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The dams issue

So long as Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar confined himself to launching a fund raising campaign to build the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand Dams, sceptics and critics were inclined to view the effort as a well intentioned but quixotic effort to raise the billions of rupees required for the two projects. But on September 15, 2018, during the hearing of a mineral water case, the CJP came out with the startling remark that anyone opposing the building of dams could be hauled up for treason under Article 6! On the same day, on another occasion, the CJP announced he would make efforts to build the controversial Kalabagh Dam after the two dams mentioned above.

To say that these two statements, separately and taken together, caused consternation would be to put it mildly. On the eve of his retirement, the CJP is trying to leave behind a noteworthy legacy. However, there are several levels on which his genuine efforts for building dams have raised eyebrows and questions.

First and foremost, it is the executive’s responsibility to build dams and find the resources for the task. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has lent his government’s support and even name to the dams fund initiated by the CJP. So any possible conflict on separation of powers seems unlikely.

Second, the dams fund has so far raised Rs 3.3 billion, of which expatriate Pakistanis have contributed Rs 181 million and the rest has come from individuals and institutions within the country. Though a considerable sum, the amount collected so far appears a drop in the ocean compared with the minimum Rs 1,400 billion required for the Diamer-Bhasha Dam alone. Of this amount, land acquisition requires Rs 101 billion, the dam Rs 471 billion and the powerhouse Rs 751 billion. Experts say the minimum starting target in 2019 is Rs 30-40 billion. That appears a tall order. Perhaps even more sobering, the experts say average cost overruns of dams internationally is estimated at 96 percent of initial estimated cost. On large dams, the cost overruns can be 30-500 percent higher. Timeframe overruns on average are 44 percent (implying further rise in costs because of inflation).

The Diamer-Bhasha Dam also does not inspire confidence amongst the experts because of concerns surrounding its location in a seismically active area. The World Bank and other potential international finance institutions are wary of the project because of the ‘disputed’ nature of the area linked to the continuing tensions over Kashmir.

The literature on big dams indicates experience has depreciated the cost-benefit ratio of such dams. In the case of the Indus Basin rivers, the huge quantity of silt they bring down is a damper on the shelf life of any dam. The literature points to the costs incurred by big dams on human habitations and the natural environment as another negative factor. Given our own experience of Tarbela and Mangla, these reservations are not without merit.

Do these arguments negate the case for dams? Perhaps not entirely. Pakistan is already engaged in building smaller dams that do not have the same disadvantages. But even more important, while not entirely abandoning big dams, Pakistan needs equal if not greater attention to the manner in which we use our presently available water resources. Of the total water available, 95 percent is used for agriculture, with the traditional flood irrigation holding sway. This is wasteful and even, in some areas, responsible for spreading waterlogging and salinity, which swallows up thousands of acres of agricultural land every year. Drip and sprinkler irrigation, combined with the lining of our canals and waterways is estimated to save water equivalent to two-three times the capacity of the proposed Kalabagh Dam.

CJP Saqib Nisar’s resurrecting the Kalabagh Dam project has aroused the usual cast of objectors, ranging from lower riparian Sindhi nationalists to upper riparian Pashtun nationalists. They object to the dam for opposite reasons. Sindh complains of being done out of its water share by upper riparian Punjab over many years. In fact these complaints date back to colonial times in the 19th century, when the development of the canal colonies in Punjab diverted the natural flow of rivers upstream for expanded agricultural purposes. Sindh also complains of bad faith by Punjab in, for example, converting the seasonal flood Chashma-Jehlum Link Canal into a perennial one.

To deal with this permanent quarrel between upper and lower riparian provinces, the then Nawaz Sharif government achieved a consensus Water Accord in 1991 setting out the provinces’ respective water shares. The Accord laid down a minimal flow of 10 MAF per year below Kotri pending further studies to examine how much water flow was required to stave off seawater intrusion in the Indus Delta and along the coastal areas of Sindh. Unfortunately, those studies were never carried out. The irrigation bureaucracy has got around the provisional 10 MAF flow south of Kotri by releasing this amount or even more during the surplus monsoon/flood season, leaving the Indus bed south of Kotri a sandy waste for most of the rest of the year. This has had devastating effects in the Indus Delta and along the Sindh coast. The flora and fauna, marine and other life and the mangrove forests of the delta have been dealt a grievous blow. Intruding seawater has ruined the rich agriculture of Badin, Thatta and other areas along the coast.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s objection to the Kalabagh Dam is based not on too little but too much water becoming available. The lake behind the dam, Pashtuns fear, will drown precious agricultural land (apart from displacing the local populace) and result in massive waterlogging and salinity in the province with limited acreage available for agriculture.

Balochistan’s interests in this matter are linked to Sindh’s, since it receives its share of the river waters from canals originating in Sindh. The three provincial Assemblies of Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have unanimously passed resolutions against the Kalabagh Dam. Though constitutionally not binding, these resolutions reflect the breadth of opposition to the Kalabagh Dam in three provinces (Punjab stands out as the exception).

Now if we take the CPJ’s statement about the application of Article 6 to all those who oppose the building of dams seriously, not only would former prime minister Khaqan Abbasi and former leader of the opposition Khursheed Shah be hauled up, the members of the three provincial Assemblies of the past that passed the resolutions would also be indicted!

Dams may be needed. Water management, preventing wastage and rational pricing is needed even more. But to paint opponents of one or the other dam as traitors is a stretch too far.

Rashed Rehman, "The dams issue," Business Recorder. 2018-09-18.
Keywords: Fund raising campaign , Diamer-Bhasha , Noteworthy legacy , Human habitations , Canal colonies , Rivers upstream , Coastal areas , Khursheed Shah , Kalabagh Dam , Kashmir , Flood , CJP