Kalabagh on the backburner

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week, just when the opposition’s protest had begun to reach an uncomfortably high pitch, President Pervez Musharraf decided to take the wind out of the anti-Kalabagh lobby’s sail by announcing a change in the order of dam building.

In his 90-minute wide-ranging speech, the president announced that all the five dams identified by the government would be built by 2016 but the first to be taken up would be Bhasha.

The controversial Kalabagh dam could wait — though he didn’t make it clear when it would be taken in hand. It will be completed along with the others ten years from now.

With the political heat turned off for the moment, the time is appropriate for leaders of public opinion to begin doing their homework dispassionately on the dams issue. Let solid engineering issues and water management considerations rather than political populism be the determining factors in this debate. There are many questions which the president’s speech has raised and answers to these must be sought.

In his speech, President Musharraf said that the construction of the Bhasha dam will “get underway immediately. The earth breaking of Bhasha dam should take place in the first week of February.” This sounds incredulous. The Abbasi report (Technical Committee on Water Resources that was headed by A.G.N. Abbasi) clearly states on the basis of Wapda’s plans, “The detailed engineering design and tender documents would be completed in 2006. The construction work can be started in the year 2007. It would take seven years to complete.” Before work on the dam begins, the Karakoram Highway will have to be upgraded and that is expected to take 30 months.

The design of the dam has met with objections from seven members of the TCWR. But probably in deference to their views the height of the dam is to be reduced by 10 metres and its storage capacity will come down to 6.3 million acre feet (maf).

But these are not matters that have created a rumpus. There are other issues that are of serious concern that emerge from the various reports that have been released, namely the Abbasi committee report, the Independent Panel of Experts’ report (www.infopak.gov.pk/misc/misc_index.htm) and the World Bank’s report titled “Pakistan Country Water Resources Assistance Strategy: Water Economy Running Dry” (www.worldbank.org.pk/). One fact which clearly emerges from all three is that there is not enough water in the Indus river to fill the mega dams that are being undertaken.

The Abbasi report states, “It is not likely that the future storages will be filled every year and therefore it will not be possible to supply the water according to their full storage capacity every year. As per computations… a dam of 6.0 maf capacity is likely to be filled in 10 years out of 28 years and it will provide 2.14 maf water per year.”

The IPOE which was set up to determine “the water escapages below Kotri Barrage to check seawater intrusion, and to address environmental concerns” has recommended an escapage of 5,000 cfs throughout the year that is, according to the experts, required to check seawater intrusion, accommodate the needs for fisheries and environmental sustainability. It also recommends a total volume of 25 maf in any five-year period to be released in a concentrated way as flood flow for sediment supply. But the report also adds, “The combined flows for the rivers upstream of Kotri Barrage is of the same magnitude as what is recommended for the reach below the Kotri Barrage.” In other words, if some of this water is taken away to fill a dam and distribute it for irrigation en route the quantum required to escape into the sea to check sea intrusion will not be available.

The World Bank’s strategy paper describes Pakistan as a “water stressed” country, “a situation which is going to degrade into outright water scarcity” owing to high population growth. It proceeds to warn, “There is no additional water to be injected into the system. There is no feasible intervention which would enable Pakistan to mobilize appreciably more water than it now uses. Arguably, the overall use for irrigation needs to decline so that there are adequate flows into the degrading delta.”

Do we then need these massive dams that will remain half-filled most of the time? All the money that will go into building them will be an added debt burden on our tax-payers to repay. The World Bank, which will dole out the money, appears to be overly keen that the mega projects should be built. After admitting that there is no extra water available, the report states: “Sobering Fact # 12: Pakistan has to invest, and invest soon, in costly and contentious new large dams. When river flow is variable, then storage is required so that the supply of water can more closely match water demands.” It then goes on to show how poorly Pakistan compares with other countries in storage capacity without stating how much water flows in the rivers that are to be dammed.

More alarming is the thrust of the World Bank report towards involving the private sector in the irrigation system in a big way. The report suggests that the government should try to attract private financing and even encourage “professionals from the irrigation departments to form private businesses for the provision of such services, thus ensuring that their skills are not lost, and that they do not see the changes as purely a loss of security.

The bulk business (operation of dams and barrages) would probably remain in state hands, but with many major functions (such as operation of power plants) concessioned out to private operators. The bank will emphasize the development of frameworks which encourage the entry of new players (including community organizations, and the small- and large-scale private sector), the use of contracts which specify the rights and obligations of providers and users and benchmarking for all water services.”

According to the bank, “this will mean going beyond the traditional public utilities and mobilizing the resources and innovative capacity of community organizations and the private sector, large and small, domestic and international.” The conventional argument of the private sector introducing an element of competition and thus providing more efficient and low-cost services has also been advanced although we

know how the private entrepreneurs join together to form a monopoly when the commodity they are selling is an essential item and in short supply.

One hopes that the president will not be taken in by the World Bank. He should adopt alternative strategies even if it means saying “no thanks” to the World Bank. Wapda’s Vision 2025 document lists a number of sites in the NWFP where small and medium storage dams can be built. These include Gomal Zam, Tank Zam, Kurram Tangi, Munda, etc. It has also been reported that the Planning Commission has suggested the construction of 20 small dams in the NWFP by 2010 at a cost of Rs 3.6 billion.

It is also important to explore alternative strategies such as conservation of water by lining the water courses and teaching the farmers to use drip irrigation rather than wasting water by unnecessarily flooding their fields. The president took note of these measures in his speech last week which means he is aware of them.

New technology is now also available to desilt the Mangla and Tarbela dams to increase their storage capacity. One hopes that the president will pursue these measures in a focused manner and thus change the irrigation scenario in Pakistan. Instead of electricity from Bhasha, the government can tap other sources. Hydroelectric plants generate cheap power but when they cannot be installed for one reason or another, other sources should be tapped.