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The untapped blessing of hydropower

Published Jul 23, 2013 05:10pm


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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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The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues.

She can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

abid mahmood Jul 23, 2013 05:57pm

there are a lot of methods to generate the electricity in Pakistan to reduce the energy crises but no one is working on it. Gasification and incineration are the cheapest and fastest method to reduce the energy crises in Pakistan. In Pakistan we waste max of time in debates, arguments and considering political issues.

SBB Jul 23, 2013 07:16pm

I think you should inquire from the people downstream of the rivers where dams have been created for hydro-electric power whether it's a blessing or not. The people and wildlife of Sindh have been permanently damaged due to the creation of dams upstream. Lands and people that lives happily for thousands of years are vanishing. A better approach could be reasonable population country. The earth can only provide for a finite number of people..

MG Jul 23, 2013 07:22pm

I am surprised to hear an environmentalist talk about the benefits of hydro-power; given the ecological devastation they inflict. In most developed countries, politicians control policy, much like in Pakistan, but the difference is that engineers and scientist form the viability base. Give charge to our engineers and scientists, let them make recommendations and then the government can politicize it all it wants. However, to say that hydro-power (micro or not) is the way forward is short-sighted, given all other, sustainable solutions.

sattar rind Jul 23, 2013 07:28pm

yes small dams would be more feasible for generating the electricity and storing the water for agriculture purpose. besides people would not cry as they are crying against the kala bag dam

Tarranum Naqvi Jul 23, 2013 11:04pm

@abid mahmood: No other method for electricity generation is cheapest than the hydroelectricity. The government needs to give top priority to hydroelectricity projects. The writer has rightly pointed out that we need to harness the huge renewable energy potential the nature has given to us.

Bilal Anwar Jul 23, 2013 11:22pm

I must say that its a very good and timely piece of writing. Hydro, without doubt, has huge potential in Pakistan and because of its cost-efficiency must be harnessed to its fullest scale. But it applies to number of other renewable technologies which had been completely ignored so far. Solar, may be slightly high on cost, but due to simplicity of the technology and short time period to get the project off the ground could be another technicially feasible option. Similarly wind is another area which could made sizeable contributions to our energy mix.

Another pomising area which has been largely ignored is waste to energy. With the expansion of our cities and increasing waste generation, this is the high time when most of Pakistan's cities should be putting into place proper waste managment systems and engineerd landfills. Once landfills are implemented it opens a new source of energy. Again the Methane destruction technology from a landfill and its conversion into energy is a simple and easy to install technology. All these projects are potentially entitled for carbon credits through CDM and/or verified carbon standard (VCS).

The bottomline is there are numerous ways and sources but lack of political will has been the major reason behind the dark situation in which we are in!

Ali Jahanzeb Jul 23, 2013 11:29pm

Pakistan is blessed with every source of energy to meet with power crisis but unfortunatly there is no will or guts to take the measures to fulfil the enerngy demand.

janikhel Jul 24, 2013 12:21am

@abid mahmood: The inept leaders of the country should not be allowed to inter mingle their cheap Poltical tactics with the national policy, and bureaucrats must not succumb to political pressures.

Raja Islam Jul 24, 2013 01:25am

Studies have shown that large dams are an ecological disaster. There need to be other ways to generate electricity. Downstream flow in the Indus is minimal and building large dams will not help.

Kash Jul 24, 2013 05:33am


Very interesting article, the government should look at installing solar power for each village. We should stop looking at coal power etc...look at better, efficient and new ways to generate power.

Now is the time to move the country forward, everything can be achieved if everyone works for the country for once instead for themselves - one country one people all together!!

conflicted Jul 24, 2013 06:43am

One needs to be wary of grandiose proposals which do not factor in the political, social and environmental dynamics. In this context run of the river systems are the least controversial.

Omar S Jul 24, 2013 06:46am

@abid mahmood: Lets not forget the pilferage of funds by the govt officials. Funds are allocated for development but these ministers usurp the funds all to themselves and leave the country high and dry.

