THE consensus at the national, or shall we say political, level to build the Kalabagh dam for water and power does not exist.
Perhaps some areas of Pakistan will benefit from the dam while some others will not, but the question is whether Pakistan as a whole would earn any net benefits from its construction.
Those in favour of the dam almost religiously believe that without it we are doomed to a dry future. Why do they think so? Perhaps because a number of reports by foreign ‘experts’ say so. Who are these ‘experts’? Where do they come from? Why do they care? We shall revisit these questions, but first a couple of others.
Do we produce enough electric power in Pakistan? No. Do we have enough water storage capacity? Well, it depends on 1) how we define ‘enough’; and 2) ‘where’ we want to store. Of all the available water in the Indus basin of Pakistan, approximately 95 per cent is directed to agriculture of which over 70 per cent goes waste; less than 30 per cent of it is the actual requirement for the crops we grow.
The fact is, besides wasting water, we also spend billions in managing wastage of water in the name of SCARP (Salinity Control and Reclamation Project). Rather than planning for more water — at the rate of 70 per cent wastage — we need to invest in increasing irrigation efficiency.
We can build a new dam to store water, or we can use an available storage space in the form of natural ‘aquifers’. Current knowledge of hydrogeology tells us that water storage is carried out better in aquifers than in dams.
If only we refill the depleted aquifers under the city of Lahore, we can store more water than the Tarbela reservoir — that too with the least social and environmental impact.
Rachna, Thal and Bari Doabs all offer excellent aquifers which could be exploited for storage, offering a potential storage capacity hundreds of times more than that of Tarbela, Mangla and Kalabagh combined. Although refilling an aquifer would be expensive, it would be much cheaper than building a large dam.
What about power? Do we need a dam for it? Let’s do some simple math here: the dam building might cost $10 billion with an estimated generation capacity of 5GW. This power, however, enters the grid only after completion of the dam which might take, say, 15 years.
With the prevailing technology of solar power, it costs approximately 90 cents to produce one watt. Given $10bn, we produce 10GW and production can start within the first few months of the project, progressively reaching 10GW in, say, two years.
So what is better — $10bn for 10GW in two years or $10bn for 5GW after 15 years plus the huge social and environmental impact?
Despite all this, why are there ‘experts’ who insist that we build the dam — a solution which we, as a poor country, neither have the financial muscle to embark on nor the technical expertise to undertake. Consequently, this ‘solution’ makes us dependent on foreign ‘help’, financially and technically. And we have to pay for this ‘help’ with interest.
When a mega project (like a large dam) is undertaken in a poor country with the ‘help’ of some global financiers, the latter are actually ‘investing’ in the poor country on behalf of a few (rich) ‘donors’.
The donor countries also share part of the project proportionate to their share of ‘donation’, thus creating jobs and businesses for their own citizens involved in that project. With this, their ‘donated’ capital comes back to re-circulate within their own economies, while the economy of the country being ‘helped’ hardly benefits.
Till the project is complete, the host country accumulates a huge debt, plus interest, without having earned anything. As soon as the project starts delivering, the host country is obliged to meet the loan repayment schedule.
The lending agencies yet again dictate the price of economic goods delivered by the project to match the repayment instalments. The host government returns the loan with interest by making its citizens pay a higher price (than the actual production cost) over a period of 30 years or so.
By the time loans are paid back the project has already lived its useful life and is in a state requiring major overhauls. For example, the lake behind a dam is silted and the power-generating infrastructure is in need of critical repairs and replacements.
This is usually the time when teams of ‘experts’ on behalf of the lending agencies start appearing on the scene yet again, ‘advising and warning’ the host government on the ‘next mega project’ which is deemed ‘absolutely necessary’ to fix the ‘critical’ problems they have identified, or else face doom.
Poor countries like us end up ‘raising the dykes of Mangla dam’ and then keep paying for the facility which they thought they had already paid for. Now we know who are the ‘experts’, where they come from, and why they ‘care’.
It’s my land, my river and my people — why should an outsider built a facility on it at my cost, earn huge profits out of the facility by ripping the pockets of my people, and then leave a worn-out facility, along with a degraded environment?
Building a large dam for water management and electricity generation is an expensive, unsustainable and outdated idea. Today’s knowledge offers far more economical and sustainable solutions. We must get our investment priorities right — using vision, foresight and the latest knowledge at hand.
The writer holds a PhD in hydrology and water resources from Michigan State University.