Far off the beaten track, life in the remote valleys of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region in northern Pakistan is harsh.

Some places are only accessible by foot and extreme weather can cause sudden and massive landslides or floods, cutting the region off from the rest of the country for months.

That is when you marvel at people’s ingenuity and resilience. For nearly four decades now, the people living in the mountain foothills have been able to harness the raging water tumbling down the steep alpine mountains to create power, bringing respite in the face of adversity.

Usually established by the community, these micro-hydropower projects work more or less like the big power corporations that supply power to cities. Like them, the micro-hydropower projects come with their own power generation source and operate autonomously.

They can typically generate between five to 100 kilowatts of power. Most micro-hydropower projects have a shelf life of up to 20 years. This can be extended if they are properly serviced, maintained and operated.

Micro hydroelectric plants have brought reliable and cheep electricity to some of Pakistan’s most remote areas. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

Two winters ago was the best winter Zulekha Begum can remember in her 42 years in Swat valley, 150 kilometres northeast of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “It was the most comfortable winter; our rooms were nice and warm and we had hot water anytime of the day.”

For the first time last winter, her village of Jukhtai, in the idyllic alpine valley, received an uninterrupted supply of electricity thanks to the 65 KW of the micro-hydropower project that the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, an independent development organisation, helped install in their village of 2,300 people.

The Sarhad Rural Support Programme has been working in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since 1989 with the aim of reducing poverty and ensuring sustainable means of livelihood. And since 2004, it has built more than 250 micro-hydro units supplying off-grid communities with cheap, environmentally-friendly and uninterrupted power supply. With financial support from the European Union to produce over 19 MW of electricity, it has benefitted over 570,000 people.

Six years ago, in 2012, the EU (in collaboration with the Pakistan government) started a four-year programme to “revitalise” rural economy and promote renewable energy for sustainable livelihoods in Malakand division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was later extended to 2018.

Places such as Kalam, where people can barely afford to get by, benefit disproportionately from cheap and reliable electricity. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

Pumping in 40 million Euros into areas affected by conflict and natural disasters, the project planned to cover 100 union councils of seven districts (Swat, Shangla, Buner, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Chitral and Malakand) to benefit 2.7 million people affected by conflict and floods.

This fitted closely with the work of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, which was also planning on initiating over 350 units to produce 35 MW of electricity benefiting over 700,000 people by 2017.

In Pakistan, micro-hydropower projects have been led and popularised by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, both of whom have been recipients of the Ashden international award for their work in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Pakistan’s Kashmir region.

“The way we work with the community is that the latter provides us with land, labour, time even local material like stone, and earth which comes to 20% of the cost while 80% is borne by the SRSP [Sarhad Rural Support Programme],” said Dildar Ahmad, Sarhad’s district programme manager. The micro-hydropower project at Jukhtai (in Swat), cost Pakistani rupee 8,152,154 ($64,275) and provides connections to 315 households and some shops.

According to the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government gave them 105 micro-hydropower projects to be completed by December 2018, of which they have completed 90, and the rest are 78% complete. All the EU funded projects were completed by March 2018. Overall, the Sarhad Rural Support Programme says that, since 2009, it “has constructed 332 micro hydro projects, as of July 2017, benefiting approximately 900,000 population in rural areas of Malakand Division and Northern Districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.” (Oddly, the graphic accompanying this claim suggests only 331 projects have been completed.)

This community contribution, known as “sweat equity”, is the most important ingredient for the success of these micro-hydropower projects. “Making local people stakeholders and creating a sense of ownership is the only way the project will survive,” said Ahmad.

The labour that local communities put in is a key resource to making the micro-hydropower projects a success. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

The low cost, near-zero emissions, and ability to be dispatched quickly to meet peak electricity demand have made micro-hydropower projects a valuable renewable energy source worldwide.

“It burns no fuel, does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, other pollutants, or wastes associated with fossil fuels or nuclear power”, explained Fahad Saeed, a Pakistani climate scientist at the Berlin-based Climate Analytics.

However, it does cause indirect greenhouse gas emissions, mainly during the construction and flooding of the reservoirs. “Hydropower is mainly criticised for its negative environmental impacts on local ecosystems and habitats. Damming a river alters its natural flow regime and temperature, which in turn changes the aquatic habitat,” explained Saeed.