Yawar Jul 24, 2013 07:53am

It is true that hydro is by far the cheapest way to generate electricity and should be exploited to the largest extent possible. But unfortunately due to the selfishness of some people, or a few groups of people, no large project took shape since Terbela. Cheap electricity will not only help the consumer but also allow Pakistan's industry to become more competitive in the world.

Asad Khan Jul 24, 2013 09:08am

The hydropower sector needs an investment of almost $2 Million per megawatt of generation capacity. These are massive investments, and the country needs to be prepared to make these infusions for energy security. However once these investments are made, the resultant infrastructure will pay for itself in the form of almost free and green energy.

adnan Jul 24, 2013 01:25pm

The run of river type projects are really politically neutral and even Sind should not have any objection to such renewable energy assets. This is the way to go, but our governments do not seem interested in any national issue except making illegal money and the political "isms " and other stunts which allow them to keep robbing Pakistan. The situation is hard to change unless we start thinking outside the box.

adnan Jul 24, 2013 01:33pm

@MG: Well your surprise is quite surprising! If hydro power is not environment friendly than what else is? All your arguments are against dams for irrigation, not against power generation. What other sources ? Wind or nuclear energy? Hydropower is better than both in all respect.

Ravi Ingale from University of Pune Jul 24, 2013 02:05pm

Pakistan have Asia's longest and 24x7 flowing rivers, So Pakistan can have capacity to build Large dam.

Kamal Gupta Jul 24, 2013 03:17pm

Hydroelectric power is good provided the reservoir area is geologically stable. The only water it diverts is the one kept in reservoirs. Water used to run turbines is fed back into the rivers downstream, sometimes just a couple of kilometers away. Reservoirs are also a means to flood control.

In addition to mega projects, Pakistan can also look at small hydro (and biomass and solar and wind) power for local area distribution. Such hydro projects can also be run-of-river and those using existing irrigation reservoirs. Such plants are already operational in India on rivers like Cauvery, Krishna, Narmada, Mahanadi, and a number of small rivers flowing east from the Western Ghats; on some canals (where these run only when the canals are given water flow) and from irrigation reservoirs (again, works only when water is released for irrigation).

These are typically small projects. Either set up for local area distribution, or by industrial companies who get the power wheeled through the transmission grid.

Pakistan is a major farming country. Agri-waste can be used as fuel for small (10- 60 MW) power plants. Bagasse from sugar mills, rice husk (after oil is extracted from it), wheat chaff, de-oiled cake etc are feasible fuels. Municipal waste can be turned into methane and used as fuel after taking clean precautions.

Solar power still needs subsidies, but then you are facing a crisis in energy. There is plenty of sunny barren land in Thar, Balochistan etc where this may be worth it, esp with PV prices at the present depressed levels. However, a call has to be taken on future oil prices with US, Canada etc becoming energy surplus due to shale gas and reports of huge shale gas reserves finds in Israel.

lone Jul 24, 2013 03:44pm

Pakistan has abundant indigenous hydel energy resources. There are huge hydel potential of energy sources as well as renewable energy which can be harnessed to produce electricity. However, all these hydel sites studies were carried out in late 80ies, and these initial studies results indicated that it would not be economical viable to fully tap down the hydel power in Pakistan. Today, we are still relaying on these studies , which are not reliable source of the exact hydel potential capacity available in the Pakistan. Regarding Munda Dam, it can not be implemented until country law & order situation specifically NWFP situation is not normalize, as the site fall in the Swat River of NWFP. Than the problem will emerge on different stakeholders satisfaction which include GO NWFP, IRSA, WAPDA and Ministry Water & power. It is therefore, suggested to abandoned this hydel site and to look on other viable hydel sites. Execution of Neelum Jhelum hydro Project is under way, however, its very unfortunate some parameters are not still taken or have answers, like after 2005 earthquake did new seismic survey was carried out ? as it's a impoirtatnt parameter of the feasibility study. Is anyone has a plan that how the peoples of Muzaffarabad city will get the water for their daily usage, as even today the people pf Muzaffarabad city don

Anunlikelyguy Jul 24, 2013 04:18pm

Spot on. The need of the hour. Small and medium hydel plants.

