Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pakistani Coal, Nepalese Hydropower and Indian Energy Communications

The debate over how best to meet the nation’s energy needs and grow our economy can be contentious. But the hurdles we face pale in comparison to those stacked before decision makers in emerging nations.

Last week, The Brookings Institution held an event, titled “Energy Security in South Asia: Cooperation or Conflict?” that examined the looming energy crisis building in the region. Charles Ebinger, senior fellow and director, Energy Security Initiative at Brookings, provided opening remarks for the event and painted a humbling picture for the stability of the region as nations attempt to meet rapidly increasing energy demand while working to overcome the barriers of limited domestic resources, institutional shortcomings, subsidized energy prices, a lack of investment in energy infrastructure and little regional cooperation.

Joined by panelists Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at Brookings; Martin Indyk, vice president and director, Foreign Policy at Brookings; and Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, Ebinger argued that concerted cooperation between India and Pakistan, and smaller neighboring states, is critical to meeting energy demand and is both the key challenge and opportunity to providing stability in the region. The panel agreed that cooperation has so far been absent between these states due to a lack of political will – largely contributable to the inability of leadership to communicate effectively on the scale of the energy challenge and the need for cooperation between historical rivals.

To be clear, the challenge is immense. In India, rapid economic growth has given birth to a middle class pushing 300 million strong – 10 million new cell phones are activated each month and 54 percent of the population remains under the age of 25. India needs a $350-billion investment in new electricity generation sources in just the next five years to keep up with energy demand. And India will need fuel from every source available – whether that’s natural gas from the U.S. or Myanmar, hydropower from Nepal or coal from Pakistan’s immense reserves in the Thar Desert.

But despite the real and obvious benefits presented by better trade relations and collaboration on the region’s staggering energy challenges, building the case for cooperation between suspicious rivals has proven exceedingly difficult. Security and stability in South Asia might very well hinge on the ability of governments to effectively educate their populations on both the scale of their energy challenges and the need to holster historical enmity and cooperate with regional neighbors. Just like in the U.S., tackling energy challenges is less a technology issue than a leadership issue. Let’s hope great communicators can emerge in South Asia and unify the region behind an energy policy that makes sense.

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