Not every diaspora Pakistani can donate $1,000. But even if Diamer-Bhasha reaches its funding goal, then what?
Prime Minister Imran Khan has called on the Pakistani diaspora to help fund construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam.
Credit is due to the new government for vowing to act with alacrity, and in a novel way, to tackle the clear and present danger of water insecurity.
Pakistan can no longer afford to kick the can down the road; the country could be water scarce in seven years.
There is, however, good reason to fear that Islamabad’s clarion call for diaspora-driven crowdfunding could amount to a fool’s errand.
One major reason for skepticism is the diaspora itself.
This may sound strange. After all, Islamabad is on to something by calling on overseas Pakistanis to open their wallets.
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The Pakistani diaspora, particularly in the West, is famously affluent. Consider the findings of a 2015 Migration Policy Institute study of Pakistani-Americans.
In the United States, home to around 500,000 Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans, nearly a fifth of diaspora households report annual incomes over $140,000.
The median household income of Pakistani-American families is $60,000 — a full $10,000 higher than the figure for American families overall.
High-paying positions — such as doctors and accountants — are among the most common professions of the US-based diaspora.
Additionally, other research shows that Pakistani-Americans don’t only have money to spend, they’re also willing to spend it on Pakistan.
Adil Najam’s landmark study Portrait of a Giving Community found that the US-based diaspora is highly philanthropic. And the largest percentage of its donations — 40 per cent — is earmarked for causes in Pakistan.
And yet, there are limits to the affluence of Pakistani-Americans.
According to research conducted by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, their average per capita income is less than $25,000 (compared to $27,000 for the total population).
Nearly a quarter have no health insurance. And while there are plenty of Pakistan-American doctors and financial managers out there, there are also large numbers of blue-collar workers.
According to US census figures, “drivers and other transportation workers” account for the third most common profession among American-Pakistanis. That’s not exactly a prosperous line of work.
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It’s not just in the US where one can puncture the myth of a monolithically affluent Pakistani diaspora.
Read through the chapters of the Lahore School of Economics’ comprehensive study of the diaspora (published last year and edited by Rashid Amjad, and which features a chapter by me), and the figures come fast and furiously.
For example, the Pakistani diaspora includes many migrant workers. Nearly 50pc of Pakistani migrant workers who relocated overseas for employment in 2014, the most recent year when data was available, were unskilled (with another 16pc characterised as semi-skilled), and 40pc of overseas Pakistani migrant workers that year were employed as labourers — which suggests they are far from deep-pocketed diaspora members.
In Spain and Italy, two-thirds of Pakistani migrants have at most a secondary-school education and most are employed in low-skills professions.
This contrasts with the United Kingdom, where the diaspora, as in the US, is heavily represented in higher-paying professions.
Other research has found that a whopping 44pc of Pakistan-born immigrants in Canada fall below the poverty line.
In effect, there are plenty of overseas Pakistanis who can’t easily cough up $1,000.
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To be sure, Islamabad doesn't assume that every diaspora member will dutifully donate; the hope is that those that can donate will do so, and that many of those prepared to donate will pay more than $1,000.
Of course, of those prepared to donate $1,000 or more to Pakistan, many may prefer to allocate the sum to charitable causes rather than to a large dam — a controversial and political issue.
That said, given the popularity that Khan enjoys within the Pakistani diaspora in the West, and particularly in the US, this latter challenge may not be as stark now as it would have been in the pre-Khan era.
All things considered, from a strictly financial standpoint, a strategy of development-by-donation is a very tall order.
As financial journalist Khurram Husain has convincingly explained, it’s hard to imagine how voluntary contributions can come anywhere close to meeting the steep financial requirements of a new large dam.
But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment.
Imagine that after years of failed attempts, Pakistan is finally able to raise enough funds to cover the construction of Diamer-Bhasha through donations from the diaspora and elsewhere, and through other types of financial support.
First, securing the necessary funding to build the dam — an objective that has eluded Pakistan for years — does not mean that the country will proceed, pell-mell, to construct it.
As Daanish Mustafa, one of Pakistan’s top water researchers, recently wrote, the Diamer-Bhasha project is “not technically feasible.”
The engineering community and even Pakistani government studies, he notes, have all agreed that building the dam would pose tremendous seismic risks, given its proposed location.
“Every financier knows what Wapda does,” Mustafa says, referring to the Water and Power Development Authority. “The dam is a high risk proposition and a country wagering 10pc of its net value on such a project is not a worthwhile investment.”
There are other risks associated with large dams, from displacement threats to riparian communities to environmental damage.
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Given the new government’s admirably laser-like focus on the environment — as evidenced, for example, by its appointment of a cabinet-level adviser on climate change — the latter risk should be of particular concern to Islamabad.
Additionally, a large dam could exacerbate the very problem it is meant to solve. As Mustafa points out, “there’s not enough water in the system to sustain additional large dams.”
My own research over the past decade, informed in great part by the work of Mustafa, Simi Kamal, Shams ul Mulk, Ahmad Rafay Alam and other Pakistani water specialists, leads to a seemingly obvious conclusion: Pakistan’s water crisis is complicated and multifaceted, and supply-side solutions are no silver bullet.
The critical demand-side, governance-oriented aspects of water policy are an oft-overlooked dimension of this story — and particularly the fact that Pakistan’s existing water infrastructure is badly in need of repair and refurbishment.
While encouraging efforts have been made in this regard — including a series of projects to revitalise the once-mighty Tarbela Dam — much more work stands to be done.
Ultimately, even if you’re able to generate a whole lot more water, so long as you’re not managing water efficiently, you’ll still have a big problem.
Additionally, repairing existing infrastructure can arguably generate much more water than can building new infrastructure.
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Nearly a decade ago, Kamal, writing in Running on Empty, a book I co-edited on Pakistan’s water crisis, estimated that Diamer-Bhasha could potentially generate about 8 million acre feet of water, but that simply repairing existing canal systems could free up nearly 80 MAF.
That’s still a telling data point today.
Perhaps Khan and his advisers have already thought through all these challenges, and identified ways of overcoming them.
If so, then this critique can be thrown out the window. Still, at the end of the day, the dam-building-by-donation plan — and the broader focus on large dams — appears to be a novel and well-intentioned, but ultimately an incomplete and high-risk, attempt to tackle a challenge that is as complicated as it is acute.
The Pakistani government’s message about Diamer-Bhasha appears to be: If you help fund it, then we will build it.
If only life — and policy — were that simple.
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