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Power in a drop of water


Harnessing hydel energy can be an effective way of reducing poverty. China and India have already done that successfully

By Arshad H Abbasi

It is not a fruitful idea to keep discussing as to how much the number of people living below the poverty line has come down during the last five years. Considering that even with the reduced percentage, those suffering from acute poverty are still too many to be left on their own, now is the time to move on and discuss what is the best strategy to reduce poverty and let the economic grow at the same time.

The Planning Commission devised a multi-pronged approach in 2005 in a Medium Term Development Framework (MTDF) to promote pro-poor economic growth. The framework also made a specific allocations of Rs 712 billion and reduce poverty. But the planning gurus seem to have missed the fundamental ingredient of an effective strategy to reduce poverty -- providing sustainable and affordable energy to the less developed areas of the country where most of the poor live.

The immediate model in this regard is China where providing people with cheap hydel energy was part of that country's poverty alleviation campaign in the mid-1980s. A key factor in China's successful electrification programme through hydel energy was Beijing's determination and ability to mobilise resource at the local level. Though the electrification programme was backed by subsidies and low-interest loans, it also benefited from the very cheap domestic production of equipment ranging from hydro-power generators to light bulbs. India is another country in the region which has followed the same policy. By developing small hydro-power projects at an accelerated pace, it has addressed the problem poverty in rural areas. During the last five years, India's central government has completed 90 small hydro-power projects which can generate 270 megawatts of electricity.

Despite these success stories in our own neighborhood, our energy gurus are either stuck with construction of big dams or with experimenting for expensive alternatives like wind energy. It is important to understand that wind energy is not only expensive, it needs a lot of space to generate power. A recent report by US Agency for International Development (USAID), which makes a cost comparison of different technologies to harness green energy in south Asia, proves that hydel energy is five to ten times cheaper than wind and solar energy respectively.

In solar energy Pakistan's past experience has not been a happy one. Two solar energy stations set up in 1984 and abandoned since then are a strong reminder that we better not experiment with it again. This leaves us with only economically viable option to provide energy to the poorest of the poor and that is through harnessing hydel-power. It is best suited for our unique set of circumstances and long experience of over hundred years in hydro-power generation. We also have sufficient engineering and technical know how to go ahead with it. State-owned Heavy Mechanical Complex in Texila has the manufacturing facilities to make hydro-power turbines.

In the Planning Commission's development framework, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, the Northern Areas (NA) and the northern districts of the Frontier province are identified as being among the least developed areas of the country. Majority of the population in these regions lives in obscene levels of poverty and exhibits lowest socio-economic indicators of well being. These areas have an estimated population of 8.21 million spread over 11,3000 square kilometres. They are poor mostly due to their far-flung locations and inadequate linkage with the more developed areas.

On the other hand, this entire region is known as a goldmine for generation hydro-power. This flies in the face of the fact that most of the population there does not have access to any energy, let alone a cheap one. The efforts by the provincial governments to fill the gap in rural power supply on their own has not improved the situation at all. Some provincial departments and NGOs like Aga Khan Foundation have introduced some community-based small hydro-power stations (producing 20-30 kilowatts of electricity) in parts of the Frontier and the Northern Areas but the majority of the stations they have installed are very basic in design and can be used for lighting only. They do not allow productive use of energy for income generation.

No one, therefore, should be surprised to know the extreme levels of poverty in the Northern Areas, where per capita income is merely 100 dollars and per capita electricity consumption 0.05 kilowatts, the lowest in Pakistan. The principal forms of energy consumed in the area are electricity generated from small hydroelectric power stations generating only 46 megawatts of power which falls much short of 95 megawatts, the actual demand in the areas. This gap in supply and demand is filled by diesel power generators, firewood, kerosene oil and batteries. Non-availability of stable and affordable energy sources is resulting in tremendous pressure on the forests in the areas, causing indiscriminate cutting of trees which, if allowed to continue at the current pace, will eliminate all forests in the next few years. A forestry institute in Peshawar, in its recent report, has warned that the current rate of deforestation in Pakistan is so high that if it goes on unchecked it can lead to complete elimination of forest cover by 2010.

This creates ironies of its own. The development framework offers a roadmap for increasing the national forest cover from 4.8 per cent to 4.9 per cent in 2005 and 5.2 per cent in 2010. These targets cannot be realised without analysing ground realties and providing alternative sources of energy to people living in and around forests. According to some estimates, 206 megawatts of power are required to preserve the forests of the Northern Areas alone by 2016. This can be easily met by installing small hydro-power projects which, when and if they become operational, will can have a maximum capacity of producing 579 megawatts of electricity.

Though the government's development framework acknowledges that hydel-power generation from the Indus river and its tributaries can become a major source of development in the Northern Areas, not a single penny has been allocated for the purpose. Perhaps the authorities are waiting for a complete vanishing of the forest before they swing in to action.

If this hydro-power generation potential can be realised it will also reduce, almost eliminate, the local people's dependency on kerosene oil and diesel which reach these areas after their market price is further increased by the heavy transportation cost to bring them to this hilly and remote region. Provision of cheap energy through hydel sources will also decrease eye and respiratory diseases, which are very common in the Northern Areas due to excessive use of oil and firewood for cooking and heating. In the absence of clean energy sources, families are condemned to live in a single smoke-filled room.

How cheap hydel energy helps to eradicate poverty is shown by the success story of an entrepreneur who installed a one-megawatt hydel power project in Chitral in the year 2001 along with complete distribution network for the southern part of Chitral city. The project has changed the socio-economic conditions of the area by providing electricity to run machinery and equipment for the manufacturing and processing of local goods. This locally-generated energy is also creating skilled job opportunities in the power supply system as well as in workshops for making electric appliances and fixing electric installations. Small and medium industries like wool weaving, walnut oil extraction, walnut juice pressing, fruit drying and its preservation and packaging, chilling stores, marble and slate cutting and polishing and cutting gems cutting can immensely benefit through this cheap energy.

If cheap hydel-power generation through small, local power generation and supply systems, can be successfully realised it will help the government save money needed for linking remote areas with the national grid. This money in turn can be used for other productive, poverty-alleviation purposes.