Walking bombs: Poor Pakistanis get cooking gas in plastic bags

MULTAN, 21 Jan 2023:

Pakistanis in the country’s northwestern region are collecting cooking gas into plastic bags and taking the so-called moving bombs home in a bizarre move that risks their lives.

It is happening in the Karak district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is potentially rich with natural gas and oil resources.

But the locals cannot get the supplies to their homes in the absence of necessary infrastructure.

People extract natural gas from a main supply line with a hose and then fill it into plastic bags like helium balloons to carry to their homes.

Pakistan’s economy has been hit by the high cost of natural gas and oil, especially after the devastating floods of 2022.

Inflation and living costs have touched new highs, leaving people with fewer options to keep their houses warm or cook food in the harsh winter.

The dangerous and illegal way of collecting what the locals call “bag gases” carries a high risk of anytime explosion.

But the poor families say they are left with no other option due to high cooking gas prices.

“We know these are moving bombs that we carry to our homes, to our children,” admitted Karak resident Gul Hassan.

Local media reports suggest some people, including women, have suffered burns after gas balloons caught fire. But no deaths have been reported by such explosions.

“It can explode any time and catch fire while we use it but we also don’t want to die hungry or with cold,” Hassan said.

Pakistan is the 21st largest consumer of natural gas in the world. The country is currently experiencing a severe shortage of natural gas supply because of increase in demand in winter.

According to government data, gas availability is around 1.7 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) with winter demand having risen to around 2.5 bcfd.

In December, over a dozen people were arrested by authorities in Peshawar for their involvement in the illegal trade of the natural gas.

The provincial government says no one would be allowed to continue the illegal trade.

“We have arrested several people over the last weeks and cases have been registered against them,” said KPK government spokesperson Mohammad Ali Saif.

But the situation on the ground tells a different story. The illegal practice is not only continuing but involving more people by the day.

The residents have dug a hole in the main pipeline and put in a pipe and taking it some distance from where they fill the plastic bags themselves.

Some people are charging for the service. They don’t measure the gas by cubic metres, but with the size of plastic bag. “We just help them fill their bags and charge a little bit for it.”

Pakistan’s two gas companies – Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Ltd and Sui Southern Gas Company Ltd have obtained permission from the state regulator to raise their prices respectively of 74.42% and 75.35% earlier this month.

Sui Northern was allowed to raise its average prescribed gas prices for the current fiscal year by rupees 406.28/mmBtu (US$1.78) and Sui Southern by 499.28/mmBtu.

With dwindling natural gas reserves, Pakistan has increased its dependency on LNG recently by importing it from countries like Qatar.

According to a study published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in June last year, Pakistan’s “transition to LNG weakens the country’s energy security and financial stability.”

Pakistan’s LNG imports, which were approximately US$2.6 billion in FY2021, are expected to cross US$32 billion in FY2030, according to the study.

The country is also facing the challenge of gas theft and unexploited gas reserves.

The government is also looking to options to import natural gas from Russia and Iran, both sanctioned by the US.