[Opinion] Liquid force
It is hard to believe, but it is a reality that, in spite of being richest in water resources and having tremendous potential of developing hydropower generation, Gilgit-Baltistan, the autonomous state with a population of 1.8 million, has significant power shortfall like any other part of Pakistan. The residents, primarily the households, brace with massive electricity load-shedding day and night, in summer and in winter, every year, as power shortages and outages adversely affect normal life and trade in Gilgit-Baltistan’s main towns globally known for tourism.
Against a total demand of electricity in the range of 200MW in summer to 300MW in winter, total installed power generation capacity, principally hydropower, is about 128MW, resulting in power shortages across the region that is not connected to the national grid. Currently, Gilgit-Baltistan has in operation 119 small- and mini- hydropower stations having a cumulative installed capacity of over 121MW, and net available capacity of 100MW in summer to 60MW in winter. The mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan is spread over 72,971 square kilometres. Administratively, Gilgit-Baltistan consists of ten districts namely Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Skardu, Shigar, Kharmong, Diamer (Chilas valley), Ghanche, Ghizer and Astore. There are about 650 towns and villages, widely scattered, with population density of 24 persons per square kilometre.
Shockingly, Pakistan is ranked one of the lowest, 167 among 217 countries of the world, in terms of per capita consumption of electricity. The latest global data of 2014 shows per capita annual consumption in Pakistan as 438kWh. Compared to this figure, per capita yearly consumption of electricity in Gilgit-Baltistan is less than50 kWh. One of the major objectives of the government should be the socioeconomic development of the region for which electricity plays a crucial role, thereby raising the quality of life of the poor people of Gilgit-Baltistan who are currently deprived of even the basic amenities. But the measures taken by successive governments in this direction leave much to be desired.
Primarily, the electricity is used in Gilgit-Baltistan for lighting households, shops, schools and dispensaries etc. Still, only 65 percent of the population has access to electricity, which is not even available to some of the valleys at all. Nonetheless, the demand is increasing at a faster rate, as tourism, trade and the SMEs develop in major towns. The national grid is at a distance of 350 kilometres from Gilgit, and its extension to Gilgit-Baltistan is neither practical nor justifiable. The electricity network here is therefore being operated in isolation, and in many remote areas even the transmission lines and grid stations do not exist.
It is now planned to establish a 132kV regional grid in Hunza District, providing interconnection of all existing and future hydropower stations of Gilgit-Baltistan to a common grid. In this context it is heartening that, on 22nd March, the Regional Chief for Asia of Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), a subsidiary of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), visited Gilgit, offered to help in the energy and power-distribution sector, and, reportedly, agreed to allocate $30 million for constructing the power grid. The government needs to materialise the project on priority.
Obviously, the major source of power generation in Gilgit-Baltistan is hydropower, which is reliable, clean and affordable, whereas thermal power generation is to the level of few megawatts only. These diesel generators are installed, mostly in the capital city Gilgit, to meet the peak demand of power. Due to logistic and financial factors involved in transportation of diesel however, further increase in thermal power generation capacity is not feasible, though the government plans to install additional diesel generators.
Gilgit-Baltistan presents enormous hydropower potential from River Indus and its various tributaries with steep gradients, to the level of 44,334MW, and many mega and large hydropower projects are being developed by the government of Pakistan.
Out of this, hydropower potential in the tributaries and sub-tributaries of the River Indus is estimated at 5,726MW, which can be exploited economically for power generation by Gilgit-Baltistan. The main tributaries are Kharmong River, Shyok River, Shigar River, Skardu River, Giligit River, Naltar River, Hunza River, Astore River, Ghizar River, Yasin River and Ishkuman River, and their ravines and gorges such as Kargah Nullah, River Kilik and River Khunjrab.
So far however just over two percent of the water resources have been tapped, achieving an installed hydropower generation capacity of 121MW. A network of small- and mini- hydropower stations, generally in the wide range of 50kW to 4MW, has been constructed. In addition, there are more than 400 micro-hydropower stations operating in remote localities, developed mostly under community-based and rural support programmes, like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and the Sarhad Rural Support Programme.
To cater for increasing demand of electricity, a broad-based plan for the development of small hydropower generation is being implemented, though pace of work is slow. Another 29 hydropower projects are currently at various stages of implementation. Major projects under construction are 26MW Shagharthang (Skardu), 14MW Naltar-V (Gilgit), 16MW Naltar-III (Gilgit), 2MW Misgar (Hunza), 1.7MW Hassanabad (Hunza), 2MW Dermadar (Ghizer) and 4MW Thak (Chilas). Other hydropower projects, currently in design and planning stages, include 20MW Hanzel, Gilgit, 28MW Basho, Skardu, 20MW Ghowari-Shyok, Ghanche, 5MW Hassanabad, Hunza, and 4MW Hushey, Ghanche. As many as 200 potential hydropower sites, up to 150MW capacity projects, have been identified and techno-economic feasibility studies are being prepared.
On June 3, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan had stated that by 2020, total installed power generation capacity would reach around 250MW, and the electricity load-shedding would be eliminated by then. However, taking into consideration present demand and its rapid growth, particularly in winter when the electricity demand is high and its generation is much low due to water lean period, no respite from load-shedding is seen in Gilgit-Baltistan in near future.
Indeed, it is a tremendous job to provide electricity to the region of high mountains and narrow valleys where infrastructure is practically non-existent. Furthermore, the widely varying topography, geology and hydrology, coupled with extreme weather conditions, make the construction of power stations difficult. The reliability of power supply is also impacted in the wake of frequent floods and landslides. Thus, the available power supply is optimal during summer, but the season covers three months only. During the remaining nine months of the year the net electric supply is reduced to almost half of the installed capacity due to non-availability of water for power generation.
On the other hand, Wapda is also actively involved in contributing towards addition of power generation capacity in Gilgit-Baltistan. It has constructed Satpara dam along a hydropower station of total 17MW capacity in Skardu, whereas design and engineering is in hand for Basho project of 40MW capacity, which will be connected to Skardu and other upstream valleys through 66kV transmission line.
Earlier, it has commissioned 4MW Kargah power station in Gilgit. Likewise, Harpo hydropower project of 34.5MW capacity is to be developed in Skardu District. The two projects, Basho and Harpo, are being financed by the European donor agencies. Wapda also plans to construct 80MW hydropower plant at the Phundar Lake in Ghizer District, which is currently at initial stages.
Small-scale hydropower plants are proving a key way to provide power in remote regions of Pakistan, while at the same time helping protect the environment. Development of hydropower projects in Gilgit-Baltistan will be accelerated if Pakistan can build the capacity to manufacture and install small power stations of above 5MW module that can be multiplied at a given site. The same is lacking at present though various items of electrical and mechanical equipment and related materials are being produced locally, and the infrastructure for implementing small hydropower schemes is available. The requisite advanced technology however is essentially required for achieving the purpose of creating indigenous capability for design, engineering and manufacturing of equipment for power plants. The government needs to take initiative in this direction, pursuant to its policies of developing far-flung areas and promotion of renewable energy.
The writer is retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation
Originally published in The News on July 3, 2017