Between Kalabagh and a hard place – by Shehrbano Taseer

The politicization of the August 2010 floods in Pakistan leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. More disturbing than seeing the witch-hunt carried out by hysterical journalists has been watching some politicians capitalize on the crisis to score cheap political points. It also seems that in the wake of the floods, the arguments for and against the construction of the Kalabagh Dam have found fertile soil once again.

The debate about the Kalabagh Dam (KBD) has plagued Pakistani provincial assemblies since it first surfaced in 1987. In any other country, it would be resolved in a technical fashion, and by professionals and engineers. In Pakistan, the matter has become emotion-ridden and incoherent.

Just in June, the Senate erupted in pandemonium when lawmakers from PML-Q and ANP brought up the contentious topic. Now, in the wake of most devastating floods the region has experienced in eight decades, Pakistani leaders are arguing that the damage caused by the monsoon rains could have been lightened had Kalabagh Dam been built.

The benefits of KBD – and dams in general – can hardly be disputed. Changing precipitation patterns and climate change require constant adaptation. WAPDA and KESC are the main producers involved in power generation, transmission and distribution of electricity currently. They are notoriously unable to cope with a demand that is growing at an average rate of seven percent annually, resulting in load shedding and energy shortages. Urban growth has strained our water supplies. Pakistan is nose-diving into a serious water shortage; the per capita surface water availability in 2010 is about 1038 cubic meters for a population of roughly 180 million. Water management capabilities are scant. After the floods, these numbers have once again changed drastically. It is pretty obvious, then, why some are fighting tooth and nail for the KBD.

I am going to summarize the arguments for and against it quickly, so bear with me:

Punjab asks people to focus on long-term gains rather than short-term losses. It argues that the site for the alleged construction of KBD is the only site on the Indus that can store monsoon water. The dam, which they say will supply 6000 megawatts at a mere 1.5 cents per megawatt (basically in terms of electrical units of energy generated, KBD will provide over 12 billion units a year), will provide immense storage capabilities and cheap hydroelectric power to the whole country. Given that agriculture is the fulcrum of the economy, this water can be used to irrigate infertile lands and reinvigorate crops.

They argue against the building of the Bhasha dams instead. The Bhasha dam will take between 12-15 years and will cost about $14 billion. KBD can be built in about five years with a cost of $5 billion.

On the Bhasha note, there is no construction material on the site and all raw materials will have to come in from Punjab. Additionally, the road in the Karakoram will have to be widened and created, which would take another five or six years. Pakistan does not have the luxury of abiding time; the next 5-6 years (especially after the floods) are crucial for us. The Bhasha Dam is also a seismic area i.e it is literally on top of the Central Asian fault line. From a safety point of view, in the event that the dam breaks, all areas up to Sukkur will be wiped off the map. As a friend said to me, “picture a hydrogen bomb exploding at 4000 feet and clearing out everything in its path including tarbela dam and other barrages”. The loss of life will be unimaginable.

Sindh, the lowest riparian but most vociferous adversary, recently passed a resolution against KBD. Sindh argues that their share of the Indus water will be curtailed by the KBD, and their mangroves and fisheries would be effectively ruined. Additionally, Sindh is distrustful of Punjab because of the latters perceived failure in upholding the 1991 water accords. Being the lower riparian however, Sindh, according to international water distribution law, has priority in such decisions.

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is concerned that the dam would submerge large areas of land – the Nowshera district in particular – and cause water logging, salinity, and mass displacement. That is pretty ironic, considering Nowshera has been submerged by these torrential floods.

KP’s argument does not stand on a simple technical point. KBD was planned to be about 300 feet high, so at its maximum point it would be about 900 feet above sea level. Upstream in KP, the lowest point above sea level is at Pabbi near Charsadda – 945 feet. Water logging or salinity is a bit of a moo point then, because KBD’s highest point would be lower than KP’s lowest point.

KP also argues that the dam’s electricity generating turbines will be situated in Punjab, as was done with the Ghazi Barotha Dam, which would allow Punjab to gain royalties. (Punjab maintains that is has agreed not to accept any such royalties.)

The Kalabagh Dam debate underlines a few unfortunate realities about the shortcomings of Pakistan’s convoluted political discourse. It highlights the painfully myopic mindset of most Pakistanis. It underscores the profound and corrosive trust deficit that exists between the provinces. It also lays bare the attitudes of most of our legislators, attitudes typical of anti-progressive mindsets that continue to bicker over territory and versions of events. It shows their affinity with shrouding petty, emotional arguments in a nationalist narrative to gain temporary political momentum. Most of all, it reveals, that in our assemblies, stubborn insistence and stalemates are favoured over other viable solutions that could potentially better the standard of living of many Pakistanis.

Had the assemblies sought a substitute approach to reconcile the needs and concerns of provinces and citizens with due consideration to environmental assessment earlier, perhaps then, it can be argued, that the current devastation could have been avoided. If the Kalabagh Dam has not won political consensus – and it looks like it won’t be any time soon – why have we not built other dams (for example, in Skurdu) instead? Why have we not built hundreds of smaller reservoirs? Why have we not promoted water efficiency and conservation alternatives?

Political consensus – fortunately or unfortunately in this case – is a cornerstone of democracy. In order for our nascent democracy to strengthen itself as an institution, it needs to gain the kind of durability that will make it sustainable through successive administrations. No project, however essential, should compromise Pakistan’s Federation. Hurts to say it, but it may be time to move on from the Kalabagh Dam debate and consider other alternatives. Fast.

Shehrbano Taseer is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, D.C



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