Harnessing the Force of Water: Hydropower in Northern Pakistan

Domestic production of renewable energy is playing an increasingly important role in Pakistan’s energy mix, as the Government of Pakistan bids to reduce the dependency on imported fossil fuels. Hydroelectric power is a leading contributor to this, capitalizing on the country’s natural energy resources.

The Khwar Hydropower Project, one of 12 energy projects in Pakistan that the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) is supporting, comprises three electricity plants in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. These have been supplying electricity since the project was completed in 2014, helping to meet Pakistan’s growing demand for energy and providing 1.6 million people with a reliable source of ‘clean’ electricity. This in turn is helping to drive the country’s economic growth – which is dependent on a reliable power supply.

Three plants, one powerful project

In recent decades, Pakistan has been highly dependent on imported fossil fuels for its energy supply, mostly oil and gas. This has placed a strain on foreign currency reserves and left the country exposed to global price fluctuations. The Government of Pakistan recognized the need to increase the amount of electricity generated domestically, in order to sustain Pakistan’s rapid social and economic progress.

The country has considerable renewable energy potential, notably in hydropower. This source of power offers an opportunity for Pakistan to increase its self-sufficiency in energy production while also meeting its commitments under global climate change agreements.

The Khwar Hydropower Project plays a major strategic role in Pakistan’s shift towards renewables. It facilitated the construction of ‘high head’ hydropower stations, harnessing the energy of three tributaries of the Indus River: Khan Khwar, Duber Khwar and Allai Khwar. This offered a combined total capacity of 323 MW.

The three plants, approved for IsDB financing in August 2008, required the following elements: a weir to channel water to the chutes, which then transfer the resource to the turbine; and a powerhouse to generate electricity and feed it into the national supply grid. The total cost was US$632 million. Of this, IsDB contributed US$141 million, which covered the construction of the weirs, as well as consultancy and auditing costs. The remaining costs were financed by the Government of Pakistan.

Benefits for local communities

The national importance of the Khwar Hydropower Project is clear. It is helping to drive the country’s economic growth, but there have been further benefits for nearby communities, too.

Employment opportunities have increased, including the staff needed to build, operate and maintain the hydropower plants. Around 200 permanent jobs have been created in this r training to become electricians, maintenance workers and supervisors. These careers represent a significant opportunity in a region where most people survive through subsistence farming and livestock keeping. Some have gone on to use their new skills at other infrastructure projects across Pakistan, such as initiatives in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor.

As part of the wider impact of the wider impact of the The Khwar Hydropower Project, education standards have also improved. Given the enhanced career prospects available, communities near the dams have placed a greater importance on education, particularly in subjects such as science and technology. This is important, as the Northern Territories have high levels of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy.

There have also been significant improvements to infrastructure following the establishment of the project - supporting the growth of trade and commerce. For example, work to improve the roads to the Allai Khwar plant not only provided access to the site, but also to Sichbiar village, which was previously isolated. At Duber Khwar, the Government has added secondary roads to the plant’s access roads, reaching several remote communities. Bridges in the region were also strengthened during the project.

Further to this, businesses have benefitted through the Khwar Hydropower Project’s policy of sourcing materials from local communities. Local service providers have also risen in number: there was just one bank open in the nearby city of Besham when the project started, while six are in operation today. The enhanced power supply to Besham also contributed to the growth in domestic tourism.

Across the region, there has been a rise in living standards as a result of the project’s social responsibility initiatives. For instance, connecting water pipes to local houses has removed the need for local citizens to fetch water elsewhere. Medical standards have also improved, in part because the increased electricity supply means that pharmacies can stay open later.

Overcoming challenges

While the project had a number of benefits, a few challenges were faced during construction due to the geological conditions in the region. As the area is relatively mountainous and remote, excavation slopes for the reservoirs were originally unstable and thus needed to be strengthened ahead of work commencing.

Additionally, the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan on 8 October 2005 and subsequent floods in 2010, led to setbacks because of damaged infrastructure.

Minimizing negative impacts

While the geography of the Indus Valley presented difficulties, it also meant that the Khwar Hydropower Project resulted minimal imposition on the local communities. With the area having a low population density, very few people needed to be resettled. The infrastructure was also designed in a way that minimized environmental disturbance. Notably, the three weirs were constructed in tributary rivers that feed into the Indus, rather than the main river. As a result, they are between 0.6 km and 1.6 km long, and do not cover vast areas of land.

Clean, green energy for the future

This project was a significant learning experience for all involved, and provided many useful lessons for future projects in this region of Pakistan and beyond. These range from the macro-level, such as ensuring adequate precautions are taken when designing projects in geologically difficult regions, to technical details such as installing sediment traps in turbines to prevent damage.

Yet with renewables set to play an increasingly important role in Pakistan’s future energy mix, the success of the Khwar Hydropower Project – in the face of testing conditions – provides an example of what can be achieved.

Success factors

  • A resilient approach: The project faced setbacks, from the geography of the region to natural disasters. However, these were overcome, in part through adaptations to the design of the infrastructure. This demonstrates a highly responsive approach among the project team and contractors.
  • Increased reliability: As well as increasing overall capacity, the project addressed two major issues in Pakistan: load shedding and voltage instability. Increasing the number of power stations provided greater reliability across Pakistan’s power system.
  • A range of local benefits: Alongside the national importance in terms of energy provision, the project supported local communities in many ways, from creating employment to improving access. Visible impacts such as these, go a long way towards generating local support for major initiatives.
  • Government support: The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), which oversees the plants, receives strong support from the government, meaning the long-term future for the plants is secure.
  • Expertise and knowledge: WAPDA has highly skilled staff, who are able to maintain and operate plants effectively.