Devastating floods renew decades-old debate on dam project in energy-starved Pakistan

By Asif Shahzad, AP
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pakistan floods renew heated debate on dam project

ISLAMABAD — This summer’s floods in Pakistan have reopened a quarter-century-old debate on whether to build a large hydroelectric dam on the River Indus, a dispute that has split the nation along regional lines. Supporters say the water reservoir could have prevented much of the floods’ devastation and boosted agricultural production along the river. Opponents say just the opposite.

The debate over the Kalabagh Dam shows how the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history, affecting some 20 million people, has unearthed deep fissures in its society. There is a chronic mistrust among Pakistan’s four provinces and the central government, and critics accuse wealthy landowners of naked self-interest in wanting to ensure the Indus keeps irrigating their crops.

Kalabagh is in eastern Punjab province, the country’s most populous and prosperous region, where the glacier-fed River Indus moves from northwestern mountains to plains and nourishes millions of acres (hectares) of wheat, cotton and sugar cane crops. The dam was first proposed in 1984, but political sensitivities mean it has never passed the planning stage.

In the northwest, politicians and farmers fear the dam could mean more flooding and not less. They say if the dam’s reservoir was full, surplus water would be diverted into some districts in the region. South of Punjab, where the Indus runs into the Arabian Sea, they fear the dam would mean drought and poor crops. Both regions ultimately think that it would give Punjab even more economic and political clout.

The governor of Punjab dismisses the arguments as “nonsense.”

“It is an emotional issue that they play up and say the ‘Punjabis are stealing your water,’” said Salman Taseer, a vocal proponent of the dam. “It is a storage dam, it is not diverting any water. The studies have been done. It is cheap to build, near the national grid and the studies have been done. Kalabagh is ideal in every way.”

This year’s floods began six weeks ago in the northwest after exceptionally heavy monsoon rains. The deluge slowly worked its way down the Indus and its tributaries, washing over at least 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of farm land, and destroying or damaging more than 1.8 million homes.

Shams-ul-Mulk, a former chairman of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority and a strong supporter of the dam, said even a “common man” could see that having the dam in place would have mitigated the floods.

The Indus already has two large dams on it. He said one of them, the Tarbela Dam, was able to control water flows of 238,000 cubic feet per second just days before the July 29 floods. The proposed Kalabagh Dam, which would lie further south, could handle another 300,000 cubic feet per second of water that would be gradually released down the country.

Meteorological official Riaz Khan said that at their peak, the floodwaters in southern Pakistan flowed at 1.15 million cubic feet per second.

“The floods wouldn’t have been a monster” with the dam, said Mulk, who is himself from the northwest.

No one disputes the electricity that would be supplied from the dam would benefit the whole country. Pakistan has for years struggled with electricity shortages, leading to outages for up to 16 hours a day in some areas and damaging industrial growth. The suffering is worst in summer, when the temperatures soar but power cuts mean fans and air conditioners won’t work.

Studies show the dam would generate some 3,400 megawatts of electricity and could be built in under five years.

Still, few outside Punjab support it.

Leaders in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa say the dam will destroy farmlands in the Peshawar valley — the main source of agriculture in the region — as water from its reservoir would seep into surrounding land, raising the water table.

They also fear the dam would force incoming floodwaters to spread to areas beyond the already vulnerable district of Nowshera, which is susceptible because of its geography and was badly hit in this summer’s deluge.

“We will never let it happen,” said Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in the northwest province.

Mulk disagreed, saying the proposed Kalabagh dam’s site is too far south of Nowshera district to worsen any flooding in the northwest.

Aurangzeb Khan, 57, who owns a farm on the outskirts of Peshawar city, opposes it. He said before the construction of the two dams in the province decades ago, his land used to yields fruits such as grapes and oranges.

“It’s been years since I can recall them growing. More dams mean lesser or no crops at all” because the land is too soaked with water, he said.

In southern Sindh province, there are fears Punjab will use the Kalabagh dam to hog water, meaning even less will reach their farmlands. That could also lead to greater salination. Waters from the Indus help hold back salt water flowing in from the Arabian Sea that inundates increasing amounts of the delta region.

“The dam means our lands will turn into deserts,” said Khaliq Junejo, vice chairman of a Sindhi nationalist party.

Punjab’s governor alleged the resistance in Sindh was being led by wealthy feudal landowners whose sole interest was personal profit.

“They are all occupying huge areas, that is one reason that they don’t want the Kalabagh Dam,” Taseer said.

Tahir Qureshi, an adviser with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said Pakistan could build multiple dams, but it first has to introduce an efficient water management scheme and upgrade its canal system, otherwise it risks drying out Sindh.

While the fierce debate over the dam is likely to rage on, its politics are so perilous it looks unlikely to be built soon. Two of Pakistan’s military rulers who backed the project, Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul-Haq, were unable to push it through during their tenures.

The current civilian administration has avoided taking a clear stand. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party would risk alienating its main support base in Sindh and coalition allies both there and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa if it pushed for the dam.

For now, President Asif Ali Zardari favors pursuing smaller, less controversial projects instead.

“Until there is national consensus on it, we should not insist on it and seek to build small and medium dams for which sites have already been identified at various locations in all provinces,” his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.


Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.

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