Wednesday February 21, 2024

The dam controversy

September 27, 2018

We need to have a rational discourse on the management and distribution of water resources in the country. It appears that some outside the Sindh view the province’s point of view on dams as politically stubborn and irrational and without ground.

Punjab’s populist stand on dams is a form of mob justice, frenzied and hyped up, showing an utter inability to listen and internalise the history of water disputes within the country and the ground realities produced by dams in the lower riparian regions (we don’t have to use ‘Sindh’ if the name irks some).

The construction of a dam is a technical and political matter. While its feasibility and design aspects are technical, it becomes a political matter because it is on a river which is shared between upper and lower riparian regions. And, because water is a resource and a resource is economics, thus too it is a political question. The latest campaign for large dams is not the first one. From Gen Zia to Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf, and now the PTI’s Imran Khan, everyone has wanted to deliver a dam, in entirely different times.

Gen Musharraf’s dam campaign resulted in the formation of the Technical Committee on Water Resource (TCWR) headed by a man of integrity A N G Abbasi who, despite facing bureaucratic hurdles, was able to produce a report (in August 2005) that answered fundamental questions; such as

1. “Review issues relating to distribution of water according to [the] 1991 Water Apportionment and water distribution amongst the provinces”.

2. “Assess the need for constructing dams / reservoirs for future requirements and to make up for the shortages of water due to silting of [the] Tarbela and Mangla dams, and recommend sequencing of future storages”.

3. “Review the progress achieved so far regarding study on escapages below Kotri and recommend measures to expedite the completion of the study”.

4-a. “Determination of water availability for future reservoirs and irrigation schemes”.

4-b. “Ascertain actual quantity of water passed downstream Kotri from 197 to 2003”.

5-a. “Examine the filling criteria of Mangla reservoir”.

5-b. “Examination of operation criteria of link canals and future reservoirs”.

One of the key findings of the TCWR was about availability of water for a reservoir in the river system. According to the report, “... 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 (sic) average storable surplus water was available in only 10 out of 28 years.”

One member of the TCWR, Sardar Ahmad Mughul, stated in his note, annexed to the report made by seven members of the technical committee in May 2005 that: “The criteria for operation of existing reservoirs and link canals as well as of future reservoirs should be clearly laid down and legal guarantees should be provided and there should be [an] agency responsible to ensure that these criteria are faithfully followed. One most important criteria (sic) should be that no storage should be allowed unless the accord allocations of all the provinces are met”. Did any government pay any heed to this observation?

We are witnessing a repeat of debates from a decade and half ago on the same questions. In 2005, Gen Musharraf’s regime took us on the same road, inflaming debates, creating fury and inciting protests. I recall activists chanting slogans saying ‘Musharraf wahiz kar ailaan, dam khapaye ya Pakistan’ (‘Musharraf: come clear, what you need dam or Pakistan’). These are the sentiments of Sindhi activists who see River Indus as the lifeline to survival. Sindh exists today because of this river, and its culture, civilisation and source of livelihood.

Sindh should not agree to any water reservoir on the Indus River system without first making sure that a thorough study of the losses, consequences and costs on the delta, its people and their socio-economic conditions is undertaken. If there is any doubt, its seriousness should be studied. Is there a risk of three districts in lower Sindh – Thatta, Badin and Sujawal – submerging into the sea in the next fifteen years?

Representatives from Thatta, Sujawal and Badin should respond to the grave situation that their constituents face. The roaring lion of Badin, Zulfiqar Mirza, and his elected family members must not remain silent. If they cannot represent and defend the interests, livelihoods and future of their people, then what’s the point of them being their representatives?

The PPP-led Sindh government had agreed to the Basha Dam in haste. Their decision had come following a report of the Technical Committee on Water Resources (TCWR). Did the PPP ever ask what happened to that historic first-ever serious report – or the data, findings and recommendations it produced? Wapda and the planning department, which is heavily represented by Punjab, wanted to use the TCWR as a tool to justify their end goal. And when the report did not endorse their end goal of building more dams, it was thrown in the dustbin and rendered irrelevant.

Governments in Islamabad, bent upon building dams, do not pay any heed to such reports nor do they want to listen to expert opinions. Instead of building consensus, they want to impose decisions. It took the PML-N 20 years to realize that ‘no dam should be built without consensus’ so that in 2013 when the party came in power, Sindh did not fear that they would go for a dam. The PTI is playing into the wrong hands and must be stopped from doing this. A strong reaction from Sindh is inevitable because dams take away their very source of livelihood.

Pakistan does not need water reservoirs but water conservation so that we can keep 36 million acres of land fertile and irrigated. As suggested by hydrologist Dr Hassan Abbas, we have to end this age-old method of flood irrigation, and opt for water-efficient methods.


Twitter @mushrajpar