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In Sizzling Pakistan, One Community Overcomes Electricity Woes

Picturesque Kalam has abundant fresh water resources.
Picturesque Kalam has abundant fresh water resources.

KALAM, Pakistan -- Severe power cuts during the holy month of Ramadan, when most of Pakistan’s estimated 200 million Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, have prompted violent protests in the scorching temperatures of summer.

But an alpine community in the country’s Hindu Kush Mountains has harnessed stream and river waters to provide an abundant and uninterrupted electricity supply to its residents.

An estimated 30,000 residents of Kalam now enjoy uninterrupted electricity thanks to small hydropower stations bankrolled by the European Union and built by a local NGO, the Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP). The two small hydropower stations supply some 45,000 households and 400 hotels and businesses in the Swat Valley resort town.

Each summer, tens of thousands of tourists flock to Kalam and other resort towns in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Regular electricity supply now promises a bright future for Kalam.

Abrar Ahmed, a local hotelier, was spending between $50 and $100 each day just to fuel his generators. “We now expect to save hundreds of thousands of rupees (thousands of dollars) in power costs every month,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Kalam’s tiny bazaar, where locals buy groceries and tourists hunt for handicrafts, now stays open late into the night. The locally produced electricity is cheap and costs only few dollars a month for most households.

Hassan, a grocer who goes by one name only, says Kalam was cut off from the national electricity grid after a massive flood washed away electric poles in 2010.

“We are benefiting tremendously from this round-the-clock electricity,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our bazaar is back to its former glory, and locals can now even visit the hospital at night.”

Tourists, too, are happy. Zain Ahmad, a visitor from the eastern city of Lahore, was eager to enjoy Kalam’s cool evenings. “I am excited to see Kalam Bazaar getting unhindered power supply,” he told Pakistan’s daily Dawn. “My family happily comes out of our hotel in the night to enjoy the cool breeze outside amid lighting everywhere.”

While Kalam has rejoiced over its uninterrupted power, however, engineered blackouts prompted protests elsewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on May 29.

station in Kalam.
station in Kalam.

Pakistani media reported that at least one person died in Dargai, a town near Swat Valley, when protesters clashed with law enforcement officials after ransacking the local offices of the Water and Power Development Authority, a government utility provider.

Zahidullah Khan, an official supervising small hydroelectric powerhouses in Kalam, says the 1,600 kilowatts produced by the Jungle Inn (400 kilowatts) and Ashuran (1,200 kilowatts) power stations far exceed the region’s demand of 700 kilowatts.

“We are ready to provide this power to other regions,” Khan told Radio Mashaal.

SRSP official Musa Khan says the project provides an ideal model for partnership between public and private organizations. Such an approach is considered key to alleviating Pakistan’s crippling electricity shortages.

In recent years, SRSP has built more than 250 hydroelectric stations in Swat, the surrounding areas of Malakand and other mountainous regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than half a million Pakistanis benefit from these stations.

According to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities, small dams in Swat and other regions can produce nearly 500 megawatts of hydroelectricity, while large dams in the province and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas can produce several thousand megawatts of electricity.

Most regions in Pakistan now face at least eight hours of engineered blackouts. Locally called “load shedding,” these power cuts are prompted by a shortfall of estimated 6,000 megawatts on the national grid.

With national elections looming, the issue is expected to figure prominently in the 2018 parliamentary polls. In 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won the election after promising Pakistanis he would end or substantially reduce power cuts by the next election.

“We will keep on protesting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa every day,” Fazal-e Ilahi a local politician in the provincial capital, told Pakistan private Geo TV.

Radio Mashaal correspondent Niaz Ahmad Khan contributed reporting from Kalam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat Valley.