Stop delaying Neelum-Jehlum project

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Briefing the National Assembly Standing Committee on Economic Affairs Division (EAD) the other day, chief of the Neelum-Jehlum Hydro Electric Project, Lieutenant General Zubair Ahmed (Retd) sought EAD's help in getting funds worth Rs 83 billion released for hydropower projects.

He said that if Rs 2 billion of outstanding dues were released on a monthly basis work on the 969MW Neelum-Jehlum project could begin without further delay. Work remains stalled, causing substantial cost overruns because the money required to get such a vital project off ground is unavailable. Regrettably, the reason, once again, is the government's failure to get its priorities right.

It seems not to have pushed hard enough China's State Council for an expeditious approval of $448 million loan agreement with the Exim Bank. Also, in a situation somewhat similar to the problem of circular debt - the root cause of the current power crisis - the Letter of Credit worth $113 million for equipment could not be opened because a $100 million loan agreement with Abu Dhabi Fund is pending as the Fund has linked it with the issue of Etisalat payments from PTCL privatisation.

Delay on Pakistan's part to build the project has already cost it dearly. As per the Indus Water Treaty, India could use the Kishanganga (which becomes Neelum upon entering Pakistani side of Kashmir) water for hydroelectric power generation without any storage facilities. While Pakistan procrastinated, India took advantage and went ahead to start construction of a power generation project. It has created a diversion in Kishanganga through a 22-km tunnel rerouting the water via Wuller Lake to fall into River Jehlum, changing the course of Neelum by about 100-km and badly impacting Neelum Valley's ecology. The long diversion will reduce the force of water flow as well; consequently, the Neelum-Jehlum power project's electricity generation potential will drop by about 27 percent. General Ahmad also told the NA committee that if India succeeds in building the Kishanganga dam on River Jehlum, Pakistan is likely to face a 13 percent shortage in its share of water.

Approach to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the Kishanganga project promises little success. Some design changes have been recommended but the more controversial diversion channel will continue to hurt Pakistan. The manner in which the dispute was pursued in the PCA is another sordid affair. Former water commissioner Jamaat Ali Shah fled the country following allegations of having deliberately damaged Pakistan's case. It remains to be settled though as to whether he had acted on purpose or out of lack of expert legal assistance. Clearly, complacency and negligence have characterised government policy regarding the water issue - life blood of Pakistan agrarian economy. As for the hydropower project, the NA committee has asked the finance ministry to release Rs 2 billion, as required, on a monthly basis for its timely completion. The ministry, hopefully, will offer no excuse for further postponement.

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