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Opinion

July 18, 2018

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From crisis to consensus

The efforts being made to open the debate on the Kalabagh Dam are laudable. There are undoubtedly some problems. But these aren’t challenges that are insurmountable.

We know that the federating units have distinct water needs. But there is a need to move ahead. Given our exploding population, which now stands at 208 million and continues to grow at over two percent annually, decisive decisions cannot be postponed much longer. The only way to do this is by developing a consensus among the main political stakeholders. This, in turn, requires extensive bargaining. Though such deliberations take place behind closed doors, they must be carried out with an open mind. In other words, a painstaking policy of ‘give and take’ is required.

In Harvard’s Kennedy School, an imaginative business model for major water-sector development projects is taught in environment-related classes. This consists of ‘the WTO balancing the WTA’. Sponsors of a project extend a ‘willingness to offer’, consisting of financial and environmental terms, to develop the project and then await the response of those affected through their ‘willingness to accept’ the offered terms. After repeated flows, the terms are mutually refined till equilibrium is achieved when the WTO is equal to the WTA. The project is then ready to be developed.

A similar but informal model operates in Pakistan as well. All major water issues are resolved through objective, fair and professional negotiations. Examples of this abound. The people of Mirpur fiercely opposed the construction of Mangla Dam in the mid-1960s and then again in the early 2000s when the Mangla Dam Raising Project came to the fore. Their concerns were addressed through a painstaking dialogue before any work could commence. Sadly, their requirement of 116 cusecs of irrigation water from Mangla Lake has still not been allowed by the very provinces that have benefitted from Mangla Dam.

The Tarbela, Ghazi Barotha and Neelum-Jhelum projects were also confronted with serious concerns. Discussions on these issues never ceased. With time, these matters were resolved by open-minded bureaucrats, politicians and professionals.

Unfortunately, political accommodation in our polarised land is normally difficult to achieve. Yet, the political leadership at the centre and in the four provinces successfully came up with the Water Accord in 1991 through a consensus that was reached after weeks of ‘give and take’. This was perhaps Pakistan’s finest hour. In July 2010, another fine-hour comet returned when the Council of Common Interests unanimously approved the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam (DBD).

The prime minister and the four provinces fully endorsed Wapda’s presentation on the project. But since then, eight years have been wasted for no good reason. Meanwhile, the unnecessary inclusion of the run-of-the-river Dasu Dam by the government and the World Bank has pushed the crucial DBD on the backburner. People often ask why DBD hasn’t been built when the provinces unanimously agreed to it while there is some contention over other dams. They have a point.

The provinces have concerns of their own. Some want water reservoirs built while others have reservations. For example, the southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa needs water as it has only been able to cater to one-third of its food crop requirements. With the merger of the tribal areas with KP, this deficit is likely to rise further.

Balochistan is even more food-deficient. However, both provinces will benefit extensively from the addition of three newly-proposed water storages. KP will receive about two million acre-feet of additional water while Balochistan will obtain almost one-and-a-half million acre-feet. These provinces will then become food-secure.

Let’s consider three truths about the site of the Kalabagh Dam. First, this is the only place that can store the 18 million acre-feet of water from River Kabul. Second, most of the monsoon rainwater can only be stored in this site. Third, the extent of the Kalabagh reservoir (which is at an elevation of 915 feet) would in no way pose any flooding in Nowshera as the latter is 35 feet higher than Kalabagh’s maximum water elevation.

With Tarbela in place and DBD under construction, the mighty Indus would finally be tamed. The floods in the Peshawar Valley were normally caused by River Swat. Now, with the construction of the Munda-Mohmand Dam on River Swat, the annual floods in Hashtnagar and Nowshera would be a thing of the past. Work on this dam is due to start soon thanks to the generous provision of funds from the French government in 2011.

Serious negotiation is, therefore, required to develop new water storages. Striving for a consensus should be the key factor and all the main players must get involved. Success will only be achieved if the major issues are addressed.

Permanent guarantees of provincial water rights, as per what was agreed in 1991, must form the basis for future project construction. Let’s not forget that Sindh and Punjab have been contesting water rights since 1901. Some smaller provinces have apprehensions that as the population expands in the upper parts of the country, their water rights could be jeopardised. The Water Accord of 1991 needs to be fully incorporated in the constitution and made justiciable.

Issues pertaining to seawater intrusion in the Indus Delta and the rise in ocean water due to global warming remain valid and must be considered by impartial professionals. About 200,000 acres of land have already been encroached upon by the sea. To ensure that seawater intrusion remains in check a constant flow of about eight million acre-feet of water must be guaranteed annually for the delta.

Furthermore, a series of dykes, embankments and adjustable mechanical gates need to be constructed along the coast to protect the land. These are likely to cost a great deal of money and should be funded through a charge on the net hydel profits from future dams. It is unfair to palm off this obligation to the coastal provinces. Net hydel profits should be paid to the provinces in proportion to the losses sustained due to the project.

The full cost of water as an input must be recovered at its economic value. This alone would prevent its misuse. At this stage, the abiana charge cannot even recover the salary cost of the department. Sailaba irrigation practices have to be stopped. Moreover, the cultivation of deltaic crops, like sugarcane and rice, ought to be discouraged through higher volumetric water charges.

New storages would also provide an addition of another five to six million acre-feet of freshwater to Sindh. For this, cultivable land is required. It would appropriate to announce beforehand that new land allotments will only be made to Sindh’s locals, particularly those with limited land holdings. People outside Sindh would be ineligible for land allotments. The katcha irrigation area along the river should have its water and land use regularised and paid for. The ‘katcha’ farmers currently pay nothing for the water they consume.

The area that suffered the most due to the Indus Waters Treaty was Bahawalpur as its people weren’t fully compensated for the water that was denied to them from the Sutlej and Bias rivers. The first charge on Punjab’s water from the new reservoirs should, therefore, be for the Bahawalpur region.

Sindh also needs to focus on lowering the high levels of saline waters beneath the soil. Canal lining in some reaches and water treatment for the reuse of saline water for irrigation in Sindh would save almost two million acre-feet of water. Wapda’s pilot project on the subject, which was started in 2012, also needs to be reactivated.

The writer has served as the chief secretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindh and was the chairman of Wapda and the Pakistan Railways.

Email: [email protected]

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