MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Alertnet) - Residents and environmental experts in Muzaffarabad, Pakistani-administered Kashmir’s main city, fear the diversion of a major river to generate hydroelectric power will deprive local people of water for drinking and waste disposal, and could alter the region’s climate.
The Neelum River gushes down into Muzaffarabad from the Indian-controlled part of the disputed Himalayan territory, running through the middle of the city. It transports away urban sewage discharged into it and provides the inhabitants’ water supply.
But Pakistan’s largest hydropower project of recent decades threatens to lower the river level, leaving too little water to deliver those vital services.
“How we can live here if this river is reduced to a stream with sewage abandoned on its bank?” asks Shoukat Nawaz Mir, who owns a three-storey house on the banks of the Neelum River.
“It has been difficult to be here for a while now due to the stink, as there is no proper system for disposing of sewage and other waste, which is lying around in the open. And it will be a nightmare to live here when there is less water in the river,” says the 38-year-old, pointing to the fast- flowing channel.
“I have spent most of my life here, but I fear for how my children will live on the bank of an almost dry river. There should be compliance with environmental protection law,” he says wistfully.
Some 32 km of tunnels are being dug out, into which 86 percent of the river’s water will be diverted. When completed in 2016, the water will be used to produce cheaper electricity in a large hydropower scheme with installed capacity of 969 megawatts.
The diverted river water will be discharged into the Jhelum River 28 km south of Muzaffarabad.
The work is being carried out on a tight schedule, partly to overcome a severe energy crisis in Pakistan. Extensive power cuts fuelled violent protests in Punjab last month.
A report from the Asian Development Bank, released in April, said power shortages are the main constraint on Pakistan’s economic growth, as domestic resources of hydro, gas and coal have not grown enough to cover energy demand, increasing its reliance on imported fuel oil.
In addition to providing much-needed power and reducing imports of costly and polluting fossil fuels, the new hydro scheme is also regarded as an attempt to secure rights over Kashmir water.
Arch-rival India is also building a dam on the same river in its part of Kashmir, which could curb downstream power generation capacity by 13 percent once finished, due to reduced water flow, according to Muhammad Zubair, head of the Neelum Jhelum Hydro-Power Company.
The long-running dispute between the two countries over the territory of Kashmir extends to water, despite a treaty agreed in 1960 that defines rights to the rivers flowing into Pakistan from India.
The World Bank-mediated Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is intended to resolve disputes over waters originating in the Indus Basin. It allocates the waters of rivers in the eastern basin – the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi – to India, while Pakistan has unrestricted use of the western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum (of which the Neelum is a tributary) and Chenab.
After India began constructing the Kishanganga dam on the Neelum, arguing that the water would ultimately be returned to the river and flow into Pakistan, Pakistan filed a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2010. The court issued a stay order on the work last year, saying the project may not comply with the IWT.
But the problems with hydropower projects on Kashmir’s rivers are not just political.
Concerns have been raised in Pakistani-administered Kashmir’s legislative assembly about the environmental impacts of the Muzaffarabad project, with legislators demanding the publication of the agreement between the local government and the company managing the scheme.
A separate proposed hydropower scheme on the Jhelum River - which would have involved diverting 90 percent of its water – was refused authorisation.
Irshad Qureshi, director-general of the Kashmir Environment Protection Agency (EPA), told AlertNet that government permission was issued for the Neelum project on the condition that its backer, the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), complies with national environment quality standards.
The approved project, now underway, plans to divert an average of 280 cubic metres per second (cumecs) of water from the 322 cumecs that flows in the river’s peak season from April to September, when it is fed by snow and glacier melt. In the winter, between October and February, the water flow falls to just 59.9 cumecs, according to Qureshi.
Diverting the river “will have a serious impact on the environment”, he noted, as there will be less water for drinking supplies and washing away waste. The temperature in the local area could also increase because the cooling effect of the river will be curbed due to less evaporation, he warned.
A dam, 60 m high and 160 m long, is being built to raise the water to the required level during the winter, and a 9-km-long lake is being created to act as a reservoir.
Six sewage treatment plants and an expanded water supply scheme will also be installed to improve the provision of drinking water to urban areas, Qureshi added.
Nonetheless, environmentalist Sahibzada Aftab Alam also believes that diverting the river could affect the Himalayan climate, leading to higher summer temperatures.
“Disturbing the natural flow has a major impact on the climate of the area as it affects aquatic life, the water table and the spring-recharging process, as well as drinking water quality and quantity,” he explained.
Most of Kashmir’s population lives in rural areas, depending largely on forestry, livestock and agriculture for their livelihoods. River water and natural springs are the main source of drinking water and irrigation – and these will be affected by “serious water shortages” caused by the power scheme, Alam argues.
“The project area, 40 km away from the city, has significant conservational importance due to an abundance of forests, aquatic life and many species of wildlife, which have been declared endangered globally,” he said.
The aesthetic beauty of the city and its surrounding areas, which attract tourists, could also be damaged, he warned.
Muhammad Shafique Abbasi, an environmentalist working with the EPA, worries about what will happen once the hydropower scheme is up and running.
“They will definitely not care about environmental concerns once they complete the project, and this is about what we are anxious about,” he said.
“What will the situation be when there is only 60 cumecs of water in the river during the lean season in winter, while 280 cumecs will be required for (power) generation?” he questioned.
But Mavish Durrani, another EPA expert, argues that the hydropower project could also have some positive effects - for example, the new dam and reservoir could enhance local rainfall due to evaporation and condensation of the water they contain.
“They will attract migratory birds to the area and improve aquatic life and forest growth, besides the working of water cycle,” he said.
Zubair of the Neelum Jhelum Hydro-Power Company, a subsidiary of the WAPDA, told AlertNet that enough water will be provided from the dam to guarantee local water supplies.
In winter, when the river flow is at its lowest, the company plans to release around five times the daily amount required to meet Muzaffarabad’s sewage treatment and drinking water needs to maintain the city’s environment, he said.
“The environmental concerns are small when compared with energy generation of more than 5.1 billion electricity units annually - which means income of around 45 billion rupees ($0.5 billion) to the government each year, besides economic development for the people of the area,” Zubair added.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. He has worked for national and international media, as well as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).