Still, small and micro hydropower facilities have “much smaller negative environmental impacts” than larger facilities, he said.

Teething problems

But installing a micro-hydropower project is far easier than ensuring its smooth running.

The Sarhad Rural Support Programme learnt this through trial and error but finally found a sustainable way out. They set up operation and maintenance committees. Members of these power committees are selected by the villagers themselves and the Sarhad Rural Support Programme then helps in building their technical capacities. “These committees determine tariffs, give connections, collect revenue, ensure continuous maintenance of all parts and monitor the micro catchment area for sustained water flow. A one-time connection costs Pakistani Rupee 2,000 ($15) for domestic and PKR 4,000 ($31) for commercial users. The cost of the cable is also borne by the user and can be as much as PKR 1,000 to PKR 4,000 ($7-28) depending on the length. Bank accounts are opened and money set aside for any unforeseen repair and rehabilitation in case of a major breakdown. In addition to one time connection charges, the regular revenue generated also contributes to the salaries of the paid technical staff,” said Ahmad.

Sajjad Hakeem Khan, who was a daily wage earner bringing home anywhere between PKR 5,000 to 6,000 ($39 -47) in a month, suddenly found himself earning double the amount after he was trained and hired as an operator for Jukhtai’s micro-hydropower project.

Not only has the money helped in the household kitty, he has suddenly become an important and sought after member in the village. “My salary is as much as the teachers’ here and people are constantly seeking my assistance if there is some fault in transmission,” he pointed out with pride. His prospects of finding a bride have also increased after having landed this job, someone joked.

A recent assessment of 11 selected micro-hydropower projects revealed a healthy figure of PKR 4.5 million ($35,000) as surplus available with designated power operation and maintenance committees. This pointed to the clients being happy with the service and willing to pay for it said Atif Zeeshan Rauf, programme manager at the Sarhad Rural Support Programme. This is especially noteworthy in a country where electricity theft is commonplace.

Tailor Mohammad Nawaz’s shop, which he shares with three others, in Kalam valley in the upper reaches of Swat valley along the bank of Suvastu river, is electrified by the Jungle Inn micro-hydropower project. “We pay PKR 800 ($6) per month to the power committee. Earlier we used to run our shop on petrol-operated generator for which we paid PKR 2,500 ($23) per day.” Earning PKR 1,500 ($14) per day, he said, he could barely make ends meet earlier.

Apart from bringing ease to individual households, having an uninterrupted supply of electricity has helped provide health services at the government run basic health unit in Kalam where people come from far and near villages.

The mini hospital, complete with an X-ray machine and a lab, was often unable to conduct diagnostics because of lack of power, forcing locals to go to the nearby town of Behrain. “Now they do not have to take time off from work or pay an exorbitant transport fee to go to town. We can also maintain the cold chain for the various life-saving vaccines,” pointed out the doctor in charge of the health facility, adding, “The budget used in buying fuel for the generator is also saved”.

This 100 KW Jungle Inn power plant was installed in 1984 by the government-owned Pakhtunkhwa Energy Development Organisation. In 2008, the project’s equipment was destroyed during a military operation. Later, the structure and transmission lines were washed away by the 2010 super floods.

The flow of water that power’s Kalam’s Jungle Inn micro-hydropower project. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

But it has been upgraded and another 100 KW turbine added to generate 400 KW electricity, said Arif Syed, a senior engineer who looks after some of the micro-hydropower projects in the area.

After the successful completion of the Jungle Inn micro-hydropower project, the government requested the Sarhad Rural Support Programme to take over the 1.2 MW one under construction in Ashuran near Kalam in 2013, and make it operational.

Since Ashuran began, it has successfully begun supplying electricity to an additional 4,000 households, 82 hotels, 37 mosques and all government offices and buildings, meeting the 1,600 KW requirement of the entire city of Kalam. It is still left with 400 KW surplus for which the Sarhad Rural Support Programme is negotiating with residents from nearby villages.

Even in summer now, life does not come to a complete stand still after dusk in the village of Jukhtai unlike the neighbouring villages of Dand, Gujaro Kalay, Shango, Bela and Kaldar Khwar. These villages, though connected to the national grid, face long power outages of up to 18 hours and there is continuous voltage fluctuation.

