The dam controversy

Opposition to Kalabagh Dam comes in political and nationalist guises, limiting the possibility of an informed and fruitful debate


In a post-colonial country like Pakistan, majority of the people have no option but to swing like a pendulum between two opposing poles — both defined by elite conflicts within the ruling classes. Debate on every issue gets stuck in binaries, so much so that there is no room for a third option.

On world water day last week, political analysts and some policy makers generated a pointless debate over the construction of new dams, specially Kalabagh Dam to conserve water and increasing the storage capacity of country for agriculture and other purposes. Every one presented own ambiguous figures to deny the opposing claim.

The Kalabagh Dam issue is made to appear so complicated that no one is willing to hear the opposite argument for healthy debate. The controversy regarding the Kalabagh Dam is a result of improper relevant information and distrust among the federating units. Adolf Hitler’s propaganda team once said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” One could apply this quote on the binaries within our debate, and the ruling class conflicts that dominate the understanding of various issues in Pakistan. Instead, we will consider the ways in which the issue has been misunderstood, and give a scientific and social context to each position.

The arguments forwarded for and against the construction of Kalabagh Dam are often non-serious and irrational to the point of disbelief. Some political forces seem to be opposing the dam because of their past grievances which have nothing to do with the pros or cons of the dam itself. This is the case with the views of political forces from Balochistan, and is evident in the resolutions passed by the Balochistan Assembly.

Some political actors proclaim that if the water is used to produce electricity, then it won’t have enough energy left in it for growing crops.

In order to understand the situation, we will list and analyse the usual arguments that are given for or against the construction of the dam. It is important to distinguish between the technical, environmental, and social aspects of these various arguments, so that there is no confusion.

What is a dam and reservoir?

A dam is basically a weir constructed against the flow of water so that a sufficient amount of water can be obtained and diverted for irrigation or power generation. Whereas reservoir are an artificial lake, produced by constructing physical barriers across flowing rivers, which allow the water to pool and be used for various purposes. The volume of water stored in reservoirs worldwide is estimated to be 4,286 km3 (Groom bridge and Jenkins, 1998). Generally dam and reservoir are suitably constructed in the hilly gorges and trenches because such areas are suitable due to the naturally constructed boundary walls for reservoirs.

The Kalabagh Dam site is a naturally feasible location for building a water reservoir on the Indus River — a few miles upstream from Mianwali district of Punjab. At this site, Indus comes down from the hilly areas to the Punjab plains. This is an old project which has been under serious consideration since the 1960s. The dam became controversial during the rule of General Ziaul Haq, and has been politicised ever since.

The typical arguments

Dams were a sign of a country’s progress in the 1950s and 1960s worldwide. Different developed countries constructed a large number of hydropower projects over the world’s largest river basin like Nile, Ganga, Amazon, Colorado and Indus etc. After the transboundry water distribution treaty between Pakistan and India known as Indus Water Treaty of 1960, Pakistan constructed several dams, barrages, and headworks. Irrigation projects linked with these mega construction projects were considered necessary to irrigate barren lands. The increasing energy demands were also met with hydropower.

Dam supporters argue that irrigation projects increase the capacity of our water reservoirs and irrigate thousands of acres of barren land. This in turn makes the country self-sufficient in agriculture and prevents future food crises. Supporters also argue that the dam will produce 3600 megawatts (MWs) of electricity, which will reduce the energy shortfall and consequently solve the energy crisis that we face today.

At first, this point of view seems entirely reasonable. However, many ask whether the construction of the dam is the only solution to these problems, or whether we need to restructure the irrigation and water system along modern designs. Water is a precious natural resource and it needs to be used efficiently for the good of humanity. When designing policies, we need to keep in mind that the availability of water for future generations depends on how we use this resource. We must model our irrigation system according to modern principles and focus on water saving as well. Similarly, we need to consider other sources of power generation while considering the cheap electricity production capability of hydropower.

The arguments against the construction of the dam usually come from two provinces: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Sindh. Objections from Sindh are based on fears that the dam will render Sindh barren. Objections from KPK are based on fears that certain districts of the province will be flooded if the dam is constructed. Nationalist forces which oppose the dam usually consider the issue a matter of national pride and oppression of nationalities. They also highlight the negative technical aspects of the dam.

If we list the technical criticisms of Kalabagh Dam, they read as follows:

The dam will flood Nowshera and areas in its vicinity.

The lower part of the Indus River will not have enough water, instead devastating the economic lives of the people living in these parts.

The Indus River does not have that much water, and if the dam is constructed then the lower half of the river will be negatively affected, and result in an environmental disaster.

The backwater pressure from the dam will affect the Ghazi Brotha hydro power project.

