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Faltering Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project Faces Prolonged Shutdown

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Muhammad Younus

The “crown jewel” Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHPP) has been plagued by a history of frequent breakdowns, and it now faces the likelihood of being offline for an extensive period. The project, with a capacity of 969 megawatts, has struggled to maintain normal operation and is now set to undergo a prolonged shutdown due to a mysterious incident that occurred more than two years ago. This incident, which led to a significant decline in headrace tunnel pressure and the dewatering of a 17 km tunnel section, has raised concerns about a possible crack or collapse, although the exact cause remains unclear.

Reports indicate that a significant decline in headrace tunnel pressure and the dewatering of a 17km tunnel section have raised concerns about a possible crack or collapse, although the exact cause remains unclear. The impact of a complete NJHPP shutdown is not just substantial, but staggering, resulting in direct losses of over Rs55 billion annually and indirect financial implications due to the need for expensive replacement fuel, estimated to be between Rs90 billion to Rs150 billion, depending on the source. This places an overwhelming strain on an already vulnerable government grappling with power generation challenges and fiscal constraints.

Despite the prime minister’s visit to the site and the announcement of a third-party investigation with stern warnings of severe repercussions for negligence, the formation of a formal committee to oversee the investigation was not just delayed, but significantly delayed. The committee, led by a former bureaucrat, has been criticized for procedural delays, hindering the urgent need for a thorough investigation to identify faults and potential responsible parties. The urgency of this investigation cannot be overstated, as it is crucial to the future of the project and the financial stability of the government.

Notably, there have been suggestions of a remote possibility of sabotage, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. While acknowledging the stringent security measures in place, including regular patrols and surveillance, the potential for sabotage cannot be dismissed, particularly in light of recent maintenance activities conducted at the tunnel. Thus, a comprehensive and expeditious investigation is imperative, making the delay in commencing the official inquiry even more concerning.

The apparent lack of urgency in responding to the prime minister’s directives is raising questions about the government’s commitment to addressing the NJHPP crisis promptly and transparently. However, it’s important to note that the government has taken some steps, including the prime minister’s visit to the site and the announcement of a third-party investigation with stern warnings of severe repercussions for negligence. As the government endeavors to mitigate substantial financial losses, taxpayers ultimately bear the burden of these setbacks. With the power sector already posing a significant challenge, the news of a prolonged NJHPP breakdown arrives at a particularly precarious juncture.

Rising energy costs have rendered electricity unaffordable for a considerable segment of the population. Coupled with imminent IMF programs and the prospect of increased taxes and utility bills, public discontent is reaching a critical juncture. Consequently, it is imperative for the government to ensure that the mandated investigation into the NJHPP catastrophe is conducted with transparency and efficiency. Given the current state of affairs, this expectation appears to be a substantial ask, further intensifying public dissatisfaction amidst the government’s mounting challenges. The public’s support and understanding of the situation are crucial in this crisis, as they are the ones who will bear the brunt of the financial and social implications of the project’s shutdown.

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