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DAWN - Editorial; January 19, 2006

January 19, 2006

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Finally it is Bhasha

FINALLY, the government has opted for the Bhasha-dam-first strategy, lumping the Kalabagh dam with the other three — Munda, Akori and Kurrum Tangi — to be built later. This is a victory of sorts for the anti-KBD lobby, especially strong in Sindh. Unlike the KBD, which is monsoon-based, the Bhasha dam will be glacier-fed, and this should reassure the lower riparians that they are not being denied their share of the precious Indus water. In his Tuesday night’s nationwide speech, President Pervez Musharraf seemed aware of the extent of opposition to the KBD but appeared to speak with conviction. Coming out with facts and figures he made the case for the KBD, but clinched the issue by saying that it is construction of the Bhasha dam that would begin next month. It now remains to be seen whether the respite the government seems to have obtained by deciding to go for Bhasha first will enable it and subsequent governments to proceed with the other dams smoothly.

No matter how convincing the case for the KBD, opposition to it will continue in some quarters. Sections of the World Bank’s report on Pakistan’s water resources claim that there is no additional water available to be injected into the system. This is in sharp contrast with the three committees’ view that as much as 30 to 40 per cent of water goes waste. This underscores the need for maximizing the use of and better organizing the available water by means of brick-lining the canals to avoid seepage and waste. Nevertheless, the nearly 90-minute speech seemed an acknowledgement of the difficulties in the way and — more important — of the significance of taking the nation along on this sensitive issue. The often emotional debate on the KBD seems to have proven itself to be politically substantive and served the cause of national unity by emphasizing the point that decisions imposed from above or by one person — even if filled with good intentions — are counterproductive, even hazardous, and erode rather than consolidate national unity. Even in the case of the Bhasha dam, the people of the area must be taken along and convinced of the project’s benefits for them and the rest of the country.

The president referred to Sindh time and again and feared that the province could turn into a desert if a dam were not built. At present, he said, canals remained dry for the greater part of the year, but that the construction of the dams would enable the federal authorities to release the stored water so as to keep them filled throughout the year, and that could make Sindh blossom. The people in the southern province would look at this promise with hope and scepticism. To prove its sincerity, the government must come out with a schedule for the construction of a barrage near Sehwan. The construction activity and its economic fall-out that the people of Sindh will see with their own eyes will pacify them more than mere promises. Pakistan is a federation with a demography that requires adherence to the highest norms of democratic and constitutional behaviour. The spirit shown in handling the KBD controversy is something to be kept alive. It is needed not just in matters of water resources and honouring the 1991 accord but in all other matters. Provincial autonomy is vital. In Balochistan, for instance, the nationalists want not only greater autonomy; they allege that the autonomy enshrined in the constitution is denied them in practice. These issues need to be tackled in the spirit required of a federation that has problems of its own.

Bypassing the NFC logjam

Using his constitutional powers, the president appears to have bypassed, for the time being, the NFC award logjam. The share of the provinces in the divisible pool has been increased from 42.7 per cent to 45.33 per cent with the proviso that this share would be jacked up at the rate of one per cent a year until it reaches a total of 50 per cent in five years’ time. The horizontal distribution among the four provinces, however, would be based on the old formula of population, while making it more equitable for smaller provinces by enhancing the amounts of subventions for the NWFP and Balochistan and including in this list Sindh as well. Punjab, which is already getting more than 57 per cent from the provincial part of the divisible pool being the largest province in terms of population, has also been included in the subvention list, perhaps in consideration of the abject poverty that exists in southern Punjab. So, from the next year all the four provinces will be getting more than what they have been getting all these years. Meanwhile, the decline in the percentage share of the federation in the divisible pool is likely to adversely impact on many of its economic activities. On the other hand, the absorption capacity of the provinces has remained painfully limited all these years. So, in order to make the new approach to the NFC award equitably beneficial all around, it is necessary that with the reduction in the share of the federation in the divisible pool, a number of economic responsibilities now being shouldered by the centre should be passed on to the provinces. At the same time, the absorption capacity of the provinces should be enhanced so that all the resources which they will now be receiving are utilized efficiently, in time and in a cost-effective manner.

The NFC award proposed by the president is provisional and at best an interim arrangement pending a consensus among the four provinces on the formula for horizontal distribution which is a constitutional obligation. Sindh has been demanding weightage for revenue collection, Balochistan, the largest province in terms of area, feels that its size should be given due consideration in the distribution formula and the NWFP believes that the level of poverty should also be given due weightage. The provinces are also demanding a 50 per cent share from the divisible pool immediately. It is not likely that the provinces would give up these demands because of the announcement of the provisional award by the president. The Constitution does not recognize any award which is not based on a consensus among the four provinces on the horizontal distribution formula.

