There are hopes that the Chinese Corridor will help with the power crisis, but China has been around the block before. They came, they saw, they left, and might do so again.

The root of all our woes is the fact that we have never really built any hydropower damns, and relied on the short-term fix of thermal power, which is more expensive and needs much more infrastructure. If Kalabagh was online, we would not be having this discussion. The quantity of fuel that a typical thermal power plant requires is so large that it takes special infrastructure and payment arrangements to ensure that a smoothly running fuel supply chain is in place. This infrastructure includes pipelines, roads, storage depots, import arrangements, and a fuel supply arrangement with a large and credible partner. Then the infrastructure requirement is a large transmission line to carry it to the nearest load centre, and a distribution system to carry the power to the consumer.

General Zia announced the construction of Kalabagh dam in 1984, shortly after the Tarbela had been made operational. Unfortunately, the dam became the focus of political dissent against the General’s rule. That was the end of hydropower and the end of the good growth figures in power generation capacity. So the power sector, as it grew, has eaten millions in fuel and infrastructure. Most of the incremental generation capacity is in thermal power, placing heavy stress on the country’s fuel infrastructure as well as its foreign exchange reserves.

The Musharraf government tried to break the growing dependence on thermal power and brought in the first credible Chinese partner to study Thar coal, and there was a desire to work on the next generation of hydropower projects on the upper Indus. By 2003, the Chinese left because they saw that the government was unable keep up its end of the bargain in Thar, i.e. arranging fresh water supplies to operate a coal fired power plant and build a transmission line from Thar to Jamshoro. The hydropower projects for the upper Indus now are idle, and need a  financier, and the private power policy of 2002 attracted minimal investor interest. The PML-N is once again talking about large scale investments in coal conversion and attracting Chinese investment. But, the promised Chinese investment has, reportedly, already walked away from the Gadani Power Park project, again because they saw that the government was not serious about building the associated infrastructure to manage a large power investment on the coast. Hydropower plants take years to come online, and this acted as a disincentive to investment in the 60s and 70s. The thinking of the government is still the same.