Masud Khan Jul 24, 2013 04:41pm

@abid mahmood: It is really highly discouraging to see the elected representative wasting money on their pomp and show and putting a name plate in front of their luxurious cars.They were elected to serve and not show off.This is the reason we are not progressing well.Ali this is corrupting our nation .We should adopt simplicity in every sphere of life and be ready to contribute towards using minimum electricity.We can easily survive on only use of fans and completely stop using Air adopting simplicity the crave temptation to steel electricity or gas will be reduced.The government should seriously think in this respect and call it "NOW OR NEVER".Our population is growing at a rapid pace which is to my estimates increasing demand of electricity by about 9% per year.What to talk about bridging the existing gap in demand and supply of electricity.we must by hook or crook to add atleast 2000MW per year in order to eliminate load shedding. All Renewable sources of energy must be explored on war-footing basis such as solar ,windpower,tidal energy,wave energy,nuclear energy,small hydel schemes.Also we can generate electricity from waste and run of river.The government should ask the wealthy and expatriates to contribute in shape of returnable bonds to generate revenue for the projects.Also tax collection be made transparent. If USA can survive on taxation why not Pakistan.The problem is that what I saw in last so many years that the government machinery is highly corrupt due to which our own resouces as well as borrowed from IMF or world bank are wasted.It is high time put our heads down and eliminate all ills such as corruption,safarash.Once some one asked the president of Hong kong that what is the key to your progress,he answered I quote"right man for the right job"

vigilant Jul 24, 2013 04:42pm

Gov is busy in making deals for import instead of developing local resources whatever they are but hydopower is most important as cheap electricity & water for irrigation & consumption is of prime need

Jaffer Jamil Jul 25, 2013 06:12am

Pakistan: Small Reservoirs: use for flood control, dry spells & mini-power projects

I have seen these floods & how they have tied up Pakistan's vital resources, since at least 1971. It has gotten worse lately - not just because of climate change. Firstly, a National Emergency Response Corp needs to be put together, with individuals drawn from the different government departments, who will coordinate response to all emergencies in the future. Whatever happened to Civil Defense resources? Can they be renamed as Emergency Response Teams?

The solution to the flood problem, I think, lies in building small reservoirs to capture rain water, at their sources in the mountains. The water can be released during dry season into streams that feed into rivers that form the irrigation systems. To mitigate costs, these reservoirs would need to be built from local materials (the same material that was used to build tank since ancient times, long before the reliance on cement). This would not be a mega project, hence the delays and funding associated with mega projects would be circumvented. These would be small projects involving local villages around each reservoir (hauz, tank) so that their labor can be employed. [In turn would affect the migration of people to cities in search of work]. The village Nazims would have to appoint qualified engineers to manage these places [It would also mitigate employment problems for professionals].

These same reservoirs can also be a source of electricity favoring nearby villages. If a project is small enough to generate 100 watt - 1 MW electricity, it will help in local distribution of electricity without spending years in planning, debating & mulling over mega power projects. Poverty-stricken areas, specially in the ranges inhabited by the Karlanr Pukhtuns, would flourish economically because their agricultural production would boom. They will be well off without having to look for work in the plains & the cities. The Kirthar range is another area where these reservoirs would be very useful. Many areas in Baluchistan can also be developed on such small scale & benefit the local people.

This entails partnership with people at the village level, between ethnicities & classes. If successful, mega projects will not be needed. This program will consist of hundreds, perhaps thousands of low cost mini-projects, as we develop an understanding of where to position these mini-reservoirs & the ancillary mini-power plants.