While Article 160(6) empowers the president to make suitable amendments in the award after it has been recommended by the National Finance Commission comprising the minister of finance of the federal government, the ministers of finance of the provincial governments, and such other persons as may be appointed by the president after consultation with the governors of the provinces, it does not permit him to announce a full award on his own. Neither does this article allow the provincial chief ministers to empower the president to formulate an award. So, as long as this constitutional hurdle remains, one cannot expect the NFC crisis to disappear. One would certainly welcome the efforts made by the president to resolve the issue with an interim solution but, at the same time, one would also expect the government to find a permanent solution of the problem so that the country could move forward rapidly on the road to economic progress.

Seismic factor goes against Kalabagh

By Fatehyab Ali Khan


THIS article is not a comment on issues pertaining to the rights of riparians and the political and social repercussions of the construction of dams. The main aim of this endeavour is to highlight the technical, environmental and scientific aspects of the Kalabagh debate.

The Technical Committee on Water Resources, headed by A.N.G. Abbasi, has made it clear in its terms of reference that reservoirs and the status quo of their distribution in the country are unjust and contribute to further deterioration of water resources. The report fails to elaborate on the silting of the Mangla and Tarbela dams. Most importantly, it does not discuss why Kalabagh will not face the same spectre of silting. Instead, the report wrangles with superfluities and omits important issues.

There were two factors in choosing Tarbela and not the Kalabagh site for the Indus Basin Project in the 1960s. First, the sediment problems at Kalabagh were more serious than those at Tarbela. Second, according to some estimates, Kalabagh would last only 35 years and it would not be possible to raise it further, but Tarbela’s first stage would last 47 years, and this could be prolonged to 85 years by raising the dam to its full height. The possibilities of off-channel storages up to 32 MAF would also be available for Tarbela but none for Kalabagh. Wapda’s chief engineer, therefore, concluded that although neither site was attractive, Tarbela was less unattractive than Kalabagh.

Many years later, Lt. Gen. Emerson C. Itschner, former chief of corps of engineers in the US army, and who was chief technical adviser for the Indus Basin Project from 1961 to 1964, wrote in 1966: “So much controversy has centred around Tarbela Dam that I feel that comment is appropriate. Tarbela definitely is not a good dam site and I doubt that it would be built in the United States. We must recognize, however, that Tarbela is the best site available in the Indus, which will meet the requirements of the Indus Basin Project.” (Aloys Arthur Michel, The Indus Rivers.).

Ayub Khan’s government bowed to World Bank pressure and built a dam at Tarbela. Four decades later, the present government should not commit a bigger blunder under persuasion from the World Bank and other lending institutions.

When a serious search for storage sites on the Indus began after independence, seven or eight sites were identified. The main considerations were storage capacities and sedimentation loads. The highest of these sites was at Skardu, the second site at Kotkai. Attock was also viewed as a favourable site. But these were discarded owing to difficult access, sedimentation problems and other technical reasons.

The choice was restricted to Kalabagh or one of three sites in the vicinity of Tarbela. The sedimentation rates at both places were investigated. It was estimated that a dam at Kalabagh would impound about 230,000 acre feet of silt per year, while one at Tarbela (above the Kabul confluence) would collect only 90,000. But later it was assessed that the deposition at Tarbela would be 129,000 acre feet or more per year. Michel states that the best Tarbela site appeared to be the one farthest downstream, at Bara, where approximately 11 MAF of gross storage could be obtained compared to only 8 MAF (without destructive flooding) at Kalabagh and the Bara. The Tarbela site was therefore selected.

According to Ali Hamza Kazmi, an expert on earth sciences, the Kalabagh site is located in a highly seismic zone near an active fault, and the underlying rocks are likely to contain numerous fractures, causing the reservoir water to vend its way through the catacomb of fractures and discharge at the lowest point around the reservoir and the Indus river. By the time these springs sprout, their water would be saline, affecting the crops.

Thick deposits of rock salt, a natural asset, occur at Kalabagh on the surface. They slope downwards to the north and underlie the entire Potwar Plateau and the probable reservoir area. At the dam site, the salt bed is expected to be about 2,500 metres deep.

