Pakistan has drained its foreign reserves: as of early February, the country’s remaining $3.7 billion in central bank reserves were enough for only three weeks of imports. Meanwhile, double-digit inflation has made looming debt payments increasingly out of reach.

Even so, some analysts say that the proposed bailout would be little more than a band-aid solution given the country’s massive debt burden and debilitating underinvestment in electricity and other infrastructure.

“If you’re looking at the scale of the financial needs within the electricity sector, and the broader energy sector, what would be coming from the IMF would be a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed more broadly,” Kugelman says.

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