Global electricity demand is growing again after a lull last year related to the economic slowdown. The result is more countries face electricity shortages.
This is not just a matter of insufficient fuel or high energy prices as the world has a glut of natural gas, the fuel of choice for thermal power generation. Instead, it mainly reflects poor government planning and neglect of essential infrastructure. It also reflects the accelerated urbanisation of the developing world, which has become a hallmark of the 21st century. To be sure, natural disasters over the past year, such as earthquakes, floods and droughts, severely damaged the power systems of some countries and constrained electricity supplies in others. But the contrasting cases of Chile and Haiti, two countries struck by huge earthquakes, illustrate that "acts of God" are not the only factors in play.
Chile - which in February was hit by the fifth-strongest earthquake on record, measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale - repaired damage to its electricity infrastructure and resumed power deliveries within weeks. Haiti, which was shaken a month earlier by a less powerful magnitude 7 quake, is now losing its forests as it rural populace, still without electricity, cuts down trees for firewood. A few countries, notably China, Kazakhstan and Turkey, took advantage of last year's pullback in electricity demand to push forward programmes to strengthen their power systems. In others - including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Iraq - the power crises that were evident before the slowdown have intensified.
Electricity problems are not confined to the developing world. Australia and North America have emerged as advanced economies in need of a great deal of spending to shore up creaky power generation and transmission networks that are showing their age. Whether their economies can accommodate such spending is an open question. Europe is on the case, spurred by concerns on energy security and climate change. Last month's brief spat between Russia and Belarus over gas pricing was enough to revive EU jitters regarding over-dependence on Russian gas.
Belarus is one of two eastern European transit nations for the 25 per cent of Europe's gas supply that comes from Russia. The other is Ukraine, which in January of last year cut off 20 per cent of the EU's total gas supply for three bitterly cold weeks over a contractual dispute with Moscow. The euro zone, however, is mired in a deep financial crisis that could potentially upset Europe's entrenched renewable-energy agenda. Germany, Italy and Spain have all announced or implemented cuts to subsidy programmes for renewable energy development.
In the developing world, violence related to electricity shortages is on the rise. Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Senegal and Ivory Coast have all recently witnessed furious public protests over power problems. "Consumers have little faith in the system and want to see concrete results on credible action," the World Bank said this month, commenting on Lebanon's electricity crisis. In the past, food shortages in nations such as France, Russia and China triggered revolutions when combined with corrupt, inefficient and authoritarian government. In the 21st century, with more of the world's population living in metropolitan agglomerates that cannot function without electric power, electricity is the new bread.
Insurgents already know this and frequently target power stations and transmission lines for sabotage. "There are very few things an insurgent can do that will get everybody mad at the government quicker than shutting off the power," noted Tom Whipple, a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a US think tank. In May, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan's Helmand province blew up a pylon, cutting off power to industries and hospitals, then refused access to engineers for repairs.
"It was like judgement day," said Ahlullah Obaidi, the Helmand government's director of electricity and water. Pakistan's worsening electricity woes could be exacerbated by insurgent attacks within the country. Most people already squarely blame the government for the power crisis. The country, whose president Asif Zardari is facing calls for his resignation, has asked the US for help with restoring its electricity supply.
"Even if the Taliban and its Pakistani allies were to disappear tomorrow, Pakistan in the absence of a plan to deal with its energy crisis will remain in darkness - literally and figuratively," Charles Ebinger, the director of the energy security initiative of the Brookings Institution in Washington, and Kashif Hasnie, an expert on international security and natural resource management, wrote in a recent paper in which they described Pakistan's electricity situation as "explosive".
Other countries to watch are Iran and Venezuela. In Iran, power shortages are emerging as sanctions bite, despite the country's large gas reserves, and may trigger fresh rounds of political protests. In Venezuela, the popularity of the president Hugo Chavez has been dented by electricity rationing and dissatisfaction with how the government is running public services. The government has belatedly pledged spending on power infrastructure, but improvements may not come in time to save Mr Chavez from losing his grip on political power in September elections.