National problems, local solutions

“Off-grid electrification is the only feasible solution to provide electricity to three million households in the most remote areas,” said Islamabad-based Abdur Rehman Cheema, the Team Leader Research at the Rural Support Programmes Network, a network comprising 12 rural support programmes, one of which is the Sarhad Rural Support Programme.

In 2017, the country had an installed electricity capacity of 25,100 MW, but production stood at 15,886 MW. In recent years, electricity demand has risen to 19,500, leaving a gap of over 3,500 MW. Experts say the electricity is lost through inefficient distribution networks, poor infrastructure, mismanagement and theft of electricity.

“Challenges of climate change and energy security at the national level cannot be solved sustainably until we put all our efforts towards energy conservation and energy efficiency,” said Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, the UN secretary general’s special advisor for Asia with the World Meteorological Organisation. That is where renewables come in to plug the gap. But that is not the only reason why Pakistan needs to turn to clean energy sources.

Pakistan is committed to reducing its reliance on hydrocarbons, especially imported coal, oil and gas, from the present 87% to around 60% by 2025. The country has a target to produce 10% of its total energy mix from renewable sources (excluding hydro-power, which already constitutes 15% of the total energy mix).

Because large hydropower projects like big dams require huge financial investment and take much longer to build, micro-hydropower projects are more attractive.

It is much cheaper and easier to invest in micro-hydropower projects than secure funding for large hydropower projects. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

In Pakistan, said Saeed from Climate Analytics, the hydropower potential through small hydroelectric projects is estimated to be more than 3,100 MW, but currently they are only producing 128 MW. In the northern part of Pakistan, he said, there were many suitable sites for setting up small and micro hydropower plants. “Harnessing of this potential would not only mean the cut on country’s contribution towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and have a positive effect on the country’s tourism industry as well as health of the local population,” he added.

Challenges remain

Micro-hydropower projects are not without their own challenges. “Firstly, as water flows decrease in winter so does electricity generation, finally coming to a complete halt during the peak winter. Although the catchment areas are built to collect water but once it is below zero degree water freezes,” said Cheema, giving the example of Shimshal valley, in Gilgit, where the only installed micro-hydropower project operates for just four months due to insufficient water flow.

Secondly, repairing broken micro-hydropower project means transporting heavy parts to workshops in other districts. “Once broken parts reach workshops, they get into a queue which can take anywhere from a few weeks to months,” said Cheema.

One major challenge of micro-hydropower projects in remote locations is that it is hard to fix large infrastructure if it is damaged. Photo credit: Zofeen T Ebrahim

The third down side of micro-hydropower projects, according to the Rural Support Programmes Network researcher, is their vulnerability to extreme weather events like floods. “Most donors consider MHPs [micro-hydropower projects] as one-time investments. Due to increased frequency and intensity of floods, MHPs insufficiently protected against floods, are destroyed. Villages become dark again as the rehabilitation cost is too big to be afforded by the communities. With communities barely able to afford the usual maintenance cost, the full rehabilitation of an MHP would be beyond their capacity,” he said giving the example of two projects in the village Moorkhun Gojal in the north-east of Gilgit which continue to remain inoperative. “Before this latest destruction due to floods and landslides, these MHPs were rehabilitated twice since 2010,” he said.

Meanwhile in Jukhtai, Zulekha Begum’s husband Aleem Khan bought his young wife modern gadgets for the kitchen. The whirring of the washing machine is music to her ears. “I don’t have to wash clothes by hand now,” she smiles. The refrigerator and other labour saving electrical appliances have cut down the drudgery of housework.

What is even more wonderful is the price is not steep. “I pay PKR 350 ($2.76) per month for the house,” he said. He pays the same power rent for electrification of his small shop.

“I can now keep the shop open till 11 in the night,” he said. The shop is now a hangout for the neighbourhood men where they discuss anything under the sun from the country’s politics to cricket as well as how to resolve their own community’s issues. In the process, Aleem said his sales have doubled.

This is the second in a special series of reports by women journalists, done in partnership with ICIMOD, that shows how vulnerable communities innovate and adapt in the face of climate change. You can read the first part here.

This article first appeared on The Thirdpole.