Truth about the Abbasi report

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: dawn

THREE months after the chairman of the Technical Committee on Water Resources (TCWR), Mr A.N.G. Abbasi, had presented his report to the president and the prime minister, the Kalabagh dam issue has burst on the scene in a big way.

The president brought this contentious issue to the forefront when he first spoke of forging a national consensus and creating ‘awareness’ on the KBD. Now he has dispensed with the need for any political understanding and has declared that the dam will be built at any cost.

The president has come under attack from the opposition which accuses him of politicizing the issue and creating a confrontation between Punjab and the smaller provinces. But the most alarming aspect of this situation is that the president is projecting himself as the saviour of Pakistan and Sindh which according to him will be “committing suicide” if the dam is not built.

This “I know best” approach can be dangerous. That is the conclusion one draws after reading the case for the KBD made out by the president in his fact-sheet released on Saturday and studying the Abbasi report which our reporter, Khaleeq Kiani, obtained for this paper (published in Dawn of December 27-30). Now that the report is public knowledge, it is time leaders and experts stopped politicizing the issue and studied this document to weigh the pros and cons of the KBD.

The report is itself an intriguing piece of work. The committee that was announced in August 2003 did not become functional until March 2004 on account of unexplained red tapism and bureaucratic delays. Comprising eight members and a chairman, this body failed to produce a consensus report. Seven members lined up behind Wapda without any independent input. One member from Sindh, Dr Iqbal Ali, who had earlier pleaded in an article in this newspaper (March 17, 2003) for alternatives to conserve the Indus water, changed his stance once he became a member of the TCWR. The other member from the province, Sardar Ahmad Mughal, was forceful in marshalling arguments against Kalabagh and was broadly supported by the chairman who has raised many pertinent questions that testify to his integrity and courage.

Strangely though, the chairman does not categorically recommend that the KBD project be abandoned. He, however, goes in a roundabout way to point out the disadvantages of KBD and the overall thrust of the report is against the dam. The most important issue to emerge from the report is that enough water is not available in the River Indus to fill a dam of KBD’s size optimally and to allow sufficient flow of water below Kotri as is needed to prevent sea water intrusion. Critical of Wapda’s failure to make water availability computations on a regular basis, the chairman points out that this has led to discrepancies in the information provided. Thus according to Wapda’s upstream approach method of calculation, the net water availability in the Indus is 6.4 million acre feet (maf). The seven members of the TCWR put it as 31.6 maf while Mr Sardar Mughal puts it as — 17.7 maf.

The report states that there is no surplus water available for storage on an annual basis, though there are flood years when the situation is not so bad. Studying the pattern of river flow in the post-Tarbela dam period, the TCWR found that on an average storable surplus water was available in only 10 out of 28 years and a dam of 6.0 maf will be able to trap only 22 per cent of the surplus flood flow. Three dams will trap 84 per cent of the flood water but each will be filled for 10, seven and three years out of 28 respectively.

According to the chairman’s conclusions: “The future storages have to be planned for storage of surplus water in occasional flood years for use in subsequent low flow years. These surplus flows are of higher magnitude but with lesser frequency of occurrence. Thus the filling of future dams will be an occasional event … The distribution of water from future reservoirs should not be considered according to their full capacity, but keeping in view the fact that the stored water will need to be used over a number of subsequent low flow years.”

Similarly, in giving the data for the outflow of the water to the sea downstream of Kotri, the figures vary widely. The international consultants asked to study the case have suggested 2.6 maf of water every year and 25 maf every five years should be available to check sea water intrusion. This works out to less than the 10 maf per annum provided by the 1991 water apportionment accord. Yet it will have to be taken into consideration.

The moot point is: Is it wise to proceed to build such expensive dams which may remain under-utilized and may not offer the advantages they are supposed to?

Admittedly, Pakistan’s water storage capacity is very limited and its cultivated area of 36 million acres is under pressure on account of water shortage. The 117 maf provided under the 1991 accord is not always available and the availability of water will fall with the silting of the Tarbela and Mangla dams. Hence, according to the president, there will be a shortfall of 20 to 30 maf in the next two decades.

Wapda has identified storage sites — Kalabagh, Akhori, Bhasha, and Skardu. The TCWR said that the construction of dams need to be prioritized. The president has announced that the dams will be built in the order given above. What is surprising is that the government seems set to proceed with the KBD on the basis of a feasibility study carried out in 1984-88 that may be obsolete now. Mr Abbasi strongly recommends that this be updated since the cost ($6 billion) will need to be revised and the reservoir filling study will have to be re-calculated keeping in mind the 1991 water apportionment accord which has been violated in years of shortages by reverting to historic use that put Sindh at a distinct disadvantage. Since it has now been agreed that the accord is sacrosanct any new dam will first have to meet the shortfall in the water accord allocations.

The mathematical calculation used by the government is at best simplistic. The president says that 30 to 35 maf of water flows into the sea in the flood season every five to seven years. That will be stored in the four dams planned. The use of this extra water will be spread over a five year period. In other words on an average the projects will yield barely six maf of extra water. That does not take count of the 25 maf the consultants have suggested for countering sea water intrusion.

Is all the economic investment, the indebtedness and political alienation worth this meagre quantum of water Pakistan will get? True there is a water and power shortage in the country. But there are other strategies available to meet the water and power needs.

Dr Iqbal Ali spelt out comprehensive strategies to save water losses through lining the canals and preventing seepage which according to him causes a loss of 18.3 maf per annum (equal to the capacity of two KBDs). According to him the farmers over-irrigate their fields on account of wrong practices. Thus they lose 12 maf of water that can be saved by adopting the drip irrigation system.

Similarly the power generation — 2,400 MW from KBD and 4,000 MW from Bhasha — can be obtained by using coal-based plants, building small hydel projects and generating solar and wind energy.

One wonders why the government does not explore these options rather than going after KBD with such obstinate determination. The negative aspects of big dams have been pointed out by the World Commission on Dams in its 2000 report. Only the World Bank which will be financing KBD seems to be keen about pursuing this project. Why? The attraction appears to lie in the big money involved which the Pakistani taxpayer will end up parting with, while highly paid American consultants will reap the benefits.

The fact is that there is no inter-provincial politics involved in Kalabagh, as is widely believed. It is the World Bank that appears to be behind this scheme. The bank has been the greatest single source of funds for the construction of large dams — 500 in number — all over the world. It has promised Pakistan a massive loan extended through the bank’s commercial lending programme and not at concessional rates. To lure the country it has promised to increase other funding by about 10 times.