Pakistan Reader

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Pakistan Reader
Pakistan's Hydropower Sector: Contribution, Challenges and Prospects

  Sneha M

Achieving full potential in hydropower is an elusive dream given its declining water availability, inadequate infrastructure and finance.

Short Note about the hydro-power sector:

Water is one of the fundamental needs of humankind to support all forms of life on earth. The invention of hydel power generation in the mid-19th century has drastically improved the lives of millions across the world. Hydel power is generated by the electricity produced from generators driven by turbines that convert the potential energy of fast-flowing water into mechanical energy. Based on power generated by the flow of water, hydropower plants can be classified into large and small plants. Small hydropower plants (SHPP) require minimal amounts of water flow such as canals, rivers, and streams, whereas large power plants require large dams.

Hydropower is a growing renewable energy sector in Pakistan with a great potential to contribute to its energy mix. The country's geography provides an advantage to generate SHPPs in the Arabian Sea and the mountainous Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and the Karakorum. Additionally, major rivers such as Sutlej, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum, falling into the Indus River, can be explored for power generation. 

Contribution and Capacity of the sector:

Pakistan is blessed with abundant water resources. Indus river and its tributaries are the most suitable locations for hydel-power generation in the country. Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) estimates that the country's hydroelectric potential is 60,000MW, but only 9,387MW has been developed since independence. (Khaleeq Kiani, "Time to go big on Hydro," Dawn, 17 May 2021). On the other hand, even Independent Power Producers have struggled to produce more than 5000MW in the past ten years. ("Pakistan's Hydropower Potential," Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies, 26 May 2021).

In the 1990s, Pakistan's energy mix was highly dominated by hydropower contributing around 45 per cent. However, it has been replaced by thermal power plants for their easy outcomes (Jack Unwin, "What does Pakistan's energy mix look like and what is its future?", Analysis of Power Technology, 27 September 2019). At present, WAPDA owns twenty-three hydropower plants, contributing around 13.3 per cent generation in 2018, and hydropower producers could generate only 0.2 per cent in the overall power generation, including other sources of power generation.

Most hydropower projects are installed within the following provinces and can be seen in the figure. a) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) generates 24736 MW of power, b) Gilgit Baltistan (GB) generates 21725 MW of power, c) Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) generates 6450 MW of power, d) Punjab generates 7291MW of power.


Fig. 9

 Major Hydropower projects in Pakistan

Three prime large hydropower plants that contribute to electricity generation include Tarbela Dam, Mangla Dam, and Ghazi Brotha Dam. Tarbela Dam is built over the Indus River near the small town of Tarbela, located in the Haripur district. The dam, however, was built to regulate the flow of the Indus River for irrigational purposes. It was only in the successive years Tarbela Dam was utilized for hydropower generation in 1968. Since then, it has been under constant extensions to support and tackle energy demands in the country.

On the other hand, Mangla Dam is constructed on the Jhelum River in the Mirpur District of AJK. Its total capacity stands at 1,500MW, out of which Pakistan can produce 1,150MW to a large extent, the hydropower component is well served. Similarly, Ghazi Brotha Dam is situated between Attock, Punjab, and Swabi and Haripur districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Energy Reforms:

Hydropower energy reforms have been at the center of the table for many years; however, the policies and actions are contrary. Pakistan is suffering a supply shortage since only 12 per cent of its recoverable hydropower potential is being used, despite its expanding electricity need. As a result, the present government is trying to resolve the gap between supply and demand and the cost of producing electricity through fast-tracking under-construction projects. 

The PTI government announced in 2019 that by 2030, renewable energy would account for 30 per cent of total electricity generation, referring to power generated from wind, solar, small hydro, and biomass ("Pakistan to set 30% plus 30% Renewable Energy Target by 2030", World Wind Energy Association, 2 April 2019). In addition, a 30 per cent large-scale hydropower objective has been planned. Currently, large hydro generates around a quarter of the country's electricity. As a result, the federal cabinet approved the Alternative and Renewable Energy Policy, which is in line with UN SDG Goal Number 7, which provides clean and cheap energy to all people.