Thousands of acres of land around the dam will be affected by water logging and salinity.

The dam will displace a large number of people.

Similarly, there are other technical arguments that constitute the grounds for dam opposition. But, all these technical problems can be resolved, and alternatives can be imagined. The problem is that opposition to the dam comes in political and nationalist guises, which limits the possibility of an informed and fruitful debate. If the problems were only technical in nature then it wouldn’t have been difficult to make the correct decision on the issue.

From my point of view, climate change is the most serious objection to the construction of big dams — as a result, they have become controversial across the world. Their construction affects the natural flow of rivers and damages river ecology and affect natural habitat. Two responses dominate among environmental activists. One response challenges the whole project of human progress and wants us to abolish this project and live with nature (it is another thing that their own lives are incomplete without the fruits of modern development and technology). The second response is far healthier one, and speaks of protecting the environment alongside sustainable development and the positive aspects of human development (which provides comfort in the lives of humans).

This trend does not reject every project on the basis of environmental protection, but looks at the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies, which allow us to determine the net positive and negative impacts of projects. So EIA of Kalabagh Dam and other such type of national level project is carried out by taking reputable expert specially from lower riparian of the Indus basin.

A way forward

Instead of constructing our own point of view, we often find it easier to choose from an available list of views. This is an unhealthy and non-scientific attitude.

We need to formulate an independent and scientific position to further our politics. I won’t discuss the technical arguments against the dam, as the average reader will find it esoteric and difficult. That is why we need to consider the issue of the construction of the dam in the context of the power crisis. In this regards, we need to build consensus among all provinces.

In any case, the technical aspects that we have discussed and which form the basis of the opposition to the construction of the dam have to do with the dam as a reservoir. That is why we believe that if the dam is built only for the sake of power generation as run of river hydropower station then hopefully Sindh and KPK will not have any objections.

Keeping in view the energy crisis in the country, we need to construct the Kalabagh Dam and other hydropower stations as soon as possible, so that we can increase our power generation capacity based on hydel power, and reduces the dependence on coal and oil-based energy production, which are more harmful to the environment as compared to the hydel power. Instead of spending our foreign exchange reserves on import of carbon-based fuels, we can redirect this money for the provision of basic facilities (education and health) in the country and to reduce the conveyance and distribution losses of water in the oldest ebb irrigation system.

The quantity of water which is lost during the conveyance and distribution and field application system of irrigation is almost 5-6 times more than the reservoir capacity of Kalabagh Dam. Kalabagh Dam must be presented as a hydropower project for the people. Similarly, we must build small dams to harvest fresh rain water locally instead of big reservoirs to irrigate barren lands. Irrigated agriculture land must be realigned along modern lines by promoting drip and sprinkler irrigation to save water and increase the acreage as well as crop productivity. For this the government must work with farmers by giving interest free loan to install drip and sprinkler irrigation system.

Small storage based irrigated agriculture does not damage the environment as badly as big dams. Furthermore, we won’t need to depend on loans from the World Bank and IMF because provincial and local governments can build these projects on their own. If we take the Kalabagh Dam as a hydropower project then the objections by Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can be answered since these objections are related to the dam as a large reservoir. If the dam is not used as a water reservoir then there is neither any fear of drowning Khyber Pakhtunkhwa nor of Sindh becoming barren.



