Volume 21 Issue 7 July 2017


Even after about six decades the Kalabagh Dam project despite being the most essential, in fact indispensable for Pakistan’s energy requirements, its irrigation system and the future development of the country, could not be started because of the whims of political leaders of Sindh and KPK. The Sindh politicians argue that if Kalabagh Dam is constructed, river Indus will have no water in flow and sea water will enter the river bed, damaging agricultural land. The KPK leaders believe that Nowshera will be submerged in water if the dam is built.

Had the project been commissioned and completed as per schedule, the Kalabagh water reservoir could also be utilised for irrigation in the barren areas of KPK, Sindh and Balochistan besides generating electricity. Instead of the acute power shortage now being faced by the country, Pakistan would have, in fact, been exporting electricity. Moreover, the timely irrigation of fields in all the three provinces would have produced bumper crops. Unfortunately the provincial rivalry and lack of vision deprived the country of great blessings. The Kalabagh Dam would have provided 6.5 million acre feet of water to cultivate seven million acres of currently barren land in addition to 3,600 megawatts electricity.

The project was conceived way back in 1958 by Ayub Khan. Soon after taking over the reins of the government, realizing the problem of the severe energy crisis in the coming years, he gave full attention to resolve the issue on a war footing. Accordingly, immediate surveys for suitable sites for the construction of hydel projects and water reservoirs/dams were conducted and within a short period of six months, a complete study was prepared. Two sites on River Indus were selected for dams capable of generating enough power to offset the energy deficiency as well as storage of sufficient water which could be linked to canals for irrigation purpose. One site was Kalabagh, which was a natural dam and the other was Tarbela. But President Ayub Khan favoured construction of Tarbela over Kalabagh because the former fell in his native area.

Though the Kalabagh Dam project was shelved decades back, it always came under discussion whenever the power crisis in the country was discussed. It seems this will keep haunting the nation till the Kalabagh controversy is settled rationally and not on whims. The policy of successive governments to avoid revisiting the project just to ‘save the federation’ from political pressure from the two provinces, has not provided a permanent solution. According to experts and those involved in the constructions of dams, arbitrary decisions are depriving the country of a very useful and long-lasting project. The time has come to resolve the issue on merit instead of postponing the project under pressure. After all, you cannot please everyone, and if you do, there's something wrong. This is exactly what is happening with the Kalabagh Dam.

It is interesting that despite a fairly strong opposition, the Kalabagh Dam project is still very much alive. It is encouraging to note that according to reports the controversial dam is very much on the government’s current list of ‘ready for construction’ projects. This was disclosed when a list of under-construction, ready for construction and under planning hydel power projects was presented recently before the Senate by the Ministry of Water and Power. The house was told in a written reply that the detailed design and tender documents of the 3,600-megawatt Kalabagh Dam had been completed in 1988. But the construction of the dam could not be undertaken as there was no consensus. Surprisingly enough the senators from the parties vehemently opposing the project i.e. Awami National Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakistan Peoples Party from Sindh did not speak on the issue. The change in the attitude of the two provinces opposing the project tooth and nail could be described as significant and may lead to a firm decision in the near future.

However, the Minister of State for Water and Power, Abid Sher Ali referred to resolutions adopted by some provincial assemblies against the project and said that the government would not undertake construction of any controversial project. The controversy regarding the Kalabagh Dam is, in fact, a result of a lack of relevant information and distrust among the provinces. Experts believe that a debate in the assembly after a presentation from the experts will help a lot in developing the required consensus.

It is unfortunate that despite being the most studied and proven to be a technically sound project, it was abandoned because the three smaller provinces somehow view it as a Punjab project though this is pretty immature thinking.
Abandoning the Kalabagh project, which is ready for construction, without coming up with an alternative of that magnitude and cost is certainly not only irresponsible politics but the worst kind of economics. There is no doubt that it is a very difficult choice but at times the federal government has to take such bold decisions in the larger national interest. Frankly speaking, at present, the country not only needs one particular dam but a series of them because apart from the continuing energy crisis, agriculture, the economic base of the country, is in bad shape. The time has come when credible institutions like the parliament take this important decision.

A study conducted by the World Bank titled ‘Development of Water & Power Resources of West Pakistan – A Sectoral Analysis’ specifically recommended Kalabagh Dam due to its natural location, to be the next dam followed by Bhasha Dam. Unfortunately, a project which guarantees economic stability has been made controversial. The confusion has been created by some politicians just for the heck of it. Frankly speaking, all the political leaders are well aware about the urgency of construction of the Kalabagh Dam but prefer to keep the controversy alive just to fulfill their ulterior motives.

Besides what the politicians are saying, attention must also be given to what the experts are saying. According to Bashir A. Malik, former chief technical advisor to the United Nations and World Bank, "Sindh and Pakhtunkhwa would become drought areas in the years to come if Kalabagh Dam was not built." At the same time, former WAPDA chief Shamsul Mulk has stated 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 to 150 feet above the level of River Indus." In response to the push towards side-lining Kalabagh altogether in favour of the rival Basha Dam project, Engineer Anwer Khurshid stated that "Basha Dam is no substitute for Kalabagh Dam, not because of its altitude, which is high enough, but because no irrigation canals can be taken out from it because of the hilly terrain.”

There are some facts about this dam worth mentioning. In December 2004, General Pervez Musharraf, announced that he would build the dam to serve the larger interests of Pakistan. However, on 26 May 2008, the Federal Minister for Water and Power, Raja Pervez Ashraf, said that the "Kalabagh Dam would not be constructed" and that the project had been cancelled and due to "opposition from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and other stakeholders, the project was no longer feasible". In 2010 after the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said that flood damage would be minimised if the Kalabagh Dam were built.

All said and done, the time has come to think seriously about the Kalabagh Dam if we really want to get rid of the energy crisis and irrigation problems --- the two main hurdles in the economic progress of the country.


The writer is a veteran journalist.

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