Muzaffarabad: The Chinese engineers and staff have abandoned their repair of the mega 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir which is shut down since early July this year after Pakistan faced a continuous shortage of fuel and electricity.

The Chinese have given the excuses of local protests over the plant and the failure of the Pakistan police to offer credible security, however, China's sudden reversal of the project has created 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 hydropower project worth Rs 508 billion saw a sudden halt within three years of its operation, exposing serious differences between Pakistani and Chinese authorities over joint projects, particularly the Dasu and Mohmand power projects besides the Neelum-Jhelum plant, Islam Khabar reported.

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 major cracks in the tailrace tunnel forced the authorities to shut down the project.

The Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), which operates hydropower stations, later also confirmed that the project's "tailrace tunnel has been blocked and as a result, the power station has been closed for safety reasons".

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, Islam Khabar reported.

WAPDA had pointed out in meetings with the Chinese company officials about slow progress despite time extensions, substandard construction quality, and 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 a delay in blocking the ingress of river water into the damaged tunnel.

The failure of the plant also brought to the fore the issue of the 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 in July, the contractor of the project, China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC), agreed to repair and restore the tunnel without an official agreement.

On July 10, the Chinese firm mobilised equipment and manpower to empty the tunnel of water to identify the cause of the 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.

However, not satisfied with the Chinese offer, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on July 13 issued directions to hire best international consultants to ascertain the cause of excessive water leakage in the powerhouse and pressure in the tailrace tunnel, evaluate the structural strength of underground works, identify lapses in design/construction which caused the blockage, suggest remedial measures, and 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 plant, completed at an estimated approved cost of about Rs508bn, became functional in August 2018 and has a capacity of producing around 1,500 MW of electricity.

The project's construction was taken in hand in 2002 after 21 years of delay and completed in April 2018 -- again with repeated cost overruns and missed deadlines, the Dawn reported.

Major construction involving about 58 kilometres of tunnels was done by Chinese contractor CGGC-CMEC (Gezhouba Group), hired in December 2007.