ISLAMABAD, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Each
winter, a familiar sight crops up in Islamabad and the nearby
bustling city of Rawalpindi: people queuing outside firewood
shops, waiting their turn to fill bags or plastic baskets with
wood to burn when their household gas supply is disrupted.
Gas shortages are increasingly hitting households during the
chilly winter months, often when people are trying to prepare
dinner or need to heat their homes in the evenings.
“What else can one do other than burning fuelwood, when one
does not get gas supplied at his home?” grumbled Muhammad
Razzaq, a 50-year-old government employee, as he recently
collected a load of firewood.
Last winter, he said, he needed to buy firewood for cooking
and heating water for bathing and dishwashing when no gas was
available at his rented home on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Summer temperatures have now reduced the need for heating,
but environmentalists worry that worsening gas shortages are
fueling a new surge of deforestation in the country – and could
derail ambitious efforts to plant trees and reverse the
country’s large-scale forest losses.
“We and our environment will be completely deprived of the
environmental and health gains of these afforestation programmes
by 2030," said Riffat Naseem Malik of the Department of Forestry
and Wildlife Management at the University of Haripur in
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which is working to replant a
billion new trees
"People will be chopping down these trees even more rapidly
to meet their domestic energy needs as long as the government
fails to stave off the huge gas supply shortfall,” he said.
TURN ON THE GAS
Gas consumption in Pakistan has grown by more than 80
percent over the last 20 years. As the country’s population
grows rapidly, the number of domestic gas connections has more
than doubled, from around 4 million to 8.4 million, according to
the Pakistan Economic Survey 2016-17.
Although the government reports that just under 30 percent
of households have access to gas, the state-owned Oil and Gas
Regulatory Authority estimates domestic gas demand to be 5.8
billion cubic feet per day, compared to production of around 4.1
billion cubic feet – a shortfall of 1.7 billion cubic feet.
The authority warned in April this year that by 2030 the gap
will rise to as much as 3.9 billion cubic feet per day.
The country is unable to meet demand in part because of
inadequate investment in gas exploration in Pakistan, due in
part to the country’s poor security situation.
But experts point to other factors behind the gas shortfall
as well, including inadequate maintenance of existing gas
pipeline networks, the diversion of large quantities of gas from
supplying households to fuelling power plants in order to cut
oil import expenses, and a steep rise in the conversion of
vehicles to compressed natural gas as a cheap fuel source.
Mukhtar Ahmed, a former energy adviser to the prime
minister, estimates that by 2030 Pakistan’s overall demand for
energy will increase 350 percent, while the proportion of the
country’s total energy needs met from domestic sources will fall
from 72 percent to 38 percent.
LESS GAS, FEWER TREES?
The gas shortfall has alarmed forest and environment experts
in a country where 27,000 hectares (67,000 acres) of forest are
chopped down each year, according to the government’s National
Forest Policy, published in 2015.
A report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture
Organization says that deforestation has averaged 42,000
hectares annually since 1990, reducing the country’s forested
area by more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2015.
Forests now cover less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s land
area, one of the lowest levels in the region, the report said.
Conservationists fear worsening gas shortages could reverse
recent forest gains from projects such as the ambitious Billion
Tree Tsunami project in the northwest province of
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and the prime minister’s Green Pakistan
Programme, which aims to plant 100 million trees nationally over
a five-year period.
The architect of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa project, Malik Amin
Aslam, said that the provincial government is working on plans
to reduce people’s reliance on fuel wood.
SOLAR AND HYDROPOWER PUSH
The province is supporting the installation of more than 350
community-based micro-hydropower projects, at a cost of 5
billion Pakistani rupees ($48 million), to electrify millions of
off-grid rural households, he said.
The small hydropower plants will generate 35 megawatts of
electricity, he said.
“The project is already 70 percent completed and, in fact,
the ambition has recently been expanded to take it to 1,000
micro-hydro units by 2018. As these remote locations are close
to or in the middle of pristine natural forests, this provides a
carbon-free alternative to cutting trees,” Amin Aslam said.
Solar energy projects similarly are being put in place to
reduce the need for fuel wood, he said, including a plan to
provide solar cooking stoves and water heaters in the forest
areas around Chitral district.
The aim, he said, is that “the trees being planted today in
the province will remain intact, as by the time they grow fully
mature people will have solar-powered and electricity-run
efficient domestic stoves in their kitchens and rooms for
cooking and health as well as solar and electric geysers in
their bathrooms for bathing in winter”.
With domestic oil and gas supplies forecast to be exhausted
by 2025 and 2030 respectively, according a report by the
U.S.-based National Bureau of Asian Research, the Pakistani
government has also expedited efforts to import gas.
The federal minister for petroleum and natural resources,
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, said work had begun to fast-track gas
import projects, including the Iran-Pakistan pipeline,
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and the import
of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
In February the government signed a 15-year agreement with
Qatar to import up to 3.75 million tonnes of liquefied natural
gas a year.
“Pakistan is well on track to have 1.5 billion cubic feet
per day of LNG in the system by end of 2017, which will halve
the country’s current total gas shortfall,” Abbasi said in an
(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio; editing by James
Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
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