Footprints: New world

Published June 17, 2016
THE over-the-ground structure of the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project at Nauseri, about 41km northeast of Muzaffarabad.—Photo by writer
THE over-the-ground structure of the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project at Nauseri, about 41km northeast of Muzaffarabad.—Photo by writer

MUZAFFARABAD: On the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, underneath the mountains and water channels exists a different world, little known to most of the locals and passersby. Thousands of fluorescent-jacket and helmet-clad people, Chinese and local, work round the clock in shifts to translate dream into reality. This is the site of the 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHP), a key scheme aimed at mitigating Pakistan’s energy crisis, which may be commissioned in 2017.

The first tangible signs of the project, which envisions the diversion of the Neelum River into the Jhelum through a complex tunnel system, are clusters of prefabricated housing units for the project staff in Chattar Klass along the Kohala-Muzaffarabad highway. Located some 20 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad, this is the site of the powerhouse complex and transformer hall. The outfall is a few kilometres ahead, near Zaminabad village. However, its major indicators — the composite dam and water intake structures — are at Nauseri, about 41km northeast of Muzaffarabad.

“These two sites on the surface of the ground constitute only 10 per cent of the project, while 90pc is underground,” says retired Lt Gen Muhammad Zubair, CEO of NJHP Company.

The NJHP was conceived in the 1980s to establish “priority rights” on the waters of the Neelum in accordance with the Indus Waters Treaty. The river is known as Kishanganga in India-held Kashmir. After the 2005 earthquake, the Water and Power Development Authority spent three years changing its design to ensure earthquake resistance up to 7.8 magnitude. Although the overall cost was estimated at Rs130 billion, the construction contract awarded to a Chinese consortium in July 2007 was for Rs90.9bn.

The groundbreaking of the project was performed in February 2008 by the then president, retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, in Aiwan-i-Sadr, Islamabad — without an agreement with the government of Muzaffarabad, where serious concerns about environmental degradation and other issues, such as indiscriminate loadshedding and the determination of a just net hydel profit, still persist.

In the third revision last year, the project cost escalated to Rs404bn.

“Arranging funds and designing the successive phases went hand in hand with construction all these years, because stopping work could lead to demobilising up to 3,000 Chinese workers, which we could not afford,” says Zubair. Notwithstanding challenges, the project has witnessed commendable progress lately, he claims. Tunnels spanning 68km, including 15.5km adits, have been excavated.

Driving through the zigzagging road along the Neelum, I am reminded of concerns that the mighty river might be reduced to a small water channel. Zubair, however, shrugs off such apprehensions, saying that 15 cumec (cubic metre per second) of water will be released from the Nauseri dam, “which is sufficient to meet the requirements [of the downstream area] for the next 50 years”.

To my right, I then see huge concrete and steel structures. This is Nauseri, home to the main dam, descender and collecting canals, water intake point and a rock-fill dam, which will separate the fault zone from the main dam in the event of an earthquake. Three hydraulic spillway gates, each weighing 400 tonnes, have been installed, and a number of workers are engaged in the last leg of their task.

The Line of Control is hardly 10km away. Is the project safe from enemy shelling, I ask. “In my considered opinion the international law does not allow any adventure; and any such thing cannot remain a one-way affair.”

From Nauseri begins a single tunnel that then branches in two; running beneath the Jhelum, the twin tunnels then rejoin right up to the outfall. While driving through the tunnel, the CEO says that 92pc of the tunnels have been excavated, with overburden ranging from 800 metres to 2km. We stop where a pair of tunnel-boring machines are at work; excavation of the right tunnel will finish by September and the left in December this year, he says. When I ask him if there were any sleepless nights, he says, “Yes”.

“The tunnel system was being excavated 200m beneath the riverbed when suddenly excessive water ingress started to fill the tunnels,” he recalls. “The problem intensified — at one point there was knee-deep water in the tunnels — and it took more than three months to address this,” he adds, showing me pictures. Another milestone this year was when “the headrace tunnels were linked together with 100pc precision”.

Regarding the project’s financial close, Zubair says China’s Exim Bank has pledged an additional $576m loan and the Pakistan government has authorised Rs100bn Sukuk bonds through the National Bank of Pakistan.

En route to Majhoi is a factory that fabricates steel cans for reinforcing the tunnel sections under the Jhelum. “We plan to affix these cans in the first week of June,” Zubair says. He asserts that under the supervision of world-class consultants, there is no questioning the quality of work and materials used.

After the turbines are tested the first of four units will start to produce electricity by the end of July 2017, while the remaining will be commissioned gradually afterwards, he says.

When asked about local residents’ concerns, he lists steps taken to compensate them. While admitting that excavation in Majhoi has left water sources bone-dry, he says that Rs164m has been given to the AJK government for a water supply scheme in Majhoi and another Rs286m for mitigating environmental degradation. After commissioning, the project will contribute a substantial financial outlay to the AJK government in water use charges, he adds.

The AJK government and residents are not satisfied, however, considering their ‘sacrifices’ for Pakistan’s energy needs. “Downstream, hardly anyone realises how much we have sacrificed for this project. If our concerns are not addressed adequately, it will be grave injustice,” fumes a government official. “We are not like those who threaten to bomb dams, but Islamabad is not even willing to accommodate us on a par with its federating units, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, regarding the net hydel profit. Our loadshedding concerns have also gone unheeded.”

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2016

Opinion

Editorial

No end to hostility
Updated 17 Aug, 2022

No end to hostility

It is time for all parties to rise above petty tactics and hostilities for political gains and pull country back from brink.
Deadly accidents
17 Aug, 2022

Deadly accidents

TWO horrific accidents on Tuesday, which resulted in high death tolls, illustrate the dangers people face while ...
New banknote
17 Aug, 2022

New banknote

PAKISTAN has a new currency note to mark the diamond jubilee of independence. The 75-rupee banknote, issued by the...
Shared goals
Updated 16 Aug, 2022

Shared goals

It is high time that all parties realise that negotiation on the economy does not need to be held hostage to political rivalries.
Making amends?
16 Aug, 2022

Making amends?

WHERE relations with the US are concerned, there has been a distinct shift in Imran Khan’s tone. While the PTI...
Hazardous celebration
16 Aug, 2022

Hazardous celebration

CAN celebratory actions that often result in death or lifelong injuries really be described as such? Be it Eid, New...