Life is full of hardships for women like Gul Mehreen, who live in tough mountain terrain in the north of Pakistan. Their villages located in Hunza Nagar Valley are isolated and still don’t have an access to electricity making it even more difficult for them to survive harsh conditions.
But thanks to a small project, Mehreen now takes delight in cooking and other daily household chores.
A micro-hydel power station has been installed that now supplies clean and cheap energy to her village called Ahmadabad, where Gul Mehreen lives, making the lives of the residents, especially women much easier.
In the villages, it is the womenfolk who are responsible for all cooking-related activities and they work really hard, often walking miles to collect firewood on a daily basis. But with the availability of electricity, they have been relieved of this burden.
Instead of firewood, Gul Mehreen now uses electric stove, oven and energy saver bulbs in her home – all powered by the micro-hydel power station.
This also means she doesn’t burn kerosene oil anymore to light a lamp during night, smoke from which was a serious health problem for her and her family.
Mehreen says she doesn’t suffer from eye problems and cough anymore that were earlier caused by indoor pollution due to inefficient burning of the firewood.
“I myself used to go to collect fuel wood from a nearby forest. I would cut the wood into small pieces and burn them in mud stove to cook food. That work was toilsome. Also, the smoke from the stove would spread throughout our home and we would cough and feel pain in the eyes. Now cooking food and doing other chores in the kitchen has considerably become easy and stress-free. Now we do every thing from cooking, heating water for washing cloths, bathing and dish washing on the electric stove as electricity is much cheaper and readily available,” She said.
The micro hydel power station was constructed by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in financial and technical support extended by the United Nations Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF). The project became operational in 2008.
Social development activist Ghulam Sarwar, who himself is a resident of the Ahmadabad village and has been instrumental in uplifting the living standards of the people, says the project has been a boon for the socio-economic lives of the village.
He told this scribe, “Before the micro hydel power project, our entire village reeled under darkness. While we used to see light and electricity in other cities of Pakistan, we had only candles and kerosene oil lamps to light our homes. We faced so many difficulties due to absence of electricity in our village. We were forced to chop down even the fruit bearing trees to cook meals.”
The scenic village of Ahmadabad is located right next to gushing Hunza river, a major tributary of the mighty Indus River, just opposite the over 8,000 metres high breathtaking mountain peak of Rakaposhi.
Environmentalists and social activist in the village, Ghulam Raza and Inayatullah Baig, are glad that due to the micro hydel power station, forests in the village are now coming back to life. They claim that no one cuts trees in the village now.
Ghulam Raza points out, “Thanks to advent of electricity in our village, forests in the nearby mountain areas are now regenerating. Now, no one chops trees for fuelwood.”
Inayatullah Baig, who also looks after the operationalization of the micro hydel power project, says no one cut trees in the village and so much so dried up trees stand uncut or idle. No one bothers to use them for any purpose. Because, the villagers have now access to cheap, clean and environment-friendly electricity.
Pointed towards a dried berry tree, Inayatullah Baig said, “This is a very old berry tree. It has dried up but yet no one has chopped it down because we now have hydel electricity in the village.”
Ali Gohar, who is management committee member of the micro hydel power project in the Ahmadabad village, says that that the future of their children was earlier at stake. They often used to join their mothers and sisters to collect fuelwood from forests. But now they get enough time to study and finish their schoolwork even after the sunset due to electric bulbs.
“Life has become easy. Children can do their homework in the evening. We can now watch television, we can iron our clothes and women can use electric washing machines,” he said.
All the 144 households of the Ahmadabad mountain village and nearly 110 households in adjoining Sultanabad and Faizabad villages of the Hunza valley now have access to electricity from the micro hydel power station, which is presently producing 190 kilowatts.
Community leaders, who look after the project, say that they intend to provide electricity to 1300 more households in Karimabad and Altit villages of the valley after increasing the power generation to 400 kilowatts in the next one or two years once the funds are available.
Shahana Khan, who is a Project Development Manager with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Hunza valley, says it is a people’s initiative.
She told this scribe further, “Given the abundant advantages, we have set up several micro hydel power projects in different mountain villages of the Gilgit-Baltistan province. These are owned by the communities. Though the communities themselves have built these micro power stations, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme extended only technical and financial support for them. Palpably, a number of benefits accrue from such hydel power projects for the communities and the environment.”
Pakistan’s Alternative Energy Development Board’s reports conclude that rivers and mountain streams in the country have a combined power potential of more than 50,000 megawatts. But existing hydropower projects produce less than 7000 megawatts of electricity.
These comprise of all sizes of hydropower plants, including storage-based and high-head schemes on mountainous streams in the north and low-head, run-of-the river plants on rivers and canals in the southern plains.
Jamil Uddin, who manages development projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, says that his organization in collaboration with the Paksitan’s Alternative Energy Development Board and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund has planned to install around 103 micro hydro power plants in upper Indus Basin areas of Chitral district and Gilgit-Baltistan province in the next few years.
This will reduce pressure on the depleting forest resources of the country, cut Pakistan’s carbon footprint and empower mountain communities of the Hindu-Kush Himalaya region through cheap, clean, reliable and affordable electricity.
Sughra Tunio is science and environment journalist based in Islamabad.