Friday May 24, 2024

The quest for water security: Part - II

By Dr Murad Ali
December 07, 2018

According to the findings of a study titled ‘Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century’, hydropower development is a global phenomenon. It is affecting the most important river basins in the world, including the Amazon, the Congo, and the Mekong, creating enormous disruption in these ecologically-important regions.

The financial costs of the dams are immense and many believe that the benefits do not outweigh the costs. The hydrological consequences of large-scale dams and reservoirs are extensive. After losing its charm and vigour in most developed countries, the hydropower lobby and industry moved towards building dams in the developing world.

Since the 1970s, they began building even larger hydropower dams along the Mekong River Basin, the Amazon River Basin, and the Congo River Basin. In these regions, the same problems are being repeated: the disruption of river ecology; deforestation; loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity; the release of substantial greenhouse gases; the displacement of thousands of people; changes in people’s livelihoods; and effects on food systems, water quality, and agriculture.

According to conservative estimates, more than 470 million people worldwide have been negatively affected by the construction of dams, particularly those living downstream from dams. In order to effectively adopt the sustainability norms, it has been argued that the proponents of future hydropower development projects should be particularly cognisant of how climate change may affect hydropower production. Policymakers and planners need to make greater efforts to reduce the environmental and social costs borne by people living near dams.

While there is no doubt that Pakistan needs dams to ensure power supply and safeguard its future generations from water insecurity, it would be wrong to underestimate or neglect its social and environmental costs, particularly for the most vulnerable segments of society. Various reports from credible international organisations suggest that people displaced from their ancestral homes and land aren’t properly compensated for their sacrifices and losses. The same thing has been witnessed in our country. Many people don’t get adequately compensated when they have to surrender their property because it comes in the way of a dam, a motorway or other megaprojects initiated by the government. Apart from this, even if the affected population is resettled, most rehabilitation plans don’t take into account the fact that following resettlement, people often lose their social networks and other types of social wealth, which has economic, cultural, social, and health implications.

In order to prevent such incidents from happening again and again, environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and social impact assessments (SIAs) should not be used as mere ‘tick boxes’. They should objectively and accurately assess the environmental and social impacts of such projects on the community and their environment.

EIAs and SIAs ought to be carried out by credible firms and institutions that protect the interests of citizens rather than those of the government or large companies building dams. At the same time, independent experts with no conflict of interest with the government, the energy sector, or construction companies should also be included in the EIA and SIA teams.

Let’s consider one of the most critical aspects in Pakistan’s context: the availability of financial resources to successfully build the proposed large dams.

The estimated cost of the Diamer-Bhasha is about $14 billion. There are reports that Pakistani expatriates generously donated for the national cause during recent fund-raising events in the UK. However, experts have raised questions over the feasibility of such initiatives, especially in light of the potential of donations as it seems to be an insurmountable task to generate $14 billion by means of voluntary contributions from the public.

Danish Mustafa, an expert on water and environment based at King’s College London, is of the opinion that the actual cost of the dam could be up to $28 billion, much more than the projected estimate. Therefore, it looks highly improbable to raise such finances for the project domestically. In a study titled ‘Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development’, researchers have assessed 245 large dams built between 1934 and 2007. The study has found that the costs of large dams were 96 percent higher than the predicted costs and that one out of 10 large dams cost up to three times more than originally estimated.

In addition to the significant social and environmental implications of big dams, a peculiar challenge in Pakistan’s context is the generation of sufficient financial resources to successfully implement the proposed water reservoir projects. Like millions of other compatriot Pakistanis, I have my best wishes for the CJ and his campaign to build dams. I must also point out that the conservation of water involves much more than just building dams.

The construction of large dams is only a unidimensional approach to resolve water scarcity, even though its significance cannot be denied. There are equally important policy measures that must be taken to ensure the preservation of water. Focusing on the country’s lakes is one such policy option.

Pakistan has about 60 lakes. But most of them are highly polluted and some have either dried up or practically perished. Owing to pollution, 14 fish species have become extinct in Lake Manchar, Pakistan’s largest freshwater lakes. Restoring these lakes will provide a better habitat for biodiversity, promote ecotourism and agriculture, and provide water to people who are dependent on lakes.

Similarly, regulating tubewells and drilling is also vital. Due to the increase in population, the demand for water has increased considerably. Whether it is for domestic, commercial or agricultural purposes, there has been an unregulated use of tubewells across the country where people extract as much water as they like. As a result, there has been an exponential rise in the number of tubewells. This has reduced the water table in many parts of the country. Therefore, a strict policy needs to be implemented to regulate the number of tubewells.

As per some estimates, Pakistan has the highest numbers of glaciers outside the polar region. On account of climate change, these glaciers are melting at a faster pace than those in any other part of the world. If this trend is not controlled or reversed, the country may no longer have glaciers by 2035. A national plan for the management of these glaciers is critical to minimise the challenge of water scarcity.

In addition, there is a need to create awareness about how wasting water is akin to creating problems. In Pakistan, water is either free-of-charge or subject to nominal charges. Therefore, minimal efforts have been made to focus on water conservation. Both the print and electronic media need to play a constructive role in creating awareness about water scarcity and its conservation. It is feasible to come up with a realistic water pricing mechanism to discourage its enormous waste, both at the household and commercial levels. Water scarcity is a multidimensional challenge and can be effectively tackled by taking concrete and multidimensional approaches.

On account of multiple negative externalities, relying entirely on large dams to generate hydropower and preserve water resources involves looking at the issue of water scarcity from just one perspective. There is now a broad consensus that “the cost of solar and wind is dropping, efficiencies are up, and they are price-competitive for the energy produced”.

Hydropower can be part of a sustainable future if we move away from big dams and towards a combination of in-stream turbines and diversified energy sources in ways that don’t disrupt stream ecology and fisheries, and the lives of people. Latest research suggests that “hydropower has an important role to play as a provider of inexpensive energy, complemented by in-stream hydro and partnering with solar, biomass, and wind to provide power towards a sustainable future”.


The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.