It is very much imperative that a thorough inquiry should be conducted into the abrupt closure of the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower project last year and its findings should be made public before the restart of the run-of-the-river hydroelectricity plant likely to happen later this year.
The findings of the probe should be shared with the media and other concerned quarters for expert input from energy experts, civil engineers, and specialists in hydropower generation. This input is very vital to ensure that there shouldn't be a repeat of the mistakes and faults that occurred during the construction of this very important hydroelectricity plant.
The debate and feedback from the relevant experts on the findings of the investigation will make sure that Neelum-Jhelum or any other hydroelectricity plant of such scale shouldn't again face such a failure abruptly halting its power production for the national grid.
The projects like Neelum-Jhelum plant are very vital for Pakistan's vigorous drive that the majority of power needs of the country are met through indigenous energy sources that too preferably by means of clean electricity. The uninterrupted operation of the Neelum-Jhelum power plant is vital to encourage the building of more such energy projects for the fullest utilization of the hydroelectricity generation potential of Pakistan.
Needless to mention building big hydroelectricity projects like the Neelum-Jhelum plant will enable Pakistan to achieve self-sufficiency in the power sector with achieving the ultimate goal that power consumers in Pakistan are supplied with uninterrupted electricity at the cheapest rates with ensuring that there is the least harm to the environment.
The completion of the Neelum-Jhelum project was firstly unduly delayed and the abrupt shutdown of its plant within four years of it becoming fully operational is highly concerning for everyone who is concerned about Pakistan's energy sector.
The electricity plant was closed during summer of the last year when it was highly difficult for the government to continuously spend fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves for importing fossil fuels for running thermal electricity plants. Everyone knows that the more thermal power plants remain operational the more they create financial problems for the national economy and individually for the power consumers due to the higher tariff involved. Thermal power plants also accelerate the process of environmental degeneration.
The protection of the environment for slowing down the process of climate change has become all the more important to avoid catastrophic disasters like floods in 2022.
Those who were responsible for the faults during the construction phase of the Neelum-Jhelum project should be duly identified in the investigation report with the recommendation of the penal action that should be taken against them. This will ensure that those involved in spending public money for building more such hydroelectricity plants would work with utmost commitment, dedication, honesty, and integrity.
It is understandable that the construction of large-capacity hydroelectricity generation plants involves a longer duration, spanning several years, and massive capital that is often borrowed from international lenders for the completion of the project. The construction of hydroelectricity projects is also highly problematic due to politics and policy-related issues involved.
In such a situation, the planners, executing agencies, the authorities involved in the construction, the in-charge officials, the project engineers, and their subordinate staff, should show utmost care and caution while completing the project so to ensure its uninterrupted operations after completion.
Those showing wilful carelessness and negligence in building such energy projects of national importance should face accountability and penal action for avoiding such a dereliction of duty in the future. The continued operation of the Neelum-Jhelum power plant in the summer of the last year and the current year would have gone a long way to reduce the woes of the power consumers across Sindh. Those at the helm of affairs in the Power sector would have taken a sigh of relief had the Neelum-Jhelum project continued its operations this summer. Owing to the weakening state of the Pakistani economy it is utterly unfeasible to keep importing fossil fuels from outside Pakistan for power generation. The Power Ministry, the Wapada, and all other relevant authorities shouldn't show haste in restarting the hydroelectricity plant as the least they should do is hold a media briefing to thoroughly disclose to the media persons the reasons behind the faulty status of the power project.
Transparency, accountability, and fairness are as important in the energy sector for success as important in any other sector.
Amid countrywide electricity shortages, the 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project, completed at an estimated approved cost of about Rs508bn, was closed due to major cracks in its tailrace tunnel.
'Neelum-Jhelum is unfortunately offline. Details of its suspension or fault have not been concluded yet,' Power Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan confirmed at a presser held last year.
He added that thorough investigations were currently underway of all its channels, which are deep and long, some of them under huge mountains.
The project's construction was taken in hand in 2002 after 21 years of delay and completed in April 2018 - again with repeated cost overruns and missed deadlines.
Major construction involving about 58 kilometres of tunnels was done by Chinese contractor CGGC-CMEC (Gezhouba Group), hired in December 2007.
Despite its installed capacity of 969MW, the project has often exceeded its production level, touching 1,040MW. It was providing more than five billion units of electricity, or kilowatt-hours (kWh), to the national grid a year at an average tariff of about Rs9 per unit at no fuel cost.
The Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), which operates hydropower stations, later also confirmed that the project's 'tailrace tunnel has been blocked and as a result, the power station has been closed for safety reasons'.
'The reasons for the closure of the tailrace tunnel are currently being investigated. Steps would be taken to remove the blockade of the tailrace once the reasons are known,' Wapda said in a statement issued in Urdu.
It said all relevant institutions had been informed of the closure of one of the country's top hydropower plants through the Ministry of Water Resources.
A mainstream English newspaper reported last month that after the closure of almost a year, the 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project will restart power generation by the end of July this year.
Power generation from Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project had to be discontinued on July 4, 2022, following a malfunction that occurred in the tunnel. Neelum Jhelum Power Plant has two tunnels and there was a blockage in one of the three and a half kilometers long tunnels.
A spokesman for WAPDA has said that a significant development at the blockade in the tail race tunnel of the 969MW-Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project has been achieved on Eid day. 'Tunnel collapse of 150 ft length has been restored. Restoration works are continuing during Eid Holidays,' the spokesman said. Chairman WAPDA Engr Lt Gen (r) Sajjad Ghani visited Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project and witnessed construction activities on the remedial works. He appreciated the efforts of Project Team WAPDA, China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), and the consultants of the project, he said.
The chairman was briefed that the remedial works for the restoration of Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project are underway in light of the report furnished by the international panel of experts, the spokesman maintained. Hydraulic lining shutter is being installed inside the tail race tunnel for concrete lining, while the allied works are also continuing side by side. Risk analysis report by the consultants is expected to be finalized during the next month. Chairman WAPDA directed project authorities to resume electricity generation from the project by the end of July. The Neelum-Jhelum power plant suffered a fault following the blockage of water in the tunnel area of 3.5 kilometres that led to the shutdown of the plant and the termination of 969MW of cheap electricity to the national grid.