My choice today: Wed 28 May 2008

PPP and PML-N governments: Time for action

28 May- Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto

Goodbye, Kalabagh Dam!

The Federal Water and Power Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has finally said what most governments in the past were unwilling to utter. On Monday he told the press that the government had dropped the Kalabagh Dam project “forever”, as it is “a controversial issue among the provinces”. The old line was: we will build it when all the provinces agree. It was actually “three versus one” because only Punjab wants it. The other three provinces have provincial assembly resolutions against its construction.

Given the political situation in 2008, the fate of Kalabagh Dam was sealed anyway. The ruling PPP has its base in Sindh where opposition to the dam is a part of Sindhi nationalism. It is in coalition with ANP in Islamabad and Peshawar, and ANP says it will, if necessary, physically oppose the construction of the dam. The PPP is also determined to smoke the peace pipe in Balochistan which supports the NWFP and Sindh on the issue. Presumably, it would have been impolitic to assert the old line — we will build it when the provinces agree — as it would have raised the level of bad faith all around.

No one in the past with the best of opportunities and convenient political allies in the recalcitrant provinces could make anyone agree to the dam. President Pervez Musharraf was the best man to try because of his support within the MQM and a very pliant Sindh chief minister in the person of Arab Ghulam Raheem, but both shied away from the topic as they thought they could not survive politically after agreeing to it. Similarly, the MMA clerical government in Peshawar was secretly willing to have the dam but was most reluctant to risk offending the Pakhtun majority in the province.

Punjab is still interested in the Kalabagh Dam, and experts inside Pakistan and at the World Bank support it when it says that the fears of the other provinces are not founded in fact. But the opponents don’t want to hear any expert view. The Sindhi leader Rasul Baksh Paleejo brings his cartload of “research material” to prove that the dam is harmful whenever he is invited to a TV programme to discuss the subject. Also, the world outside is increasingly wary of large dams because of the ecological damage they do to the environment and the suffering they impose on communities they displace. In India, for example, where big dams are planned, civil society movements are afoot to oppose them.

The verdict is that dams, while they produce cheap electricity and store water for irrigation, tend to silt up and become useless with the passage of time. Today all the big dams in Pakistan including Tarbela and Mangla are silted up by 30 percent, and the Mangla wall is to be raised to make it useful for a few more years. The Kalabagh Dam was proposed to be built on the Indus 15 miles north of Kalabagh in Punjab with a height of 260 feet and a length of 11,000 feet with a storage capacity of 6.1 MAF. It was to generate 11,750 kilowatt-hours of cheap electricity and irrigate 2.4 million additional acres. Its cost in 2000 was $10 billion. It was to take 10 to 15 years in construction.

Pakistan is externally under embargo for building nuclear power plants because it didn’t sign the NPT; now it is under a worse internal embargo on the building of dams. Last week, the nationalist Jiay Sindh party demonstrated in Sindh saying it would oppose even the Basha Dam which is not rejected by ANP so far. Basha is a long way off and will take much longer than the gas coming through in the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. But one can’t blame people who support the Kalabagh Dam because Pakistan really has no way out of its energy crunch.

The political well-being of the federation stands in the way of any agreement on distribution of our waters. The Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan of 1960 was possible only after Pakistan recognised that an absence of treaty would favour the upper riparian India. As separate states, Sindh and Punjab — like India and Pakistan — would have to have a waters treaty, inclusive of upriver dams, or Sindh would go dry. The NWFP would be forced to go into a treaty with Punjab because of the sheer inequality of power, like India and upper riparian Nepal. But as a federation, Pakistan must pay heed to the increasingly hostile anti-dam sentiment among the federating units.

Pakistan can build the Basha Dam, but in view of the energy emergency it can “devolve” its policy and focus on smaller local dams. There is no doubt that after the abandonment of the Kalabagh Dam, the Iranian gas pipeline project has assumed a crucial make-or-break significance for Pakistan. But this requires a smoother equation with India and more strenuous diplomacy in Tehran and Washington. The needs are all urgent in the short term today; the feasibilities for big dams can be go on but there is a need to go for dams that can be completed in five years. *

(Editorial, Daily Times)