Hydropower is the cheapest way to generate electricity today and hydroelectric power provides almost one-fifth of the world's electricity. Pakistan is, of course blessed with an abundance of renewable energy potential, but so far this remains unharnessed, except for a few large hydroelectric projects. After the construction of the Tarbela Dam, not a single big hydropower project has been carried out during the last 40 years, except Ghazi Barotha. According to the Water and Power Development Authority of Pakistan (WAPDA), two-thirds of the country’s electricity is today produced from fossil fuels, and just one-third from hydro.

In 2001, WAPDA identified 22 sites for launching hydropower projects to meet the ever-increasing demand for cheap power. It had indicated that about 15,074 megawatts could be generated on the completion of these projects (more than enough to meet our current energy shortfalls of around 6000 megawatts). These projects could also have met the water irrigation requirements for the growing agriculture sector. However, these projects failed to materialise and earlier this year, the Senate Standing Committee on Water and Power was informed that while WAPDA had completed the designs and plans of several hydropower projects, the critical financial position of the government was not allowing for the implementation of these projects.

The only major hydropower project under construction that is due to be completed anytime soon (2016) is the Neelum Jehlum hydropower project (969 megawatts). Medium sized hydro projects like the Neelum Jhelum need to be speeded up since they can make important contributions to solving the energy emergency the country currently faces. As for the large Diamer Basha Dam, (which could add as much as 4,500 megawatts to the national grid and provide water storage capacity of 6.7 million acre feet), the Committee was informed that while the paper work was complete, it still required financing and WAPDA is looking into various sources of financing.

According to water and energy expert Arshad Abbasi who is currently working with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, “during the previous regime, it seems all hydropower projects were kept on the back burner with more focus towards thermal power plants and importing electricity”.

In his view, had the 850 megawatts Munda Dam on the Swat River been developed, the devastating 2010 flood could have been averted and billions of dollars saved in damages. He also pointed out that the technically viable 1410 megawatts ‘Tarbela Dam Extension-4’ is still not ready. This 800 million USD project was scheduled to be ready in December 2006, but it could not be completed “on account of criminal negligence of some officials of the Ministry and former Chairman WAPDA”. In his view, both projects can still be completed soon if the current government headed by Nawaz Sharif takes note and gives them top priority. He pointed out that “Developing our own hydropower is the most important thing for the country”.

While large hydropower projects require a lot of funding and time to be built, what about smaller projects? Many international energy experts like Carl Pope point out that micro-hydro can be deployed to capacity in Pakistan’s north to overcome the energy crisis in that region. In his view, “Pakistan’s northern areas has phenomenal numbers of micro-hydro locations, which can be developed with locally supportable small scale systems, with very low costs and ease of local maintenance. In certain districts, hundreds of projects have been developed by local communities once the technology has been demonstrated; in others lacking these demonstration efforts, no progress has been made”.

With help from the government’s Alternative Energy Development Board, micro-hydropower project development has enjoyed the most attention within the last couple of years, resulting in considerable funds being allocated by international donor institutions such as the European Union (EU). This has led to the sharp increase in installed capacities of this technology in the country (including Punjab and KPK where hydropower projects have been installed in rivers, streams and canals, ranging from under 1 megawatts to 20 megawatts).

According to the AEDB’s recent report, “The support being provided by the international donor community has resulted in the initiation of ‘fast track’ projects by local development organisations such as the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP).”

Here is a chart showing the total installed capacity of Micro Hydropower in Pakistan:

Just recently, Pakistan has also completed its first hydropower project under the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that the government hopes will act as a catalyst to attract foreign investment. The 84 megawatts, New Bong Escape project was inaugurated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week.

The New Bong Escape project has been built in Mirpur District in Azad Jammu Kashmir and uses “run of river” construction, with a semi-submerged powerhouse containing four sets of turbines and generators rather than a dam. It is located about 8 kilometers downstream from Mangla Dam (a major reservoir and itself a 1,000 MW hydropower generator which was commissioned in 1967).

The 217 million USD new power plant, co-funded by the Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, was the country’s first hydropower scheme to be registered with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a CDM project, in January 2009. According to Larib Energy Limited, the project developer, it will reduce Pakistan’s carbon dioxide emissions by 219,000 tonnes annually by supplanting fossil fuel-fired power plants.

The CDM assists developing countries in implementing project activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in return for generating carbon credit Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). The CERs generated by the CDM project activities can be used by developed countries as credits to meet their emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol (which was signed and ratified by Pakistan on January 11, 2005).

No one denies the need for greater electric capacity in Pakistan but it seems that Pakistan’s vast hydropower potential will remain untapped unless the government gives it top priority. To secure the financing for the larger projects, the government has to somehow bring in much needed foreign investment to this sector despite the prevailing security concerns.



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