The PTI federal government has almost acquired notoriety in kick starting controversies. It has already weathered many controversies since it assumed power in August 2018. The dispute raised by the hasty notification for the extension of the tenure of the Chief of Army had hardly settled that a political commotion between the federal regime and the provincial administration of Sindh was stirred by the ill timed and ill argued statements of Federal Ministers from Karachi against the 18th Amendment. At the heel of this discussion has followed the controversial twitter message of General (Retired) Asim Bajwa regarding the Diamer Bhasha Dam. The massive trend on twitter may have now given him an idea of the sensitivity of the construction of any dam upstream on Indus River.
There have been reports that Rs. 115billion was distributed for the land acquisition for the project by the first quarter of the current year. Lately, the government signed a Rs.442billion contract with a joint venture of China Power and FWO for the construction of the dam. All these steps towards the implementation of the project went almost unnoticed. Nevertheless, the message of the Special Assistant of the Prime Minister, Mr. Bajwa has stirred the hornet’s nest in Sindh stimulating hundreds of thousands of tweets (500,000 since Friday) from political workers, nationalists, water experts and citizens of the province questioning the feasibility, tenability and profitability of the Dam. Their arguments against the project cannot be brushed aside, conveniently.
Dams are constructed on rivers for storing water and generating electricity. This was one of the significant trends among the water experts from the early 1950s to the late 1990s when a new discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of dams came to grab the attention of the water experts, ecologists and environmentalists and we came to have equally forceful arguments in favour of and against dams. Almost a consensus emerged from these discussions that the construction of dams should be undertaken in extreme necessity to minimize the human molestation of nature.
Criterion for dams
The construction of a dam may be undertaken when 1) there is surplus water in a river and it causes floods or it goes unutilized; 2) the project is financially and technically feasible and environmentally safe; 3) it is cost effective; 4) it is not apprehended to cause loss to any genuine stakeholder; 4) it does not interfere with the water rights of the riparian regions. Let us examine the Diamer Bhasha Dam project on the touchstone of these standard principles. There is no surplus water in the Indus River System. There has been shortage of water in both Khareef and Rabi seasons in Sindh and Balochistan since the mega flood of 2010. The last two years witnessed terribly acute shortage of water particularly for the fertile lands situated at the tail of canals and distributaries. Almost entire upper Sindh had late Khareef and Rabi and poor harvests.
No minimally required sweet water downstream Kotri flows into the Sea for decades now. This has resulted into the gradual intrusion of Sea into the coastal lands of Thatha, Sijawal and Badin. Since the commissioning of Tarbella Dam, the Sea has already swallowed 3.5 million acres of cultivable land in these three districts. The Delta of Sindh – the only one of Pakistan – is losing the mangrove forests, fertility and marine life. There are credible reports of water experts that if the required sweet water (5-8 million cubic feet as determined by the water experts and as agreed in the water accords of 1992) was not discharged into the Sea, it will swallow all the three districts by 2050.
Reservations of Engineers/geologists
Renowned engineers from Pakistan and International Institutions including the World Bank have had serious technical reservations to the construction of the Bhasha dam. They say, the site of the dam is situated within a region very prone to seismic risks lying at the boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates traversed by fault lines. They remind us of the massive earthquake of 7.8 magnitudes that devastated the region in October 2005. The Dam will be one of the highest concrete filled dams with a height of 922 feet. A concrete filled dam anywhere in the world higher than 620 feet remains vulnerable to seismic tremors, cracks and leakage. The project is estimated to cost slightly over $14billion. This does not include the potential cost escalation of the project. As it has happened in all the big projects in Pakistan, the cost of the dam will escalate by 90-100% reaching $28billion by the time its construction is completed. This will be an unbearable drain on Pakistan’s GDP of around $320 billion. Our past record supports this argument. The Neelum-Jhelum cost overrun was 500%. The Nandipur, the Jinnah Solar Park in Bahawalpur and some other mega projects were also marred by massive cost escalations.
Reservations of Sindh
Sindh originally had no objections to the construction of the Bhasha Dam because it would be a carryover dam and no canals would be extracted from it, and that in the scarcity of water due to natural reasons, the water stored in the dam would be discharged in the River Indus. However, Sindhis have lately developed a second thought about the Dam. They argue: 1) dams do not generate water. Their reservoirs are filled with the water available in rivers. There is already acute shortage of water in the Indus causing draught-like conditions in the riparian province and Balochistan since past many years; 2) the federal authority has never adhered to the regulations or agreements for the filling of the large dams; 3) the Tarbella and Mangla Dams were to be filled when the river Indus was in flood or it had surplus water to avoid causing shortage of water in the riparian regions. This was never adhered to by the federal authority or WAPDA; 4) the water accords signed in 1992 are an asset to the federation of Pakistan in the sense that the chronic water dispute between federal units was resolved. Unfortunately, these accords were never implemented by the federal authority and adhered to by Punjab; 5) Chashma Jhelum and Taunsa canals are flood canals and should have been treated as such using them to take flood water from River Indus and discharge in Jhelum and Chenab but have been run as perennial canals to the ridicule of the system and in defiance of all agreements; 6) Loss of water due to evaporation or any other cause was to be distributed equally on all provinces. Later, Balochistan and KPK, in connivance with Punjab, were exonerated from this loss straining the share of Sindh; 7) Tele systems at the barrages to monitor the availability, reliability, quantity and flow of water remained out of order for most time for obvious reasons – to hide the stealing of water that should flow downstream.
Failure of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA)
The IRSA was created to implement the water accord of 1992 – and, interestingly, was not empowered to make changes in the decisions taken in these agreements. It was originally composed of four members – one representative each from the four provinces. This was later changed in the early 2000s and a federal representative was appointed to it. In a bid to appease the dissenting Sindh, it was agreed at the highest level that the federal representative would always be nominated from Sindh. This practice was abandoned within years to give Punjab an upper hand in decision making within IRSA with the backing of the federal bureaucracy and WAPDA. The representatives of KPK and Balochistan have strangely always backed Punjab and the Federation in all the cardinal decisions in IRSA. The culpability of IRSA in not implementing the water accords in letter and spirit or letting itself to be ridden roughshod by the Punjab representative is really regrettable. This has discredited the water accords and deepened the distrust between Sindh and Punjab. For Sindh, the IRSA has lost its credibility for ever.
The way forward
Pakistan is a federation and it should be handled as such. No decision impacting the federal constituents should be taken arbitrarily or without consulting the provinces. For this consultation and coordination between the Federal authority and the provinces is the constitutional forum of the Council of Common Interests. The construction of a big dam affects the vital interests of stakeholders. Hence, the federal government should have: 1) taken the riparian province – Sindh into confidence and considered its reservations before the announcement of the project; 2) revisited the regulations already on books but not adhered to, or formulated new regulations for the operation of the dam; 3) reviewed the changes the IRSA has so far unlawfully made in the decisions agreed in water accords impacting adversely the province of Sindh and reversed all those resented by Sindh. This was necessary to restore the trust of Sindh in the system; 4) reached all the decisions regarding the construction of the dam by consensus within the spirit of federalism. Mr. Prime Minister, it is not the question of appeasing the provincial administration of Syed Murad Ali Shah by this consultative and cooperative process, it is more of safeguarding the vital interests of the people of Sindh who have been subsisting on the Indus waters since millennia and their souls have been breathing with its humming waves. They cannot live full lives with a drying and dying Indus.
For wise, there is always time to placate and embrace estranged stakeholders in a federation.