KARIMABAD, PAKISTAN Residents of Pakistan?s northern valleys are harnessing the natural might of glacial melt to generate electricity in their remote communities, and local officials hope that further hydroelectric projects in the area will have the potential to alleviate the country?s growing energy crisis.
The five districts of the Northern Areas, known historically as Gilgit-Baltistan, are isolated from the rest of Pakistan by the formidable natural buffer formed by the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
The snow-capped region of Alpine valleys has been the source of romantic inspiration for writers for a century, even being touted as the home of the mythical Shangri-la in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton.
However, development workers active in the area said such fairy tales mask the sad truth: until the completion of the Karakorum Highway (KKH), a narrow 1,300-km road between Islamabad and the Chinese border in 1978, its communities were undernourished because of the tremendous difficulties in channelling water for irrigation, and frequently fell victim to cholera because of contamination of the water they did obtain from glacial streams.
A poignant example is the hamlet of Murtazabad in the Hunza Valley, which for some 100 years was the setting for an epic struggle between the community and the sheer, unstable slopes down which cascaded the water they needed.
Veterans of the struggle to tame a 100-metre-long natural channel have passed down stories of how, time and again, the efforts of men working without the skills or tools of modern engineering were frustrated and killed by the temperamental terrain, said Naeem-ud-Din Dinal, a development consultant with the Karakorum Area Development Organisation, an NGO.
He recalled being told by his grandfather about the deaths of 12 men from the village of Altit in a single landslide, their bodies never to be recovered; other stories related how villagers would complete a section of the channel one day, only to awake the next morning to find that subsidence had shifted their project 30 metres downstream.
?People throughout the area advised the residents of Murtazabad to abandon the project, and to request the Mir [hereditary ruler] of Hunza to allow them to settle elsewhere,? he said.
?But diehard villagers determined to farm the unusually flat areas at the foot of the mountains motivated the people time and again, and they kept at it until the subsidence ended and the channel area stabilised.?
The channel was finally tamed in 1890 and some 50 years later, with the help of a surveyor who took measurements by aiming an air rifle and shooting pellets to mark rocks, its gradient was reduced and brought a further 70 metres downstream.
The water, however, was contaminated with vast quantities of sand and other impurities that for several generations have made Murtazabad synonymous with cholera throughout the area, particularly during ebbs in the glacial melt.
The situation was finally brought under control in 1994 when, with technical and financial assistance from Norway, the government erected the area?s first hydroelectric power plant, a modest 1.2-megawatt unit at Hasanabad that required the extension of the Murtazabad channel back to its original high-altitude source to turn its turbines.
The hydroelectric project sparked a number of internationally funded community-based projects, including a filtration plant that changed the health fortunes of the people of Murtazabad.
The villagers? century-long struggle has taught the Northern Areas? modern-day pioneers of power supply that the future fortunes of its residents, as well as the estimated 170 million Pakistanis living ?down-country?, lie in harnessing the ?run-of-the-river? potential of the region.
GTZ, the German development agency, has identified sites on small and large rivers with the potential to generate a staggering 40,000 megawatts of electricity, or about double the power shortfall that Pakistan is predicted to suffer by 2020, said Karim Khan, an engineer for the Northern Areas? water and power department.
?If the government develops that potential, it won?t need to run emissions emitting thermal and coal plants, or nuclear plants that pose a danger to the public,? said Mr Khan, who supervises power plants throughout the Hunza Valley.
However, potential is one thing, realising it is quite another. The area?s largest hydroelectric project to date, an 18-megawatt project built by China in the Naltar Valley neighbouring Gilgit, the regional capital, was commissioned in May.
At the other end of the scale, residents of Ahmedabad village in Hunza Valley worked with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, an NGO, to establish a 350-kilowatt hydroelectric unit in April, although the turbine they manufactured locally with minimal technology has kept output down to less than half of envisioned capacity.
But the government has only just begun drawing up plans to transform the region?s tiny water and power department into a full-fledged utility, and to plan the linking of isolated hydroelectric units into a grid so that it power can be shared.
?We are a very small department ? I barely manage to visit the sites under my supervision once a year,? said Mr Khan.
?We need fresh blood to take the strain.?
Courtesy Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent for The National Abu Dhabi