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Diamer-Bhasha dam: risks and controversies

November 17, 2008

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THE Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) has approved construction of the 272-metre-high Diamer-Bhasha Dam with a capacity to generate 4,500MW of electricity per day.

Work on the $12.6 billion dam would begin in September next year and is scheduled to be completed in 2016.

The Ecnec has also approved the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway to facilitate the dam's construction. A sum of Rs60 billion has been sanctioned for land acquisition and aid. Pre-qualification of bids will start this month which will be followed by civil work on the main dam, diversion of tunnels and an underground power house.

Pakistan is expecting an investment of $1.5 billion per year from leading European, Arab and Chinese companies willing to form a consortium on build-operate-transfer on 'supplier's credit' basis. The project is expected to pay off its cost within seven years of commissioning, as it would generate electricity worth $1.5 billion and supply irrigation water worth $600 million per year. An investment of $30 billion is needed by 2015 to raise electricity generation capacity from 18,000 MW to 33,000 MW.

The project is located on the Indus River, about 315 km upstream of Tarbela Dam, 165 km downstream of the Northern Area capital Gilgit and 40 km downstream of Chilas. The proposed dam would impound a reservoir of about 7,500,000 acre feet (9.25×109 m3), with live storage of more than 6,400,000 acre feet (7.89×109 m3). Annual discharge of the Indus River at the site is 50,000,000 million acre feet (MAF) and the dam will impound 15 per cent of the annual river flow. The dam project would cover an area of 110 km2 and extend 100 km upstream of the dam site up to Raikot Bridge on Karakoram Highway (KKH).

It is claimed that Pakistan is going to set another record (after Tarbela Dam -- 485 feet high) in hydropower engineering by building the world's highest roller compacted concrete Bhasha dam. Surprisingly it is forgotten that the Tarbela Dam (1976) was later termed as “perhaps the world's most problem-stricken major dam” in technical terms (The World Bank and large dams, failure to learn from history World Bank Report # 4). The same report suggests that the Bhasha site being located in the highly unstable seismic zone in a narrow valley of the upper Indus could be vulnerable to some extraordinary safety hazards. The dam would be situated in Chilas and there are signs of volcanic activity at its actual site within the 40km radius of the project site.
The dam debate is not new but it acquired more heat when Pervez Musharraf announced a series of dams on the Indus. During his regime, Bhasha was a priority in two planning documents, Musharraf's Water Vision 2020 and Wapda's Vision 2025. Musharraf visited the entire county to convince the people but failed.

The major partners of the present coalition regime PPP, ANP, PML (N), and JUI (F) opposed the building of large dams, under the banner of Anti- Thal Canal and Kalabagh Dam Action Committee. That alliance of 16 political parties was perhaps the largest opposition alliance ever on one-point agenda “No further cut on Indus”. Pakistan People's Party was the convener of the alliance. Now the PPP government is adopting the same 'vision' of Wapda without realising its political principles and commitments.

The Tarbela and Mangla dams have destroyed a large number of families living in the reservoir areas. They lost their homes, lands and livelihood. Thousands are still in search of permanent settlements. It destroyed animal habitat and forests, wetlands and other habitats were flooded. Fish population declined. Below the dams there were huge changes in the lives of downstream people; the fishermen community and delta area people.

Looking at the history of the construction of Tarbela and Mangla dams, following impacts are going to emerge if Bhasha dam is constructed Imposition of a reservoir in place of river valley (loss of habitats); changes in downstream water quality, effects on river temperature, nutrient load, turbidity, dissolved gasses, concentration of heavy metals and minerals; changes in downstream morphology of river bed, delta coastline due to altered sediment load, increase in sea erosion and reduction of biodiversity due to blocking of movement of organism.

Bhasha dam is being opposed by downstream Sindh and simultaneously people in Gilgit as they fear it would affect the social, economic and ecological balance in the region and would inundate 32 villages of the Diamer district in Northern Areas, rendering thousands of people homeless. Minister for Water and Power Raja Pervez Ashraf conceded that about 28,000 people, or 4,250 families, would be affected by the project in the NWFP and Northern Areas. The displaced people of Tarbela, Mangla, LBOD, RBOD and other projects are still not resettled properly and they have become poorer.

The Diamer-Bhasha dam is being built in the Hindu Kush and the Himalayan ranges. On April 4, 2008, it was reported that over a thousand rare stone carvings, sculptures and statues of Buddha have been found at the construction site of the dam. The protection of heritage and culture is another area of great concern as Pakistan is signatory to some of international bindings of protection of culture, history and archeology.

While considering the proposals of construction of future reservoirs, the first and foremost thing is to ascertain reliable surplus water availability for storage's after accounting for all the existing uses, including water accord-1991 allocations and commitments. It is also necessary to know the sources of water availability, the quantum of water available, so as to have a clear picture of the reliable availability of surplus water for storages.