Volume 21 Issue 7 July 2017


Pakistan seems to be all about two dreams. One is annexing Kashmir; the other, building the Kalabagh Dam. The former remains mired in conflict with a neighbouring country. The latter is stymied by domestic controversy.

Donkey’s years ago, in a study carried out under the Ayub Khan government, Kalabagh and Tarbela were identified as major sites for dams on the Indus where the power generation facility would be available while water reservoirs would be linked to canals for irrigation. In 1953, precisely, when it was conceived, the plan was to build a water storage place. However, during 1973 to 1984 the design was changed to make it a multi-functional mega dam.

According to its earlier specificati-ons, it was expected to submerge 35,000 acres of land, generate 3,600 MW of hydel power with storage capacity of 6.7 MAF for flood control, and supply of 12.8 MAF water to Mianwali, Khushab, D.I. Khan and Jhelum districts for irrigation. Since then the project has undergone revisions. Under the latest specifications, it was 79 meters high, with a catchment area of 286,194 sq.km. and an annual power generating capacity of 11,400 GWh.

The project has long been a subject of heated debate in the country, where politicians argue on the provincial share of water from the river. Due to vehement opposition by the ANP in KP and by the PPP in Sindh, the project was put on the back burner, where it lay for many years until President Pervez Musharraf brought it out of hibernation in 2005 in the proverbial “larger national interest.”

But, soon after the PPP government came into power, the project was discarded perpetually on the plea that it was not feasible anymore and resolutions were passed against it by Sindh and KPK assemblies. The political leaders from Balochistan also strongly opposed the Lahore High Court verdict to go ahead with the construction of the Dam.

The proponents and opponents of the Dam are sharply divided in their arguments on technical issues. The advocates of the project argue that both the issues of water shortage and generating electricity can be addressed through the construction of the Kalabagh Dam. It is expected to produce 3,600 additional megawatts of electricity with per unit cost as low as two rupees whereas thermal power costs Rs16 per unit. This additional electricity will also reduce dependence on imported fuels. It is further claimed that with the large water reservoir, the irrigation needs of all four provinces will be reasonably met. Furthermore, it will also play a key role in prevention of floods and in averting the devastation in KPK, Central and Southern Punjab and Sindh.

According to this school, “the direct benefits after the dam is functional will amount to Rs. 25 billion per annum and the investment cost will be covered within 9-10 years. Moreover, it will create employment opportunities for 30,000 persons during construction and significant numbers after commissioning.

The opponents of the Kalabagh Dam, mainly Sindh and KPK have some apprehensions about the construction of the Dam, but there are also issues related to the trust deficit. The project is not only believed to be useless but there is a whole debate surrounding the serious environmental and human impacts the project is going to have. KPK objects to Kalabagh because it will lead to the displacement of a sizable number of its people and a large area of its land will either be submerged or become waterlogged. Moreover, it is believed that the Nowshera city - home to 2,000,000 people may come under severe threat of flooding as it is situated at the banks of the Kabul River.

On the other hand, desertification being a significant issue in Sindh, the province has constantly felt threatened by Punjab and it refuses to trust the province that the waters of the whole River Indus will not be used to cater to the needs of Punjab only, drying out the downstream river in Sindh. The opposition of Balochistan to Kalabagh is also based on the belief that if the dam overstretches the demand in the river then it may not be possible to meet the requests for more water through Guddu Barrage that irrigates about 30,000 acres in the province.

Other serious issues such as environmental degradation and human impacts - rehabilitation and resettlement as a result of construction - have also been raised. Most importantly, it is believed that the location of the Dam is on a fault line.

Even technical experts are divided on the issue. Former Chairman WAPDA Shamsul Mulk has said that the "Kalabagh Dam would be helpful in erasing poverty from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as it would irrigate 800,000 acres of cultivable land that is located 100-150 feet above the level of River Indus." The Kalabagh Dam would provide 6.5 million acre feet of water to cultivate seven million acres of currently barren land in addition to the 3,600 megawatts of electricity.

Bashir A. Malik, former chief technical advisor to the United Nations and World Bank, has also warned that "Sindh and Pakhtunkhwa would become drought areas in the years to come if Kalabagh Dam is not built.”

Conversely, former WAPDA Chief Engineer, Engr Shahr-i-Yar Khan has claimed that construction of the Kalabagh Dam is not suitable for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Arguably, among the most important prerequisites for the construction of a mega dam like Kalabagh, is adequate and reliable availability of water for at least four out of five years. Critics of the dam in the engineering sector say that Kalabagh does not fulfill this extremely essential criterion. They also question the veracity of the figures presented by WAPDA about the availability of water because they are based on the quantity of water from India which is unreliable.

They further claim that the life of the Dam is too short (only 28 years) and its cost too exorbitant that makes it highly uneconomical. Besides, Kalabagh has the lowest capacity inflow ratio in the world (0.26:1) resulting in its short life span.
Some in the engineering community also say that Kalabagh is also unfeasible geographically, because, it has an unnatural dam site and a narrow and long valley for storage that would allow flood water to be wasted without storing in order to avoid de-silting. On the other hand, storing perennial water for power generation would affect the availability of irrigation water to crops to the lower regions of the country.

Recently, the dam has again become a focus of political point scoring. Imran Khan, in his Larkana rally declared that the construction of the dam would not be allowed without the consent of the people of Sindh., while, ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan has threatened that nobody could dare build the controversial dam, because, people would thwart all such moves with full force.

The fact, however, remains that Pakistan has used only about 10 percent of its estimated 40,000 MW of economically viable hydropower potential, due to which it is not only facing severe electricity shortage but, despite the best irrigation system, it still imports wheat. However, this stark truth is overshadowed by controversy.

The opposition to the dam from KP and Sindh is actually opposition to Punjab’s hegemony. The dam would be a bonanza for Punjab, which is already most developed, giving it ample water, power and employment opportunities, to the detriment of the other provinces. It is therefore time to say goodbye to Kalabagh Dam.

The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of Southasia.    
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