Chinese firm ditch Neelum plant repairs

The Chinese engineers and staff  have abandoned their repair of the crucial Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHPP) which is shut down since early July this year, creating a major rift between Pakistan and China over joint hydropower projects. The plant is located near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the Chinese engineers were working to unblock a crucial tunnel.

The Chinese have given the excuses of local protests over the plant and failure of the Pakistan police to offer credible security.

The Chinese-built 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum plant, costing Rs 508 billion due to long delays and cost overrun, due to the tunnel blockage. A 3.5 km long tunnel that diverted water from the plant to the river developed a serious fault and forced a complete shutdown of the plant, at a time when the country was faced with a serious power crisis.

The sudden stopping of a major power plant, within three years of its operation, exposed serious differences between Pakistani and Chinese authorities over joint projects, particularly the Dasu and Mohmand power projects besides the Neelum-Jhelum plant. The Pakistani authorities blame the Chinese for project slippages and inefficient operations. The Chinese, on the other hand, have their own complaints of delayed payments which they cite as the main cause of the delays.

About the Neelum-Jhelum plant, Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) had pointed out in meetings with the Chinese company officials about slow progress despite time extensions, substandard construction quality, poor supervision and management. On the question of tunnel failure, the WAPDA had accused the Chinese of inefficiency at the stage of tunnelling which caused delay in blocking the ingress of river water into the damaged tunnel.

The Neelam-Jhelum plant failure has also brought to fore the issue of security of Chinese nationals working on Pakistani projects. The Chinese stopped work at the plant fearing threats from local residents. Security has been a sore point with the Chinese firms working on several projects in Pakistan, especially those linked to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Pakistani authorities counter the allegations by accusing the Chinese of not following security protocols at the site.

After the power plant came to a grinding halt, the contractor of the project, China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), agreed to repair and restore the tunnel without an official agreement as a goodwill gesture.  On July 10, the Chinese firm mobilised equipment and manpower to empty the tunnel of water to identify the cause of blockage. The company said the entire restoration process would take at least six months, during which the plant would remain shut. It sought PKR 120 million from the Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Corporation as interest free financial support for the job.

Intriguingly, not satisfied with the Chinese offer, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif  on July 13 issued directions to hire best international consultants to – (i) ascertain the cause of excessive water leakage in the powerhouse and pressure in the tailrace tunnel; (ii) evaluate structural strength of underground works; (iii) identify lapses in design/construction which caused the blockage; (iv) suggest remedial measures; and (v) provide technical assistance to NJHPC in preparing and pursuing the insurance claim.

But the Prime Minister’s Office was persuaded to review its directive on the pretext that it would take a long time to hire international consultants and firms to identify the causes of tunnel failure and find a suitable solution to make the plant operational. It is not known where the pressure came from–Chinese supporters in the bureaucracy or the Pakistan Army? In the end, the Chinese firm was, once again, engaged to carry out the repair and restore the blocked tunnel.

However, within a few days of the operation to dewater the tunnel, the Chinese firm had to stop its operations and demobilise its workforce after local residents disrupted the work in protest. The local residents had been protesting over the hydroelectric projects since 2018. They have several grouses–inequitable share of power, royalty, employment and environmental destruction. The hydropower company had to seek police help on August 2 to stop the protests against the plant. The Chinese firm stopped work and removed its staff to a safe location fearing their safety.

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