Chitral Today
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Chitral – energy needs, challenges and the way out

Shah Karez Khan


The world is suffering from climate change. One of several reasons is the emission from excessive use of non-renewable sources of energy.

In Pakistan also, 65 percent of the total energy needs are met by non-renewable sources, which on the one hand contributes to global warming and on the other puts pressure on the already dwindling foreign exchange reserves causing disruption in the overall economy.

At the world level, Pakistan’s share in global pollution is minimal. On the other hand Pakistan bears the major brunt of climate change effects as evidenced by the frequency in flood disasters every year. 

In this backdrop, Chitral boasts of having the potential to generate hydro power that would be enough to meet the emerging national needs. A rather exaggerated figure quoted by concerned authorities of KP says that there is potential to generate 15,000 megawatts.

A study carried out in Chitral under the auspices of the Ministry of Water and Power in the 1990s identified as much as 45 feasible sites with a cumulative power generation potential of 5,000 MW. Others say the water of Chitral can produce over 7,000 MW. Whatever the maximum capacity, Chitral, no doubt, has the water resource in abundance.

Chitral is also considered to have the best wind potential among the districts in KP. Yet there is need to carry out detailed surveys regarding the variability of wind from valley to valley.

There are prospects for generating solar energy as well but this area also needs further studies to determine the possibilities for large scale solar power generation. The potential of other sources such as organic plant and waste material or the earth’s heat also require further investigation.

Green and clean energy?

Green and clean energy is the slogan of the day. Such sources include the sun, wind, moving water, organic plants and waste material, and the earth’s heat. These are green and clean because of their minimum adverse impact on environment.

Efforts were underway to install LNG reservoirs that could be connected to houses in the congested towns and supplied in cylinders to far flung areas from town reservoirs. A project to this effect was reportedly approved. Unfortunately, this project was dropped by the government for unknown reasons.

Tragedy of fuel wood

There are 70,991 household units as consumers in Chitral. Almost all the households use fuel wood for cooking and space heating. According to an estimate, each household consumes approximately 15 kg firewood per day on average. This brings the consumption of firewood per annum to roughly 360,000 tons.

This staggering figure does not include commercial consumption by hotels, ovens or winter firewood for use in offices. An oak tree takes 100 years to mature. Due to over exploitation the forest cover has fallen to less than 3pc of the total area. The available forest comprises conifers and broad leaved trees. The Juniper used to be available in the north, is now, at the verge of extinction.

The conifer forest in the south is fast depleting, thanks to illegal exploitation. Oak tree is the main source of fuel wood which is now disappearing. The green branches of oak are also annually trimmed to feed goats. Additionally goat herders and wood gatherers uproot the shrubs and bush stock that holds the soil from erosion. In the town areas roughly 4024 households use cylinder gas.

Available electricity

Electricity is available to 15,770 households out of nearly 71,000. This electricity is mainly used for lighting and other small appliances. Hardly any household can afford to use electricity for space heating.

Government plans to generate hydro power

A good news is that the KP government have already awarded 55 mini/micro hydro power projects to the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), which are at various stages of implementation in partnership with the communities. Additionally the following projects are reported to be in the pipeline since 2012.

Gahret-Sweer 340 MW, Kuragh Preyit 223 MW, Laspur Miragram 133 MW, Lawi 69 MW, Mijigram Shaghoor 52, Istaroo Booni 52 MW and Arkarigol with capacity of generating 24 MW electricity and a few more. Ironically enough no further progress appears to have been made since 2012. Some of the proposed projects bear feasibility reports declaring them as environmentally feasible.

Challenges in hydro power generation

A study carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in the Hindukush-Himalayan (HKH) region recommends for a careful assessment before embarking on mountain infrastructures such as hydo power stations.

The study further reveals that physical infrastructures in the mountain environment are faced with serious challenges. The findings of the study are borne out by observations of the risk posed by floods in Chitral. Be they roads, buildings or hydro power stations, if they happen to be on or near the flood pathways, they are surely destined to destruction in the event of mudslides, debris flows and flash floods.

It has been observed that since the turn of the century the frequency of disaster events is increasing particularly in Chitral. Glacial Lake Outburt Floods (GLOFs) and Flash Floods have become common occurrence. The worst of these were in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2015 and 2020. Flash floods in the Chitral River in July 2015,left about 250,000 people stranded and saw major roads, bridges, irrigation channels, drinking water systems and power stations damaged.

Among other things these floods wiped off six hydro power stations one each in Ayun, Rumbur, Shagram, Broz, Reshun and Golen. The former 4 were community managed and the last two government owned.In the case of Reshun the power house was completely washed leaving almost all of Upper Chitral in the dark.

In Golen the headworks were badly destroyed. Interestingly no feasibility report regarding the 104 MW and 108 MW capacity projects at Reshun and Golen could be traced.

Flood damaged power house at Reshun
Flood damaged power house at Reshun.

Dawn of 18th Aug 2015, reporting on Reshun power house, gave the following details. ‘Flooding in the Reshun Gol left tributary known as Shakoh Gol partially damaged the intake and rooted out left abutment.

“It also destroyed the initial 150 meters of transfer pipe starting from Shakoh Gol intake, while Penstock trifurcation near the powerhouse filled tailrace with debris. However, the major damage was done by the July 25 floods, which completely washed away the intake structure at Shakoh Gol.”

The report, however, says the main reason of the damage was unavailability of solid rock formation at the intake area. “All electro-mechanical are either damaged or buried down enormous flood debris”.  Also civil structures adjacent to powerhouse including batteries room, office, inventory store and computer section along with biometric, CCTV and all office records were washed out.

