Friday July 01, 2022

Losing River Jhelum

December 31, 2017

In the summer of 2012, the energy shortfall in the country reached 8,500 MW with over eight hours of loadshedding in urban areas and close to 20 hours in the rural belts. The country faced a severe power crisis that threatened economic growth and stability.

Over the past five years, the situation has improved as a result of concerted efforts by the government and the private sector to increase generation capacity. One of the strategies employed by the government to reduce the energy shortfall has been the construction of multiple hydroelectric power projects on the country’s rivers.

Hydroelectric power projects have brought several benefits, including the generation of energy and subsequent economic growth. But since the specific purpose of dams is to modify the river’s flow regime, the construction and operation of these projects also brings a number of negative effects owing to changes in the sediment, chemical and thermal regimes of the river.

Cate Brown, a leading environmental flow specialist who has worked on several hydropower projects in the country, “upstream of the dam, a reservoir is created, and downstream, the river experiences low flows. In addition, the dam forms a barrier for the movement of sediment and fish fauna in the river. These changes not only impact the ecological resources but also the local communities [that] depend on the ecosystem services provided by the river”. In the case of large dams, community displacement and resettlement are additional issues of concern.

River Jhelum and its major tributaries, which include the Neelum, Poonch, Kunhar and Mahl River run through the state of AJK and two provinces of the country – KP and Punjab. There are a number of hydroelectric power projects in various stages of planning, construction and operation on these rivers. While it is obvious that each project on its own will impact the river and riverine areas in the project vicinity, the magnitude of the cumulative impacts of these multiple projects is not entirely clear. What is clear is that the cascade of hydropower projects will convert the river into a series of reservoirs and low-flow sections. In other words, River Jhelum will cease to be and this will have disastrous impacts on the river ecology and ecosystem services.

Dr Muhammad Rafique, a senior fish specialist and the director-general at the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, explains the impact on fish in the following words: “There are at least 50 fish species reported from the Jhelum Basin upstream of Mangla”. “[The] operation of multiple hydropower projects is bound to have a profound negative impact on the abundance and diversity of fish species, particularly fish that prefer a flowing habitat as well as migratory fish which will not be able to reach their breeding grounds as a result of the barrier created by the dam,” he explains. If research studies are to be believed, most of these fish species will be almost completely wiped out from the main river.

This decline of fish will not just be a loss for biodiversity but also for local communities. This is because a number of communities along the Kunhar, Neelum and Jhelum rivers are involved in subsistence and commercial fishing and depend on these fish for their livelihood. The local communities will suffer further as other ecosystem services provided by the river get depleted, particularly due to changes in the sediment distribution. There is extensive sand and gravel extraction from the bed and banks of River Jhelum and its tributaries to meet construction demands – mostly for residential and commercial buildings in the vicinity.

According to estimates prepared for the environmental impact assessment of the Kohala Hydropower Project, the total quantity of sediment being mined from the Jhelum Basin is close to 0.8 million tonnes/year. The construction of hydropower projects will create a barrier to the movement of sediments, trapping most of them upstream of the dam and in the reservoir. As a result, the lower reaches of the river will be starved of sediments and impact the livelihoods of locals who depend on the extraction and sale of sand and gravel.

The recreational and landscape values of River Jhelum will also change owing to the creation of multiple concrete dam infrastructures and the natural flowing river being replaced by the alternating reservoirs and low-flow sections.

It has been argued by many that in an energy-stressed country like Pakistan, these impacts are a small price to pay to provide electricity to the country. Vaqar Zakaria, a leading environmental impact specialist, believes that “the engineer in [him] would like to harness every single drop in the river to generate electricity. However, the environmentalist in me understands that in order to ensure that the development is sustainable and in line with the principles of environmental protection, we need to develop a strategy to minimise and offset these negative impacts”. This is important not just for ethical reasons, but also because environmental protection is included in the legislation of AJK and the provinces saddling the Jhelum Basin.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank is working with the provincial governments of Punjab, AJK and KP to develop a strategy to integrate the principles of sustainable development in hydropower development in the Jhelum Basin. This is because the IFC is providing financial support for the construction of at least four projects. Kate Lazarus, a team leader at IFC, believes that “in Pakistan, [the] IFC has taken a landscape approach to address the complex context of hydropower development in Pakistan”.

However, protecting the environment does not come without a price. While the IFC is supporting the development of the Sustainable Hydropower Strategy, the cost of implementation will have to be borne by the project developers with the support of the provincial wildlife and fisheries departments. The Gulpur Hydropower Project, situated along Poonch River in AJK, is already a year into the implementation of its Biodiversity Action Plan. This plan focuses on protecting the river from anthropogenic influences – such as illegal fishing and sediment mining – protecting the tributaries and breeding habitats of fish as well as implementing an awareness-raising campaign for local communities. Other hydropower projects will also implement biodiversity management and protection as part of project operations as well as contribute towards basin-wide initiatives such as watershed management and the creation of a research institute on river ecology.

“Hydropower development and environmental protection are both important,” said Himayatullah Khan, a Nepra member who spoke at a workshop last month. He recognised the need to address environmental degradation by passing on the costs to the consumers. “By including the cost of environmental protection in the tariff, the consumer of electricity bears the cost of environmental degradation. This has already been done for the Gulpur Hydropower Project and we hope that other project proponents will follow suit,” he explained.

The Strategy for Sustainable Hydropower is currently being developed. It will include recommendations for the design and operation of hydropower projects; suggestions for additional biodiversity protected areas, particularly in tributaries; recommendations for the routing of electricity transmission lines to avoid ecologically-sensitive terrestrial areas as well as a broad outline of a sediment-mining plan, which protects the rights of the communities. Once finalised, the strategy implementation will need close cooperation and coordination between the provincial governments and the project developers to minimise and offset the negative impact of hydropower operation while, at the same time, meeting the energy demands of the country’s rapidly growing economy.

The writer is an environmentalist.