WHILE the debate around Kalabagh dam or any other large surface water reservoir in Pakistan revolves around either the abundant hydropower benefits or the political undertones of mistrust amongst provinces, the real stakeholders, ie the people, are left with little understanding of the contextual benefits and harm these mammoth structures may bring to the Indus basin. Most of us end up being polarised on the matter of construction of such works, since we are either lured by the overwhelming economic benefits, or cautioned by the notion that benefits will not be equitably shared.
Despite the opinion each of us may have on Kalabagh, what we should truly grasp from this deep-rooted polarisation is that there’s an undeniable trade-off between benefits and harm associated with large dam construction.
The primary benefits of the trade-off are water supply, flood control and hydroelectric power generation. In Pakistan’s context, the most critical of these benefits is water supply, and especially for the agriculture sector.
Pakistan’s relentless population boom since construction of Tarbela has resulted in a sharp decline in per-capita surface water availability. But what does this really mean? The sharp decline in per-capita surface water availability has in turn resulted in a monumental increase in groundwater extraction — to such an extent that today we extract 25 per cent more groundwater than is returned to the ground.
The real issue pertains to our water management policy.
Groundwater aquifers are the most environmentally friendly water storages and we, unfortunately, are depleting ours at an astronomical rate. However, groundwater extraction is seemingly unavoidable, since more than 50pc of our agricultural water demands depend on it. Compounding the issue is the fact that a majority of Pakistan’s domestic (including urban) water demand is fulfilled by groundwater as well. These stresses on our groundwater reserves surely indicate that we desperately need large dams for water supply. But what about the harmful aspects of the dam construction trade-off?
At the harmful end of the trade-off spectrum, hindering natural flows of rivers create adverse socioeconomic and environmental impacts. For instance, in the case of Kalabagh’s construction, lands adjacent to the dam will be submerged by the reservoir, leading to resettlement of many communities. It is hard, if not impossible to measure their loss. Adding yet another obstruction to the heavily dammed Indus system (more than 40 dams) will also exacerbate environmental challenges within the basin. These include degradation of the Indus delta, diminishing of Indus mangroves, and endangerment of fish species. It is again hard (if not impossible) to measure the adverse environmental impacts of a large storage structure on the Indus.
Where does this trade-off leave us? Supporters of large dams may say that food and water security are bigger than all other concerns. My question is that will large reservoirs solve these concerns? How would these reservoirs address the current groundwater extraction/ recharge imbalance? Given water is a precious resource, why is the price of surface water in Pakistan (abiana) practically negligible? Won’t our farmers make water-smart decisions if the price of water is proportional to its value? Will this not reduce the stress on water demands?
Opponents of large dams may say that adverse impacts of such structures are so catastrophic that developed countries have ended such construction. While adverse effects of dams are undeniable, it is a misnomer that such structures are not built in developed countries anymore. Classical examples are California and Australia; two regions that have semiarid climates, like Pakistan, and plan to build new storage dams. California has a population that is five times smaller than Pakistan’s and surface water storage capacity that is four times more than Pakistan. Yet, in light of recent droughts, the California government passed a bond in 2014 to build new storage dams. So precedence of willingness for dam construction exists even in the developed world.
So, where does our complex dam trade-off leave us? It leaves us to not look at the decision on dam construction in isolation but within a larger, comprehensive water management strategy. So let us not talk dams. Let us instead ask what is our water management policy. Do we have one? Yes, thankfully we do. Does it talk about new large storages? It surely does. The water policy also addresses the environmental challenges of the Indus basin. However, does it address them adequately? These are the questions we need to focus on. So let us not talk dams. Let us talk water policy. Let us critique the policy to enable its improvement. And, most importantly, let us hold our policymakers accountable for its implementation.
The national water policy is available on:
The writer is a researcher and consultant in water resources systems engineering and management.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2018