Pakistan looking for billions in donations to build dams

Updated February 25, 2019

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Experts caution charity won’t be enough to build the volume of dams country needs. — AFP
Experts caution charity won’t be enough to build the volume of dams country needs. — AFP

MUZAFFARABAD: As Pakistan faces worsening water scarcity — and trouble sourcing international cash for construction of hydropower dams — it has turned to an unlikely source of cash: a fundraising campaign backed by the country’s top court judges.

Last year Mian Saqib Nisar, then the chief justice of Pakistan, donated Rs1 million ($7,400) of his own money to start the drive, calling water shortages a major national threat.

The drive aims to raise as much as a staggering $14 billion towards the cost of installing water reservoirs and other equipment for two major dams.

Justice Nisar retired in January, but the current panel of top judges have taken over the push.

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Some politicians from opposition parties have dismissed the effort, calling it inappropriate and doomed to fail.

Building dams is not the responsibility of the court, said Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Experts caution charity won’t be enough to build the volume of dams country needs

But efforts to solicit donations from as far away as the United States and Britain, largely from expatriate Pakistanis, have raised $70 million as of mid-February towards the `Chief Justice Dam Fund’, according to the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s website.

Prime Minister Imran Khan backs the effort.

Water scarcity has been Pakistan’s number one issue and the country may face shortages by 2025 if dams are not built, PM Khan warned in his address to nation in September.

He has urged Pakistanis living overseas to donate generously to the effort, comparing the battle to combat water scarcity to a holy war. Pakistanis, do take part in this jihad, the prime minister urged.

Water worries

Justice Nisar has said he took up the country’s water worries as a personal campaign after Syed Mehar Ali, commissioner of the country’s Indus Waters Treaty, testified in a court hearing last July about worsening water scarcity risks in Pakistan.

Mr Ali told the court that the country’s three western rivers — the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — carryied nearly 140 million acre feet (MAF) of water but the country has water storage capacity for less than 14 MAF.

Much of the water flowing down the rivers ends up in irrigation channels, but at least 29 MAF simply flows to sea, he said.

Pakistan needs to store 25 MAF of water each year to help shore up water security, the commissioner said, adding that would require a series of new large dams.

But building them has proved difficult. An effort to build a large-scale hydropower dam in Gilgit-Baltistan, for instance, has had trouble attracting multinational funding.

The proposed Diamer Bhasha also has proved controversial within the country, facing opposition from some environmental and farmer groups.

Development experts, as well, say charity won’t be enough to build the volume of dams Pakistan needs.

Sardar Riaz Ahmed Khan, a former development secretary in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, said donations can give citizens a sense of ownership in solving the water crisis, but “its useless to say that dams will be built by contribution”.

Muzammal Hussain, chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority, however, has said work on the Daimer Bhasha dam, which could store more than 9 MAF of water and generate clean electricity, will begin in May.

Initial work on a second, less controversial dam — the Mohmand, on the Swat River near Peshawar — started last month.

The government has provided funding for acquisition of land for both projects.

Dozens of farmers in Sindh marched to Karachi in October to protest construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam on the Indus River. A leading organisation of fishermen also has objected to the dam, saying it will hurt their business.

Salman Shah, a former finace minister, said in an interview that completing the Diamer Bhasha dam could take more than 12 years as the dam site is mountainous and falls in an earthquake risk zone, necessitating strong and extra stable construction.

But he believes that if the water storage dam can be built, international investors will come in to provide the infrastructure for power generation from the dam.

“Energy generation is a good profit-earning source in Pakistan,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2019