The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) released a report in September, 2017 that presented a holistic view of the water problems pertaining in the country. According to the report, Pakistan had already crossed the ‘water stress line’ in 1990 before touching the ‘water scarcity line’ in 2005. Despite these warnings, no concrete measure was adopted to tackle the problem. The report further stipulates that the country can reach ‘absolute scarcity’ of water by the year 2025.
Earlier this month, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar addressed the federal government in Karachi’s Registry of Supreme Court, and pressed on the matter of water scarcity in the country. He directed the government body to draw a comprehensive report on the flow of rivers in the Indus Basin, specifically the Neelum River, over concerns of the Kishanganga Dam being constructed in Indian occupied Kashmir.
It appears that the project of Kalabagh Dam is a result of political coercion, and is a centralized decision making process, which is flawed and unfeasible because of its proposed size and location.
Barrister Zafarullah Khan had filed a petition to seek referendum for the construction of Kalabagh Dam. He highlighted the importance of water for the country’s development, seeking directive for constructing more dams to meet the pressing challenge of water shortage in the country. Barrister Zafarullah also highlighted the lack of financing and unwilling attitude of international sponsors to invest in the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. He grieved over the loss of 35.5 MAF water that was being drained into the Arabian Sea annually.
The decades old debate of building mega dams, especially the Kalabagh Dam, on the Indus River, still continues to create rifts between the country’s regions. Those who support the construction of Kalabagh Dam, stress on the importance of storing monsoon water and controlling the flow of rivers to prevent frequent flooding. They stress on avoiding causalities due to disastrous flooding, water availability for agriculture production, employment creation, and cheap and renewable production of electricity. All of this will boost the economy as unemployment will fall, locals will benefit from cheap electricity, businesses will be able to produce goods at lower production costs further increasing the country’s exports revenue; and decreasing the country’s trade deficit.
Those who oppose the construction of Kalabagh Dam do so on the grounds of socio-economic prospects of the locals surrounding the dam site, and over various environmental concerns. They argue that 95,000 people will get displaced and their subsistence economics will get destroyed, they also believe that the impact on the environment would be disastrous as storing water in reservoirs will reduce the flow of rivers in the Indus Basin. People of KP fear the most for Nowshera Valley and Mardan being flooded, even though these cities lie at a higher altitude than the dam site. Sindh government also fears that their lands will become dry and prone to droughts. Also, the Keenjhar and Haleji lakes will dry up if the dam is built, making the region unfit for agriculture.
The conflict over Kalabagh Dam has been going on for 34 years, which is over three decades of time and energy wasted over negotiating something that might never work. It appears that the project of Kalabagh Dam is a result of political coercion, and is a centralized decision making process, which is flawed and unfeasible because of its proposed size and location. The viability that the project proposes on water availability is also highly questionable.
A study carried out by TAMS Wallingford on ‘Tarbela Dam Sedimentation Management’ suggested that instead of constructing another mega dam like Kalabagh, de-silting Tarbela Dam will be economically and socially feasible for the country.
The Diamer-Bhasha Dam, in Gilgit-Baltistan was proposed as an alternative to the Kalabagh Dam. The project’s foundation stone was laid back in 2011 by former Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani, but it has remained dormant. Both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank refused to finance the project and in November 2017, China also backed out from its bid to finance Diamer-Bhasha Dam under CPEC. Earlier this year, Pakistan approved the project to be funded by local authorities, at an estimated cost of Rs. 625 billion. This was a commendable, and an encouraging step taken by the government, but in a meeting convened by the Minister for Western Resources Ali Zafar held on 21 June, 2018, issues regarding the project’s implementation emerged. For the construction of US $14 billion Diamer-Bhasha Dam, only 20 per cent resettlement has been completed by the government despite disbursement funds of approximately Rs. 88 billion for the project. The Minister also directed the dispute over the KP and GB boundary to be resolved as soon as possible.
A study carried out by TAMS Wallingford on ‘Tarbela Dam Sedimentation Management’ suggested that instead of constructing another mega dam like Kalabagh, de-silting Tarbela Dam will be economically and socially feasible for the country. He wrote that a de-silted Tarbela could yield the same benefits without having to spend billions of dollars, and further damage to the environment and resettlement of people. He advised that construction of new outlets at Tarbela will help flush away sediments from the reservoirs and de-silting could yield irrigation at one-seventh the cost in terms of net present value. The cost would be lowered by one-third compared to the cost of construction of Kalabagh.
Whether a dam is economically or socially feasible, or whether there are other projects to consider, the time to discuss all the options is now. Certainly, Pakistan is in dire need to store water before it completely runs out of it. Whether it is the construction of new dams like Kalabagh, Diamer-Bhasha, or any other potential dam like Akhori Dam, Dasu Dam, Bunji Dam, Thakot Dam, Pattan Dam, Munda Dam etc.; or the restoration of existing infrastructures like de-silting Tarbela and Mangla Dams. It is high time to settle disputes and come up with an extensive, and immediate plan to save the country from worse times to come. As one of the most climate sensitive countries in the world, it is also imperative to weigh these options against the impact that they may have on the environment. Water sustains life, it is needed in every sphere of a country’s development and therefore, it should not be mixed up with politics. We need to put our differences aside, educate the masses, and make cost-benefit analysis of potential projects made public for all to acknowledge; because if the construction of storage facilities does not start right away, the country could find itself in seriously hot waters.
is a Development Economist with an MPhil in Development Studies from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad. She is passionate about working towards a developed, inclusive, and greener environment and is currently working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.