My choice: 3 June 2008 – Why is Kalabagh Dam so controversial?

Kalabagh dam

A lot of people are not even aware why the Kalabagh dam is so controversial. According to international water distribution law, the tail-ender has a legal and natural right on river and that is why no mega construction or reservoir can be built without permission and endorsement of the tail-ender i.e. Sindh. Sindh objects that its share of the Indus water will be curtailed as water from the Kalabagh will go to irrigate farmlands in Punjab and NWFP at its cost. Sindhis hold that their rights as the lower riparian have precedence according to international water distribution law.

The coastal regions of Sindh require a constant flow of water down the Indus into the Arabian Sea so that the flowing water can keep the seawater from intruding inland. Such seawater intrusion would literally turn vast areas of Sindh’s coast into an arid saline desert, and destroy Sindh’s coastal mangroves. With the construction of dams, such as Mangla dam and Tarbela dam across the Indus, Sindhis have seen the once-mighty Indus turned into a shadow of its former glory downstream of the Kotri barrage up to Hyderabad. They fear that there simply is not enough water for another large dam across the Indus, let alone three.

The Kalabagh site is located in a highly seismic zone near an active fault and the underlying rocks are likely to contain numerous fractures, causing the reservoir water to seep through the catacomb of fractures and discharge at the lowest point around the reservoir and the Indus. Damming the Indus has already caused a number of environmental problems that have not yet addressed. Silt deposited in the proposed Kalabagh dam would further curtail the water storage capacity of Manchar lake and other lakes and of wetlands like Haleji lake.

President Musharraf and other leaders, such as prime minister Shaukat Aziz, have promised ‘iron-clad’ constitutional guarantees to ensure that Sindh gets its fair share of water. However, these assurances mean little to most Sindhis, who claim that even the earlier 1991 Indus Water-Sharing Accord, which is a document already guaranteed by the constitutional body, the Council of Common Interests, has been violated, and that Punjab has ‘stolen’ their water. The objection to Kalabagh in Sindh is widespread. Even political parties of Sindh that are in the central cabinet and are supported by General Musharraf, such as the MQM, have strongly denounced the dam.

While the reservoir will be in NWFP, the dam’s electricity-generating turbines will be just across the provincial border in Punjab. Therefore, Punjab would get royalties from the central government in Islamabad for generating electricity. Contrary to this, however, Punjab has agreed not to accept any royalties from the Kalabagh Dam. The fact that NWFP will suffer the adverse consequences of the reservoir but not get royalties is seen as unfair.

Concerns are that large areas of the Nowshera district would be submerged by the dam and even wider areas would suffer from water-logging and salinity as has occurred with the Tarbela dam. As the water will be stored in the Kalabagh dam as proposed, that will give water level rise to the city that is about 200km away from the proposed location. This is very much possible but it can be easily controlled by giving and creating water streams and using tube-well systems. This shows that the Kalabagh dam is not economically, socially or environmentally viable and all the proposed benefits are based on misunderstood premises.

Taimur Rahman, Lahore (The News)