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Sunday June 23, 2024

Gilgit-Baltistan’s energy access

By Ali Rehmat Shimshali
February 21, 2023

The energy sector plays a crucial role in driving growth and progress across various industries, including agriculture, defence, industries, and the residential sector. Power shortages have caused enormous damage to Pakistan’s economy and created binding and forceful restrictions on the country’s growth.

Access to energy is critical, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to ensure the need for affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030. Given the ongoing energy crisis and the environmental and economic limitations of relying on finite fossil fuel reserves, it is essential that Pakistan shifts towards clean and renewable energy sources.

Pakistan has abundant water resources. The estimated total hydropower potential of Pakistan is around 60,000MW. Currently, the hydro installed capacity is 10,251MW, which is around 25 per cent of the total installed capacity. The country is not utilizing its full potential and using nearly 16 per cent of the total hydropower potential. Much of the untapped potential for hydropower is in the northern regions along the Indus River in the provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and Jhelum River in Punjab.

Unfortunately, approximately 51 million people in Pakistan lack access to electricity, and 90 million experience daily power outages due to unreliable power supply, both of which are having a negative impact on the economy. The reliance on imported fuels for thermal generation, which are subject to price fluctuations, is a major contributor to the energy crisis. The government is under significant pressure to address an annual average power deficit of 4,000MW.

The Gilgit-Baltistan region is known as the ‘water reservoir of Pakistan’ with more than 7,000 glaciers. Despite these resources, the region suffers from a lack of electricity access. Common challenges to energy access include a gap between the demand and supply of electricity, a gap between installed capacity and power generation, poor construction of hydropower projects without proper environmental impact assessments, seasonal variability in the availability of hydropower, short lifespans of micro-hydropower projects, lack of technical staff and maintenance services, and delays in execution of construction projects.

Electricity demand continues to grow with population growth and development, but the supply of electricity is falling behind. Power plants are not functioning at their rated capacity and at times proving to be highly inefficient. There is a huge gap between the generation and installed capacities of the hydropower stations. The micro-hydro stations due to less power generation capacity can only fulfill the lighting requirements of the region but not commercial needs. Due to a lack of electricity, hotels have faced huge losses. Fresh produce like meat, vegetable, and dairy products are spoiled due to unscheduled loadshedding.

Power transmission lines are often damaged by landslides and other climate-induced disasters. Hydroelectricity is available only for 5–6 months for lighting purposes, and water in the region is generally frozen for six months. These factors are compounded by climate change and the harsh geographical location, contributing to the unavailability of electricity, poverty, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

Most hydropower stations are built on streams where the course of water fluctuates in different seasons and mostly small hydropower projects are designed without proper environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the projects. Most hydropower plants are often constructed in disaster-prone areas, without analyzing the seasonal variation in the water level and analyzing the optimal location for the construction of hydropower plants (HPPs). These issues immensely affect the lifespan and productivity of the HPPs and create a huge burden on the communities and government in terms of maintenance. For example, power projects at Hassanabad were damaged during the glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) because of the rapid advance of Shishper Glacier in Hunza. The implementation of such huge projects in disaster-prone areas can pose financial burdens on the government and other stakeholders working in the area.

Most policies emphasize the need and prospects of building renewable energy resources, but the strategy and framework for its execution remain missing. Therefore, the government of Pakistan needs to develop a research-based power policy for GB. The planning and development department of GB also needs to prioritize RE-related projects during the allocation and formulation of developmental projects.

These challenges are heightened by inadequate or poorly constructed roads and bridges, creating issues in transportation and maintenance of electrical equipment. This situation can have two remedies: first, expand road access, which will also enhance development in sectors like health and education, and second, implement off-stream, run-of-river hydropower that is less susceptible to GLOF risk.

People pay a high price for mixed energy sources – gas and wood to meet their daily life needs. There is a lack of technical staff in most areas in District Hunza such as Shimshal and Chipurson for the operation and maintenance of HPPs. This issue can be remedied through technical skills training programmes.

Lack of employment and business opportunities limits people from access to mixed energy sources such as solar energy, wood fuel and generators. Due to population growth, most households in Hunza lack private ownership of land to grow fuel wood for heating and cooking purposes. At the same time, these communities are also conscious of deforestation and climate change. Government departments and NGOs should promote re-afforestation with suitable bioenergy species combined with community-orientation programmes that support effective local management to minimize deforestation.

There is great potential for growing fruit trees in various districts of GB, but due to inadequate transportation, storage, marketing facilities, and an energy crisis, the fruits are damaged causing economic loss. To boost the energy, agriculture and tourism sectors, the government needs to first prepare evidence-based policies for each sector and design projects accordingly to make the projects successful. Many projects have failed in both regions due to a lack of scientific research and environmental impact assessment projects. There is also a dire need to involve communities in planning, designing and implementing projects in each sector using indigenous knowledge and practices.

Communities need to be included in decision-making on the utilization of their resources to ensure the sustainability of the projects, instill a sense of ownership, and cover their grievances. Their involvement in the process can help improve the selection of hydropower sites, design water channels and frame SOPs for community-managed hydropower projects. The government needs to involve residents in its meetings, so they are aware of hydropower-induced threats that the communities face. The understanding of the communities regarding their regions can be useful in lessening the risks of hydropower stations and of natural disasters.

NGOs and the government should design risk management plans for HPPs. Pre- and post-assessment of hydro projects can be mandatory to ensure the selection of safe sites for the projects that can increase their life span and benefit the community. The quality of products such as pipes, storage tanks, and machines needs to be ensured by water and power. Otherwise, the compromised quality of pipes and other construction materials in disaster-prone areas with a lack of infrastructure can pose additional costs to funding agencies and the government.

The writer is project assistant, Sustainability and Resilience Development Program – SDPI. The article reflects the writer’s own views. He can be reached at: aligojali2020@gmail.com