South Asia Energy Problems Demand Collective Action
The recent power outages in India have been met with harsh criticism by the media with much expression of concern that these blackouts are not befitting of an emerging superpower. The grid failures made explicit not only to India but also to other South Asian countries, what the severe consequences of not addressing their growing demand for energy might be.
From India’s five transmission grids, three collapsed on 31st of July leaving states with a collective population of about 670 million without electricity. The blackout on Tuesday followed a similar one on Monday affecting large swathes of the northern part of the vast sub-continent. Factories and businesses were unable to operate, severely affecting India’s economy. Photogenically huge traffic jams formed, caused by the lack of road signals with half the country left in chaos with the scale of disruption unprecedented.
!m(/uploads/story/240/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)What is apparent is that not only India but also Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh need to seriously address the issue of providing reliable energy. The situation can only be expected to get worse in light of the growing populations of those countries in tangent with increasing per capita energy consumption. India’s demand is currently growing at a rate of about 4 per cent a year with electricity shortages of about 10 per cent during peak hours. Pakistan’s demand is skyrocketing with projections of 50,000 megawatts being required by 2030, which would equal three times more than the current available supply in the system. Nepal’s population is subjected to up to 20 hours of power cuts per day, especially during the dry season, which is the time when snow-fed rivers run with their lowest volumes. According to the World Bank, only 30% of the rural households in Bangladesh have access to grid electricity. At the same time the government insists that its target of 7,000 megawatts that was set for 2013 has already been reached.
These growing concerns need to be addressed by the South Asian governments but specialists claim that the best solution involves increased cooperation, regional integration and energy trade between the states. India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal have very large hydropower potential and Bangladesh possesses great amounts of gas reserves. India’s coal was the engine for its economic growth, while Pakistan is yet to make use of its deposits. According to energy experts, pooling these resources and using them via an interconnected grid might help South Asia in securing its energy supplies.
The idea of pooling energy resources has not been popular with the South Asian states. Reasons mainly have to do with geopolitics but also with the lack of appropriate infrastructure. The development of hydropower would involve sharing one of the most precious resources in South Asia – water. India and Nepal have signed agreements for a number of different hydropower projects on the Nepalese rivers. Those projects have never been set into motion because of the controversies around water sharing, population displacement and environmental protection.
That is not to say that there is no energy trade taking place in South Asia. There are three Bhutanese hydro-electric projects that supply a significant amount to India’s power grid. The Himalayan kingdom is also working on a new hydropower project that is intended to produce energy for the Indian market. India and Nepal are already working on cross-border power transmission lines and according to officials, India and Pakistan have begun discussing the option as well. But moving from discussions to actual realisations of meaningful projects often turns out to be a painful and lengthy process. A senior official working in the Nepal Electricity Authority points out that
“No matter how much bureaucrats and technocrats like us work for such regional interconnectivity, it is not going to happen unless governments involved really want it,”
Without the strong conviction of South Asian governments that they need to cooperate in order to ensure energy stability, unfortunate events such as India’s power grid failure will most likely continue to happen.
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