Climate change and water pattern


The economic life of Pakistan highly depends on the flow of the Indus River basin which supports large areas of irrigated agriculture and plays a significant role in generating hydel power for the country. The Indus River alone contributes more than half of the total surface flow and has a controlling storage at Tarbela Dam as the river comes down from the mountains.
Tarbela was primarily designed for irrigation control, but it also has an installed hydropower capacity of 3700 MW providing roughly 13 per cent of Pakistan’s annual power output. Inflow to Tarbela is measured at Besham, which has a mean annual flow of 2425 m3 /s (1969–2001), varying annually from 80 to 130 per cent from the mean flow. This represents considerable variation in the potential for irrigation and hydropower production.
The world’s freshwater resources are depleting day by day. Pakistan has also reached the critical limit of per capita water availability. Pakistan’s storage capacity has reduced to 30 days per year which is well below the standard value of storage capacity. In Pakistan, the tensions are increasing daily on water distribution and allocation among provinces in the country.
The Indus River and its tributaries, the Jhelum, Chenab, and Sutlej rivers originate from the Karakoram, Hindukush, Himalayan mountain ranges, and the Upper Indus Basin (UIB) extends from the Tibetan Plateau to northeast Afghanistan. These mountains provide the major component of water for the Indus Basin Irrigation System, one of the largest integrated irrigation networks. An understanding of the annual variability in volume and timing of flows is therefore vital for water stewardship in the region.
Assessment of the impacts of trends or periodic variation in flows of the Indus River basin is necessary to build understanding about the erratic flow of the Indus River and its tributaries. Pakistan is an agrarian country with a quarter to half of the population dependent on the agricultural economy. Proper water stewardship for irrigation and agriculture requires proper evaluation of available water.
More than 80 per cent of the flow in the Indus as it emerges into the plains of Punjab is derived from the melting of seasonal and permanent snowfields and glaciers. The emission of green house gases and the subsequent global warming represent a major threat to this precious source of freshwater. Increased negative human activity due to border tensions between the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and India is also emerging as an environmental threat for this source of freshwater in the region.
The upper Indus basin consists of a series of mountain ranges of extreme rugged terrain at high elevations. Pakistan’s Indus River basin system consists of five major rivers, namely the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej. These five rivers supply water to the entire Indus basin irrigation system. These rivers have their origin in the higher altitudes and derive their flows mainly from snowmelt and monsoon rains.
Catchment of Indus is most unique in the sense that it contains seven of the world’s highest peaks after Mount Everest. The climate varies from tropical to temperate. Arid conditions exist in the coastal south, characterised by a monsoon season with adequate rainfall and a dry season with lesser rainfall, while abundant rainfall is experienced by the province of Punjab, and there are wide variations between extremes of temperature at given locations.
Rainfall varies from as little as less than 10 inches a year to over 150 inches a year, in various parts of the country. Climatic change will impact different hydrological parameters, including precipitation snowmelt etc. These changes are results of severe hydrological changes in river flows.
Proper water stewardship and planning demands a deep understanding of these hydrological changes in the river flows. The spatial and temporal changes in the flows of the Indus basin tributaries impact the Indus basin irrigation system (IBIS).
A recent academic study assessed the spatial and temporal changes in hydro availability over different time spans of the year using hydrological statistical analysis of the historic data of different rim stations along the Indus basin. Changes in flow quantity are likely to raise tensions among the provinces, in particular for the downstream areas (Sindh province), with regard to reduced water flows in the dry season and higher flows with flooding during the rainy season.
Estimating water resource under changing flow regimes is important for planning and the operation of water related project. Hydrological parameters are changing under the influence of climate change, which is resulting in the changing pattern of flow regimes. There is large variation of flow at different location in the Indus basin irrigation system. In a recent research study data was analyzed using hydrological software of different rim stations of the Indus River system from 1961-2011.
The monthly mean, maximum, and minimum discharge were computed based on the daily maximum, daily minimum and daily mean discharge. Average daily discharge was based on the arithmetic average of daily maximum and minimum discharge. The seasons were divided into three month and six month intervals. The six month seasons are winter (October to March) and summer (April to September). The three-month seasons are classified as winter (December, January, and February), spring (March, April and May i.e pre-monsoon), summer (June, July and August i.e monsoon) and autumn (September, October and November, post-monsoon). The annual mean is the average of January to December monthly means. Trends were investigated for temporal analysis of six river gauging stations with one station on each river of Indus River system for the period 1961-2010. The analysis was also done for 25, 15 and 10 years time increment.
For the spatial analysis, 6 gauging stations were considered — two stations on each River Indus, Jhelum and Ravi. Trends and variation were investigated by applying the Mann-Kendall test and Sen’s method. The overall analysis indicates that there is more flow variation on a seasonal basis as compared to the annual basis.
It was concluded that the discharge from Sutlej and Ravi rivers has shown a decreasing trend during the annual mean, minimum and maximum discharge as well as during all six and three month seasons. The Sutlej River’s showed a more rapidly decreasing trend in discharge between 1961-1985, while the Ravi River showed a more rapidly decreasing trend in discharge between 1986-2011. The Kabul River showed decreasing trends in annual mean and maximum discharge whereas its annual mean, minimum discharge showed an increasing trend, probably due to the greater snow and glacier melt in the catchment area of the Kabul River.
It was concluded that the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus rivers’ annual mean, maximum and minimum discharge showed decreasing trends. The rate of decrease was higher during the 1986-2010 time span as compared to the 1961-1985 time span. Interestingly, during the winter seasons discharge is increasing whereas during summer season discharge is decreasing. It is again an indication that climate change is inducing more impacts in the upper Indus basin freshwater sources i.e in terms of snowpack and glaciers.
In spatial analyses of the Indus and Jhelum Rivers, summer season are showing decreasing discharge at higher elevation points, namely Kharmong and Chinari respectively, whereas the winter season is showing a greater increase in discharge at higher altitudes in the Indus River and greater decrease in discharge in the Jhelum River at higher altitudes for the time span 1986-2010.
During the spatial analysis of the Ravi River, it was concluded that summer seasons show less decreases in discharge at higher elevation points, namely Jassar, whereas winter seasons are showing increasing discharge at lower elevation point.
Period analysis during droughts and flooding suggests that every decade must experience one or two years as dry period as well as one or two years as wet period.

