Pakistan has initiated a mega power project in its administrative part of Kashmir without fulfilling mandatory environmental obligations required for development projects. Contemporary international environmental laws and standards bound all governments and their publics to conduct Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and ecological surveys (both phase1&2) in every developmental project to achieve goals of sustainable development, nonetheless, Pakistan’s official Water And Power Development Authority (WAPDA), has started the construction of US $2.16 billion- Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Project in a remote and scenic Neelum Valley -100 km to the north-west of Islamabad, through a consortium of Chinese firms in order to generate 969 Megawatt electricity, without fulfilling the set global criteria.
The project will divert Neelum River, which originates from Indian part of Kashmir and also called as Kishangana, through a 47-km long tunnel system to another river Jehlum near Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. After 8 years of its completion period, it will be the first underground hydropower project of its kind in Pakistan which the government claims is under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 reached between India and Pakistan, and the country would get “priority rights” to the use of its waters trough this significant project.
The officials of local Environmental Protection Agency working in project area have confirmed that WAPDA has started the construction work on this mega project discarding environmental considerations. The builders, however, insist that the proposed project does not pose any threats to the ecological system of the area, as an initial study conducted in 1990s had suggested ‘limited environmental impacts of the project’. On the other hand, local ecologists contradict these claims of WAPDA authorities.
“Much has been changed during this period in terms of people’s conditions, needs and ecology and necessitates fresh evaluation of the concealed damages, says an EPA source, forecasting alarming hazards to local ecosystem due to hurriedly-launched commencement of this mammoth development venture, which excruciatingly ignores required mechanisms envisaged for the protection of environment and rights of local populations.
Today, Pakistan, with 40 per cent population without electricity, is facing severe energy crisis. In some areas the duration of loadshedding has reached to 16 hours a day, paralysing national economy and daily routine life as well. Government has already scrapped its long disputed Kala Bagh Dam project after uncompromising reservations from its federating units. The country, crippled by a surge in extremism, suicide attacks and recent military operation against the Taliban, is struggling to overcome its energy deficiencies in order to run its day-to-day affairs in a smooth manner. Apparently, newly initiated mega power project in northeast area is part of its attempts to alleviate huge shortfall in electricity sector whish has increased 5,000 MW range.
Ostensibly, in their hastily convalescing measures, Pakistan’s development pundits seem to negate parameters of sustainable development and public concerns. The power authority of the country is being criticised harshly for bulldozing rights of indigenous population, which maintain that government is going to deprive them from their cultivable land and fruit orchards, which already, have been affected by Indo-Pak rivalry along LoC-the defecto- border of divided Kashmir, and subsequent earthquake of 2005. Similarly, the package offered for the compensation of farmers lands do not equal to the market price of property and it has been termed as disgracefully low and has created profound resentment among affecters.
“The government must pay the compensation of affected land according to market price and arrange alternative residentional towns”, demands Tariq Ali, a representative of Action Committee of affected farmers.
Likewise, local environmental groups also carp deliberate violation of laws by government’s own officials and have expressed their concerns related to prospective environmental hazards on local economy and biodiversity. Ecologists say the project area has significant conservational importance due to abundant of forests, aquatics life and presence of many species of wild life, which have been declared endangered globally.
This scenic valley, where the said project is being built, plays a key role in the configuration of Himaylan ecosystem. It is also serves as the habitat of various rare species considered on the verge of extinction. Pheasants are abundant in this locality and conservationists suggest that developmental activities would impact their natural habit, wildlife nourishment (both terrestrial and aquatic). Ecosystem change also destroys feeding as well as breeding grounds, with a resultant loss of fish species. Projection of large area reduces public access to certain localities, and thereby affects outdoor recreation opportunities. Interestingly, Global Environment Facility (GEF) has contributed millions of funds to protect local natural resources through Machiara National Park Projet which is one of the three globally significant national parks selected for a GEF-funded project. Paradoxically, this severe deviation of conservation laws and measures by WAPDA in this area is also contradictory from world bodies and government’s efforts for the protection of natural resources and wild life in this important ecological zone.
In Kashmir, 88 per cent population lives in rural areas and depends upon forestry, livestock and agriculture for their existence. Water of rivers and natural springs is also considered a major source for drinking and irrigation of lands located at the banks. Local population around the flow of Neelum river also concern that the diversion of the river would cause an acute water scarcity, making life of inhabitants miserable, particularly, a huge population of capital city of Muzaffarabad would be at the stake because Neelum river is the chief source of water provision for this population through lifting and purification process.
No doubt, power generation is vital resource of energy in development, which is basic human need but it must not be done at the cost of disruption in biodiversity, habitat loss, fragmentation and the displacement of indigenous populations. Many hydropower plans and strategies are made without looking at the ‘big picture’, and as a result these projects can have negative impacts on the environment. Luckily, some of the damage done to biodiversity by hydropower can be reduced by equipment upgrades, mitigation measures, and proper management. Local user groups and other stakeholders should be involved in decision-making, to keep good relations concerning peoples’ livelihoods and the sustainability of aquatic resources. River systems should be thoroughly studied jointly with concerned agencies (e.g., electricity, irrigation and fisheries, environment authorities; and local authorities) during formulation and application stages of this project.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and social activist. As a researcher, he has specifically been interested in patterns of globalization and regionalization in contemporary South Asia.He can be accessed at: email@example.com )