Salt is the weakest of rocks and starts flowing under very low pressure. At present, these deposits are in a state of equilibrium. Under the extreme load of the reservoir, this equilibrium will be upset. There is every possibility that the buried salt bed may slip causing surface cracks and damage to the structure of the dam.

Reservoir induced seismicity (RIS) is now a well-established phenomenon. Observations worldwide have shown that at some locations the construction of high dams has increased the seismicity of the region and produced earthquakes of up to 6.0 on the Richter scale. The life of the Indus, like that of any river, is closely tied to its stream flow, which constantly fluctuates. Damming a river and altering its flow pattern generates a number of physical and biological impacts.

Damming the Indus has caused a number of environmental problems. The silt, which was deposited in yearly floods and made the Indus floodplain fertile in Punjab and Sindh, is now being held behind the dams. Silt deposited in the reservoir is lowering the water storage capacity of Manchar and other lakes and of wetlands like Haleji. Poor irrigation practices are leading to water-logging and bringing salt to the surface.

Fishing in the sea has declined following dam construction because nutrients that used to flow down the river to the sea were trapped behind the dams. The erosion of mangroves as barriers has made Karachi vulnerable to natural calamities. The delta itself, no longer renewed by Indus silt, has lost much of its fertility. The unique brick construction industry of Sindh, which uses delta mud, has been severely affected. There has also been significant coastal erosion.

The use of artificial fertilizers, supplied by international corporations, causes chemical pollution which natural silt does not. Indifferent irrigation control has led to water-logging and salinity that have damaged farmlands, a problem complicated by the reduced flow of the river below Kotri, which allows salt water further into the delta. The dams on the Indus have also had a negative impact on the fertility of fish stock in the sea.

According to WWF, “some dams are still built based on dubious economic arguments, without considering all alternatives, without transparent processes and without adequately addressing serious environmental and social impacts”, even though the government and international donors realize the problems.

Although the number of organizations which are concerned with the safety of dams has grown, mega dams are still emerging as unsuccessful projects. In the context of the proposed Kalabagh dam, two examples will give the reader an idea of the gravity of the risk involved in any hasty decision-making about water resource management, particularly in a developing country. In Afghanistan, a modern canal irrigation system in the Helmand Valley was introduced without any consideration of the possibility that the land might become saline. Ten years after the start of the project, five million acres out of 23 million acres have been lost to salinity and water-logging, with a further 50,000 to 100,000 acres rendered unproductive annually.

Teton Dam in Idaho, US, collapsed in 1976, causing a billion dollar loss. The dam was under construction even though feasibility and design studies were not finalized. The best possible solution available to stop desertification is creating artificial rain as in parts of the US, Australia, Africa and China. In this process, moisture-heavy clouds are injected with silver iodide particles to enhance rainfall across the targeted area. The advantage which Pakistan enjoys is the easy availability of this technology from its close ally China, which has been utilizing this option with tremendous success. Pakistan has also successfully experimented with artificial rain.

If the young scientific community of Sindh starts utilizing artificial rain technology for the benefit of its province only, the rest of the country will be starved for rainfall. Thus, it is imperative for the government to manage available resources on the basis of consensus and for the benefit of all.

The government, builders and financiers of large dam projects need to take all positive and negative aspects of the proposed plans into account before embarking on the construction of the Kalabagh dam. Otherwise, they will face growing public backlash from the unacceptable economic, human and environmental costs of badly planned dams. They must in particular: — Assess needs and options more comprehensively, with particular attention to options for managing the demands for water and power to minimize the need for new dams. — Consider construction of dams only after environmental assessment to ensure that whole river basins are managed in a sustainable way. — Ensure that, wherever feasible, existing dams are retrofitted to increase power generation and other economic benefits, while reducing negative social and environmental impacts.

The development of new dams, in accordance with the concerns outlined here, is the best way to ensure that they really deliver the benefits. If vital decisions are taken without consensus and imposed upon the country, the consequences will be devastating.

In conclusion, a reference to the political utterances of various party leaders. They are subjective, short-sighted and ill-advised. Not even an expert can give a credible opinion on the construction of a dam simply through an aerial view of the proposed location.

But Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has done just that and has maintained that the area chosen by the government for the Kalabagh dam is naturally fit for the project, as four rivers converge there and the resulting narrow waterline is ideal for the construction of a dam. Needless to add, geo-hydrology is the first factor to be studied before even starting such a project, let alone undertaking a subsequent scientifically authentic study taking all geographic characteristics of the area into account.