Bidding farewell to Neelum?

Mubashar Naqvi is forced to come to terms with the drying up of his beloved river due to a hydropower project

Bidding farewell to Neelum?
The Snake River
Tranquil and calm
Holding secrets of the sky
Beneath and beyond

Yet, in the open of her soothing palm.

I don’t know about the author of this beautiful couplet but I strongly suspect it has been written for river Neelum or a river much like it!

My closeness with the river Neelum spreads over decades. I still remember the beautiful nights of summer spent at the riverside under a full moon with friends. Neelum kept whispering to us early in the morning as we got up from bed. I didn’t feel the need to go out to see why the river was angry. Its voice always told the story of torrential rains in the upper parts of the Neelum Valley which adds plenty of water to its already vigorous flow.

Yes, Neelum is my neighbour too, you see. When I was posted in the Neelum Valley back in 2006-07, I used to spend my evening at the bank of this river at Salkhala, a beautiful village in the scenic Neelum Valley.

The Neelum River at the Line of Control between India and Pakistan

Neelum is not just my neighbour but home to a variety of fishes that are found in abundance in its water. The most famous amongst the different kinds of fishes found in the Neelum River are the Brown trout (Salmo trutta), Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Snow trout (Schizothorax plagiostomus), Shuddgurn and Anyour.

The Neelum is an untold tale of the miseries of the valley of the same name and has global recognition for its landscape, streams, waterfalls, lakes, forests and hospitality. Neelum has been the eyewitness of the sufferings of divided families who can only watch each other standing at either side of the river, but are not allowed to even attend the funerals of their blood relations.
At present, the river Neelum is presenting the look of a small stream!

Sometimes one wonders if the carrier of untold miseries has become miserable too. I was going through Facebook statuses and some tweets by various people in my newsfeed regarding the scarcity of water in the river Neelum.

“Neelum hum Sharminda Hain” reads one. We are ashamed for not having been able to save you. Youth activist and lawyer Syed Zulqarnain Naqvi posted this Facebook status with pictures of the Neelum River after its diversion for the 969-megawatt Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHPP).

Faisal Jameel Kashmiri, another prominent youth activist, believes that all political elites, policy-makers and influential people who were in a position to save the biggest natural asset of the capital city of the state of AJK are in a deep slumber. He urges youth and civil society to stand up over this.

In the Neelum valley

Zeeshan Haider, who works for the government, was angry too:

Aik tou shadeed garmi, oper sey Neelum ka Dukh”. On the one hand, the scorching heat – and on top of that, the pain of the river Neelum!

Indeed, that was the hottest day of this summer in the capital city of Muzaffarabad. And it was made all the worse by seeing how the famous river Neelum lost its flow and its pride.

There was a long list of unending posts regarding the scarcity of water due to the Neelum’s diversion at Nauseri tunnel for NJHPP. People are afraid due to the uncertain future of the city without the river Neelum. They are concerned that the scarcity of water might even have exacerbated this sudden increase in temperature.

Many people in the posts that I saw were reminding the government of promises that only a small portion of the river would be diverted for the project. Their biggest worry was the sewerage system of the city – which had been linked to the river. With the flow of water so drastically reduced, most expected environmental hazards to arise from an accumulation of waste.

Interestingly, neither the AJK government nor WAPDA clarified their positions or made any significant effort at addressing public concern. The policy appears to have been one of allowing people to beat their drums.

Back in October 2017, speculation had started when the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) Azad Kashmir had issued a statement regarding the expected shortage of potable water in Muzaffarabad after the diversion of the river’s water.

Civil society had criticised the NJHPP on social media for making the move without any remedial measures. Some had also announced they would protest against the plan. Diversion of the river was then deferred – reportedly due to technical reasons.

Responding to the outpouring of public concern, the administration of the NJHPP had presented its point of view that the Neelum River will not go dry after the water is diverted to fill the composite dam at Nauseri. The NJHPP administration dispelled the impression that due to the filling of the dam the river would completely dry up, affecting badly the areas downstream from Nauseri. They made it clear that the whole water flow of the river will not be diverted at any cost.

WAPDA, for its part, a number of times gave assurances that there will be no problems in the summer when the flow of water will be almost normal at up to 18,000 cusecs. However, at present, the river Neelum is presenting the look of a small stream!

The Neelum River, known as Kishanganga as well, originates from Krishansar Lake in the vicinity of Sonamarg and runs northwards to Badoab village where it meets a tributary from the Dras side and runs westwards along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. It is fed by many glacial tributary streams on its way. It enters Azad Kashmir in the Gurez sector of the Line of Control, and then runs west until it meets the Jhelum River at Domail in Muzaffarabad. Flowing a total of 245 kilometers, the Neelum River covers 50 kilometers in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and the remaining 195 kilometres in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

The controversial Indian 330 MW Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant project has also been constructed on it, which involves the damming of the Neelum River. The project has been described as a sheer violation of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and Pakistan has pursued formal arbitration proceedings against India over the matter.

It is high time for the AJK government and WAPDA to take serious notice of the situation by taking remedial measures addressing public concerns. If the situation remains unchanged, AJK’s capital city of Muzaffarabad would be a victim of some terrible environmental hazards and no longer a safe place to live in.

Mubashar Naqvi is a freelance writer based in Muzaffarabad. He tweets at @SMubasharNaqvi