Previously, Pakistan's Council of Common Interests recently approved the country's first-ever National Water Policy on 24 April 2018. ("National Water Policy, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of Pakistan, 24 April 2018). The document stated that the nation's hydropower facilities are a vital natural resource and a key component in providing low-cost energy essential for developing the industrial, agricultural, and service sectors. This was indeed a massive step towards adopting green energy. Also, it mentioned that the accelerated development of hydropower should be treated as a high priority objective in the country.

Since then, Pakistan has been moving to further its investments in hydropower.

Pakistan's installed hydro capacity reached 9,389 MW in 2019 with the commissioning of the Golen Gol Plant Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the 4th extension in Tarbela, and the Neelum-Jhelum Projects. Work is underway on the large World Bank-funded Dasu project, which has experienced significant delays due to land issues. The government has announced the Mohmand Dam project on the Swat River in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Challenges faced by the Hydropower sector:

First, Declining Water Availability: According to many United Nations reports, Pakistan is moving towards a significant water shortage by 2025 (Amit Ranjan, "Water- Stressed Pakistan, Asian Survey, 01 December 2019). In recent years, the country has witnessed a steady increase in population, which has led to higher consumption of water per person. Pakistan's water resources emerge mostly outside its territory and therefore leading to fluctuations in the supply chain. Moreover, an age-old practice of irrigation system, incorrect selection of crops, rapid urbanization, and mismanagement of water by its citizens have all played their part in a water shortage. Therefore, water soon can be detrimental to the complete production of hydropower.

Second, Inadequate Infrastructure: Since its inception, Pakistan has most likely placed a low value on its natural resources, particularly water, as seen by its storage capacity. Compared to India's 120–220 days and the US's 900 days, Pakistan's storage capacity (Khaleeq Kiani, "Tarbela's storage capacity decreased by two feet," Dawn, 09 June 2014) is only about 30 days; a drop in the ocean. The fact that most dams' storage capacity has diminished due to sedimentation and silting, notably Tarbela Dam, which has lost 33 per cent of its storage capacity in less than four decades, is even more concerning.

Third, The development, financing, construction, and commissioning of hydropower projects takes at least 6-10 years. This investment horizon is often longer than the tenure of a government official or a private-sector management team. Therefore, in many cases, the momentum in executing and implementing these projects can be easily lost. On the other hand, these micro or large hydropower plants require funding. However, in most cases, Pakistan is said to rely on foreign aids, banks, and agencies to complete these projects. Given its external debt of around USD116 billion in the first quarter of 2021, some of the traditional donor countries have stepped back to provide financial assistance to the country. ("Pakistan Total External Debt, Trading Economics, May 2021) Although the Mohmand and Diamer-Bhasha Dams are crowd-funded in Pakistan, numerous additional hydroelectricity projects are financed by international governments or agencies.

Fiurth, Disputed Status: Pakistan's undiscovered hydropower potential is mainly concentrated in the mountainous north, across the Indus River in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Jhelum River in Punjab and "Azad Jammu and Kashmir." Under pressure, unfortunately, international financiers have abandoned lending in "AJK" and G.B. due to the disputed territorial status. Even the USD 14-billion Diamer-Bhasha multipurpose, high-value project failed to secure financing from international lending agencies.   

Prospects of the sector:

From a comprehensive perspective, it is evident that using renewable energy sources, mainly hydro, rather than thermal or fossil fuels for power generation is more environmentally friendly and has significant public health benefits. Hydropower is the best viable method for electricity production in this scenario to meet Pakistan's energy deficit demand. The future of hydropower is secured only when they are considered and included under "renewable energy projects." Hydropower projects should be recognized as "renewable" energy projects and included in the government's renewable energy targets. Hydropower projects, it should be noted, solve the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy and other technological flaws. Through U.S. and international assistance, Pakistan has made significant strides in addressing these problems, but Pakistan's energy future remains challenging without significant reforms. Finally, to achieve equitable water rights (Khaleeq Kiani, "Time to go big on Hydro," Dawn, 17 May 2021), Pakistan must maximize the beneficial use of the Western rivers by expediting the development of hydropower projects in "AJK" and GB. by categorizing them as national-security projects and incorporating them; in the Indicative Generation Energy Plan as "strategic." Without further delay, the government must pitch into action to avoid later catastrophes. 


*Note: The note was first published in

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