Wicked water problem

Water resources management has often been described as a ‘wicked problem’, defying easy solutions. It is wicked because there are unknown dimensions to the science of natural resource. In addition, there are multiple stakeholders to water resources management that renders decision-making difficult.
International trans-boundary river basin management presents an even more wicked problem because these rivers are shared by two or more sovereign states, causing decision-making to be all the more complex. Much of the water for human consumption comes from rivers, and there are 276 international trans-boundary river basins in the world (De Stefano et al. 2012). The 276 international trans-boundary river basins are shared by 148 sovereign states, and over 2.7 billion of the world’s population is reliant on these waters (De Stefano et al. 2012: 198).
Scientists have warned of the risk of conflict if threats to both the biodiversity of rivers and human livelihoods are not fully understood and addressed with appropriate means.
The conflict of same nature exists in our region between Pakistan and India. The roots of these conflicts are linked with the British period, when they started mega water projects especially on the Indus Basin. British established a world largest and contagious irrigation network on the Indus Basin. Indus basin comprises six major tributaries and many small tributaries.
After the Partition of 1947, Pakistan and India scuffled over water distribution form shared Indus basin. At the time of Partition, no one seriously thought about these shared challenges. These dispute emerged because there was a lack of internationally recognised water sharing formulae to solve these inter or intra national conflicts. Still the practice of international law to solve the dispute on water distribution between two or more than two countries from one common hydrological basin is not appreciated.
When Pakistan raised questions that India wanted to stop all the water and transform Pakistan into a desert, water experts from Tennessee Valley Authority visited Pakistan and India and gave their recommendations to World Bank as “India and Pakistan should work out a programme jointly to develop and jointly operate the Indus Basin river system, upon which both nations were dependent for irrigation water. With new dams and irrigation canals, the Indus and its tributaries could be made to yield the additional water each country needed for increased food production.”
After these recommendations, the World Bank intervened and started negotiations between Pakistan and India in 1951. After different phases of these negotiations, Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960. The treaty gives India exclusive use of all of the eastern rivers and their tributaries before the point where they entered Pakistan geographic boundary. Similarly, Pakistan has exclusive use of all of western rivers water.
Before coming to this agreed proposal presented by the World Bank, Pakistan and India also offered their own proposals for the distribution of water in Indus basin. The India side offered that Pakistan uses 93 per cent of water from western rivers and none of the eastern rivers, whereas Pakistan offered India to use 30 per cent water from eastern rivers and none of the western rivers. But at the end, both the parties agreed to the World Bank proposal.
One of the technical flaws of this treaty is that both occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are not consulted on this treaty. Kashmiris are also major stakeholders in the Indus hydrological basin.
Other criticism is environmental consequences of the treaty. Today it is too much important that we study, understand and realise the environmental consequences of this treaty. When both the parties decided water distribution formula, no one thought about the fair share of nature and environment. That’s why they agreed upon the formula that three eastern rivers’ water rights are in Indian control and three western rivers’ rights in Pakistan control. No one thought about what will be going downstream of these three eastern rivers and ultimately how they affect the downstream of whole Indus basin. What will be the impacts on the biological life (flora, fauna) and the downstream end of the basin?
One thing is very clear, if we don’t give the nature its fair share, it takes revenge in the form of disasters like droughts and floods. Pakistan and India are bound through different united nation conventions on environment to protect the environment and ecosystem through sustainable development policy. I would like to discuss two international conventions in this regard: 1) Convention on biological diversity (CBD); 2) Convention on protection and use of trans-boundary water courses and international lakes.
The CBD reminds that natural resources are not infinite and sets out a philosophy of sustainable consumption of natural resources. Whereas convention on protection and use of trans-boundary watercourses and international lakes bound both parties that they shall take all appropriate measure to prevent, control and reduced any trans-boundary impacts. It also bound that both parties to take all appropriate measures to prevent, control, and reduce water pollution causing or likely to cause trans-boundary impact. It also emphasises to ensure conservation and where necessary, restoration of ecosystem. These international treaties give sound logical reason to both parties that they should review the Indus Water Treaty on the basis of these environmental considerations.
To check the environmental and ecological degradation it is compulsory that environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies must be carried out, especially for any future hydropower and water storage projects from credible international third party.