Much has been written on ‘unlikely heroes’ in diverse fields. I wish to recall for posterity a few who left their mark on the water sector in Pakistan.
The first on our list of water-sector heroes should be president Ayub Khan for timely resolving the river water issues with India by signing the much misunderstood Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The treaty was a meaningful achievement even though Ayub Khan’s name would remain mired in controversy for his strategic miscalculations in planning the 1965 war and, subsequently, the separation of East Pakistan.
Securing the waters of Indus, Jhelum and Chenab became possible because Pakistan then was at par with India in every way. The treaty led to the construction of the Tarbela and Mangla dams, the diversionary barrages and irrigation canals; imagine the country without these two life sustaining reservoirs.
The second set of water-sector heroes were three chairmen of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), Ghulam Faruque Khan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and AGN Kazi whose vision, competence and dynamism were instrumental in undertaking the gigantic Indus replacement works. Their bold decision-making spawned a culture of professional excellence for decades. That dynamic era was later replaced by mediocrity sustained by sycophancy.
Wapda’s greatest heroes to date may well have been those responsible for the prompt repair of the Tarbela Dam following the serious accident to the tunnel gate in 1974. This event may go down in history as the closest call to Armageddon in Pakistan. The fact that the damage was made good in record time was a tribute both to the then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Wapda’s engineers and consultants. Bhutto’s instinct told him that little purpose would be served by holding enquiries and Wapda was directed to focus on the future because accidents do happen. He insisted that the damage be repaired before the next floods. The rest as they say is history; Wapda did just that. Arthur Casagrande, the legendary Harvard professor, is reported to have said that building the Tarbela Dam followed by tunnel repairs and filling 300 sink holes was an achievement similar to Nasa’s moon landing. Similarly, Chinese experts from the Three Gorges would visit Tarbela to educate themselves on issues relating to mega dams.
Next, the singular achievements of GK Ashai, a senior engineer in Tarbela need to be written in letters of gold. Ashai was originally from Srinagar. The Tarbela foreign consultants had built Tunnel One with four units of 175 megawatts each. For Tunnel Two, Ashai insisted that larger turbine-generators be installed because of availability of adequate water flows. Accordingly, the inflow channel was bifurcated allowing placement of two more units. So instead of four units of 175 megawatts Tarbela got six leading to an increase of 350 megawatts capacity. This translates to additional revenues of nearly Rs20 billion annually in today’s cost. True a person’s grey matter really matters. Sadly, Engineer Ashai retired in obscurity and a proposal to name the Tunnel Two after him was not implemented. He could still be awarded Hilal-e-Imtiaz posthumously as ribbons are not just for the near and dear.
The successful completion of the Neelum Jhelum hydropower project by Wapda was an accomplishment that needs to be lauded. This was perhaps the most challenging engineering work ever undertaken in Pakistan. One person whose name should be underlined in spades is that of Lt-Gen Muhammad Zubair, the CEO who completed 86 percent of the project by the time his tenure ended in 2016. This 969 megawatt project was a technically complex undertaking consisting of 56 kilometers of tunnel and an underground power station.
The deployment of two German Tunnel Boring Machines in the relatively soft Himalayan topographic conditions was fraught with abundant geological risks but Providence was helpful. The dedicated efforts of Wapda’s engineers and personnel paid off as the tunnels were successfully completed two years early compared to the original drill and blast mode providing additional revenues of nearly Rs120 billion. In another country, the services of someone like Lt-Gen Zubair would also have been recognized with a befitting award.
Mention needs to be made of three unlikely heroes the nation owes its gratitude to for transferring hugely profitable projects back to Wapda. These were originally awarded to the private sector which wasted many years doing nothing. Tariq Hameed as federal minister retransferred the Tarbela Four project to Wapda in 2008 while Raja Pervez Ashraf, then minister of water and power, ordered the Munda-Mohmand Dam back in 2010. Former CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry deserves a mention for ensuring that ‘public interests were safeguarded’. In monetary terms, these two projects would collect nearly a hundred billion rupees for the state annually. Finally, let truth be told to suppress unwarranted claims. Abdul Qaiyum Khan the chief minister of (the then) NWFP in the early fifties deserves credit for sponsoring the Warsak dam which British garrison engineers proposed originally. Similarly, president Pervez Musharaff and prime minister Shaukat Aziz must be applauded for initiating eleven new water-sector projects – Gomal Zam dam, Mangla Dam Raising, Jinnah hydel power station, Mirani and Subakzai dams, Khan Khwar, Allai Khwar and Dubai Khwar dams apart from the Greater Thal, Rainee and Kacchi canals. Brigadier Zarin of Wapda’s efforts need recognition for completing the three problematic Khwar projects.
People must also know that Yusuf Raza Gilani as prime minister was responsible for securing the unanimous approval of all provinces in the Council of Common Interests for the Diamer-Basha dam in July 2010. Nine years later, work has still not started as the country loses $5 billion annually. Fortunately, the Neelum Jhelum and Kacchi canal projects, which were denied funds since long, were completed only because the Nawaz Sharif government provided the amounts required.
The writer has served as the chief secretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindh and was the chairman of Wapda and the Pakistan Railways.