Micro Hydropwer project set up in Eizh village in Garam Chashma, Chitral -Photo by the writer
Micro Hydropwer project set up in Eizh village in Garam Chashma, Chitral -Photo by the writer

At a two-hour drive rough over broken roads from Chitral town, lies Garam Chashma. This is where hot springs bubble up from deep inside the neighbouring mountains that tower over this sleepy town. The broken roads are due to the recent flooding in the area. On a recent trip to Chitral, organised by the Heinrich Boll Foundation for journalists based in Islamabad, we clambered up to the top of the town to see the source of the hot springs.

The townspeople had erected a water tank at the top and we could see the hot water, which smelled of sulphur, bubbling in the tank. Pipes running down from the tank supply various locations in the town, including the neat and clean hotel we were staying at.

Hot spring water is considered a natural cure for people suffering from skin diseases, arthritis and many other ailments. People come from all over Chitral to bathe in these waters and if the roads were better, more domestic tourists would arrive too. What was amazing about our hotel was that besides the never ending supply of hot water (which also warmed the radiators in the rooms that kept us warm in April and filled up a large swimming pool in the back) there was also a continuous supply of electricity to the hotel from a nearby micro hydropower power station or bijlee ghar in this area.

The main purpose of our journey to Garam Chashma, in fact, was to see the micro hydropower projects set up by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Chitral since the 1990s. Around 60 pc of Chitral district still does not have access to electricity and the 111 functional micro hydropower projects, in Chitral supply much needed energy to the local communities inhabiting these remote mountains. These small hydro projects are maintained and operated by the local villagers who also contribute around 20pc of the cost of installation through cash or labour. The electricity tariffs provided to the villagers are set by the communities themselves. The literacy rate in Chitral is around 62pc so there is no shortage of qualified people, trained by AKRSP, to run these power stations.

Lighting up Chitral with micro hydropower

The micro hydropower power plants have also been registered under the international Clean Development Mechanism whereby they receive carbon credits for the green house gas emissions saved by providing renewable energy instead of running diesel generators. The potential for installing further clean hydropower projects in the district is immense. “I would estimate that the potential for electricity from hydropower is up to 30,000 MW in Chitral District alone” said the spokesman from AKRSP, during our visit to their office in Chitral.

Today, assisted by the government of Khyber Pakhunkwa (KP), 55 more micro hydropower projects, ranging from 15KV to 500KV, are under construction with technical support provided by the AKRSP. “Our model was so successful that they asked us to go ahead and scale it up; we are very happy with the KP government” said the AKRSP spokesman. The electricity will be supplied to off-grid mountain communities, transforming their lives. “The women’s workload has been drastically reduced, plus there is less deforestation now. Our health facilities have also improved as the equipment now runs on electricity and we can also introduce computers in our schools”, said Anwar, a local councillor, during our visit to the nearby 80MV plant that was upgraded in 2014. He pointed out however, that the demand for electricity was growing as the town’s population grew and they now needed at least 500 MV to run banks, police station, shops and new homes built in recent years. “We want to build a bigger power plant if we could get the funding for it”.

The micro hydropower station that we visited in the village of Eizh in Garam Chashma is a picturesque bijlee ghar built at the base of a steep cliff, overlooking a gushing river. It runs for 24 hours a day, with Sundays off for maintenance. It supplies electricity to 400 connections, charging Rs3 per unit per house and Rs 12per unit per commercial business.

There was also a washing area built next to the power station for the women of the village to wash their clothes but that part was swept away in the recent floods. “It was 2.30 in the morning and I was sitting here at the station when I heard the flood coming, it sounded like a roaring truck and the earth was shaking too. We quickly ran up to the top of the cliff, there is a steep path behind the bijlee ghar. Luckily the flood spared the machinery of the bijlee ghar”, recalled Mohammed Dulla, a local villager.

These devastating floods have become more frequent in recent years as temperatures rise in these high mountains, melting glaciers and causing erratic rainfall. “Climate change is a big problem now and we need to plant more trees and shrubs on our mountain slopes to prevent soil erosion and flash flooding” explained Mohammed Darjal, the project director for the 55 new hydropower plants to be built by the KP government under their Pakhtun Energy Development Organisation (PEDO). He is, however, an AKRSP employee and credits engineer Hussain Wali Khan for developing the local technology by producing a turbine made in Pakistan, in the late 1980s, that was used in the early hydropower projects initiated by the AKRSP. “The first hydropower project was tested in Gilgit in the mid-1980s and then Chitral adopted it. Masood ul Mulk of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme had it scaled up in Chitral – today Chitral District has the most number of micro hydropower projects in operation in the country”. He said that while he hoped the 55 plants would be completed by 2017, “the demand is for over 200 plants! I hope this project gets an extension”.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 15th, 2016