Pakistani Kashmir residents fear power project will destroy economy, livelihood
The Neelum-Jhelum Hydroelectric Project and the Kohala Hydroelectric Power Project are facing severe opposition from the people of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, who say that the two projects have diverse effects on the river’s ecology and will destroy the livelihoods of lakhs of people residing in the city.
A 46-year-old bookseller, Shoukat Nawaz, remembers the days when he could enjoy the fresh cold air on his balcony in a house along a riverbank in Muzaffarabad. Today, a stench greets him as he goes outside.
“Now it stinks here. The smell is really bad, and the temperature has also changed because the water level has dropped so much,” said Nawaz.
Nawaz was one of hundreds of locals who joined a torch-bearing rally in Muzaffarabad against the diversion of two rivers flowing through the city.
The Save the Rivers Campaign that organized the protest blames the changes in river flow on the Neelum-Jhelum Hydroelectric Project, that diverted one of the two rivers that flow through the city to a tunnel to generate electricity.
A second initiative, the Kohala Hydroelectric Power Project, plans to similarly divert the other river. The 1,100-megawatt project is being built by a Chinese company, the China Three Gorges, and is expected to come online in 2026.
It is facing intense opposition from campaigners who say they have seen the negative impact of the first project and fear the collective effect of the two would completely destroy the river’s ecology, the surrounding city’s environment, and the tourism industry that supports the livelihood of many locals.
The head of Pakistani Kashmir’s environmental protection agency, Adnan Khurshaid, said environmental impact studies had been done and standards and safeguards identified before allowing the project to go forward.
The two rivers, Neelum and Jhelum, flow through the mountainous city together. Their water, glacial melt, used to be ice cold in summer, maintaining the city’s temperature and making it a thriving tourist destination. They also served as a natural waste management system for the city’s untreated sewerage.
The Pakistan government body, Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), responsible for the Neelum-Jhelum project, promised to build several sewage treatment plants and three artificial lakes to maintain temperature, and to retain a certain water level in the river at all times.
Residents said while the project began in 2018, none of the three promises has yet to be fulfilled, leading to not just environmental damage but a negative impact on the health of the local community.
“Cases of hepatitis, malaria and typhoid have increased after the diversion of the first river”, said Dr. Ejaz Ahmed, a community health and child specialist in Muzaffarabad.
Ahmed said he has observed less rain and higher temperatures in the city since the change in water flow. “We are facing severe issues due to the diversion of one river. We cannot afford the diversion of the other,” he said.
The prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir, who earlier agreed with the campaigners and promised that he would help address their concerns, seems to have changed his position and is now in favor of the project.
“Initially, Kohala will fetch in 10,000 jobs for locals and electricity and taxes for the government,” said Dr. Mustafa Bashir, a minister in Pakistani Kashmir’s government.
He said the Kohala project included five artificial lakes as well as schools and parks to provide education and jobs for locals. “This project’s life is 100 years and it will be handed over to us free of cost after 30 years,” allowing the Kashmiri government to earn millions in taxes on electricity produced in future, he said.