This situation is borne out by the ICIMOD study. It says, “Disaster risk management therefore needs to incorporate a multi-hazard risk assessment approach. In the aftermath of recent disaster events, the role of infrastructure, especially hydropower and its interplay with natural hazards has emerged as a topic of strong debate.”

Since there are challenges with solar and wind energy requiring detailed surveys and long time frame, therefore, hydro power appears to be the only viable option in the case of Chitral. To minimize the risks to hydro power generation, detailed feasibility study is required including financial, environmental and social aspects of hydro power projects so that scarce resources are not lost simply because solutions to mitigate threats were not included in the design as in the case of Reshun or Golen.

A better understanding of the surroundings such as glaciers, flow variations and avoiding proximity of physical structures to hazards including better understanding of climate change trends would go a long way in making hydro power projects viable and sustainable.

It goes without saying that Hindukush is an earthquake prone region and remains vulnerable to jolts. Chitral lying on the fault line has already been declared as the red zone. The most recent earthquake was on 26th October 2015 with 7.5 magnitude. This also calls for the need of a highly professional feasibility study of proposed projects in this region so that the future structures must be able to resist the intensity of earthquakes as well.

Vexing questions

Why the design of the Golen Gol and Reshun project proposals failed to identify hazards which are still clearly visible to the naked eye. Why the vulnerability risk assessment was not carried out and measures not recommended to avoid the risks.

Golen Hydro Power project has not yet been able to produce the projected output prompting further concern, if at all, the feasibility of this project contained any information on the flow variability over the seasons. Do the other proposed hydro power projects contain information of the sort to address risks of similar nature? These are pertinent questions to be answered by the feasibility and vulnerability risk assessment and management documents of hydropower projects that may be in the pipeline.

Recommended approach to address the problem

It is mainly because of denudation of the forest that the effects have become so dangerous to human lives, property and the physical infrastructures. No doubt in Chitral, as elsewhere, the rehabilitation of forest and conservation is a guaranteed method to minimize or mitigate the dangerous effects of natural hazards such as flash floods, erosion, landslides, rock falls, avalanches etc.

To address the issue the following two pronged but interdependent suggestions are made:

  1. The government must resolve to invest in green energy from the water resources of Chitral. The investment must be protected by highly professional feasibility studies entailing understanding of the multiple hazards and vulnerabilities of mountain structures. Done professionally they can produce the desired output on sustainable basis to meet the local energy needs of the people of Chitral and also contribute to the national needs. The people of Chitral should be allowed to use green energy thus generated for cooking and space heating as well. The unit cost must be subsidized to make it affordable for all.
  2. This will allow the forest to regenerate and grow. Once this facility is given the forest trees, shrubs and bushes will have sure chance to survive thereby stabilizing the soil. Stable soil will minimize landslides, erosion, rock falls, avalanches, and to a large extent control other natural hazards. The billion tree tsunami is a welcome initiative in this direction but without providing alternative energy source the consumption of fuel wood would hardly stop.
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  1. Shah Karez says

    Dear Obaidur Reheman, thanks for your valuable suggestions, I tend to agree with many of your points. Let’s be positive and join hands in this venture to make the best of what is possible. Kindly come up with more viable solutions to the energy issue. Somewhere else I had suggested controlled or rotational grazing to minimize the havoc played by goats. If done well something like tree tsunami is better than only cutting the standing trees. What is left of the forest needs breathing space, which could only be possible if there is alternative source available to the consumers. My happiness for the proposed projects only hinges on protection by design or they will also go the way other such projects have gone. Thanks once again.

  2. Obaidur Rehman says

    The article makes a comprehensive analysis of Chitral’s energy needs and their solutions. I would, however reach very different conclusion than the writer based on the little knowledge I possess.
    Firstly, it is true Chitral’s scanty forest have been over exploited. But unlike what the writer concludes this has not been only because of indiscriminate cutting but also because of over grazing by an expanding goat population. Unless grazing by goats is controlled there is little likelihood of regrowth of trees in the forests. In areas where communities have banned goats there is a rapid growth of new trees. Equally wrong is the idea that the billion trees Tsunami makes up for this. These trees are only planted on lands where there is provision for irrigation water. The natural forests in Chitral remain untouched from it.
    I am also surprised by the writer’s happiness over the mew sites where large hydro projects are planned. These projects, when they materialize are going to take electricity to the national grid. Chitral’s villages will only benefit from such production if a distribution system is put in place.
    The existing PEDO system in Upper Chitral will continue to provide poor quality electricity to consumers. The idea that by producing cheap electricity and supplying electricity at cheaper rates in KP by the provincial government is a dream which the political economy of Pakistan will never allow. In such an eventuality the only hope of the Chitrali consumer for getting cheap electricity is local production through decentralized units which do not become part of national grid. Unfortunately the only hope for that is improving local community produced electricity.
    There is a serious drawback for hydro electricity production in Chitral. This is evacuation of electricity from the valley. While a great deal of attention is paid to production potential the narrow valley throws of challenged for its transmission outside Chitral. Everyone is bent on identifying sites and signing letter of interest because of the monetary gains involved. The grid lines laid for Golane Gol Unit are unlikely to evacuate the electricity if new units come into being. Does this mean that the Chitral valley will be filled with electric poles and lines on an endless and horrifying scale.
    Lastly, the issue of feasibility study addressing the kind of hazards Chitral has witnessed is very ambitious. The type of natural disaster witnessed here are unlikely to be addressed by any good feasibility stuty. This means that the present cost of these projects are grossly underestimated. If these costs are added to the project cost most of the sites which the government and the writer are thrilled about would become infeasible. All those who sing songs to the great potential of Chitral to addressing our electricity needs should do so with a pinch of salt.

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