Pakistan’s water mismanagement

(By Raashid Wali Janjua) Dam or be damned

What stops us to build big reservoirs to tap the nature’s bounty that we so wantonly gift away to the oceans every year? Is it lack of resources or the lack of will due to vested interests bent upon harming the country, that the issue has been hanging fire? Is our lemming like propinquity for self immolation a consequence of a serious mental pathology or the death wish is a predilection built in our genes?  The answer to above questions would not be easy for a people weaned on the notions of external threats and intrigues imperiling our national survival. Pakistan faces an existential water scarcity threat that imperils our agriculture and food security more than any other man made or natural threat. A country that had bountiful water resources on the eve of independence in 1947 of around 5000 cubic meters per capita faces a per capita water of 1017 cubic meters presently.

While countries like USA have constructed 6575 big dams, the corresponding figure for China stands at 22,000. Water is a precious and diminishing commodity that needs to be conserved and stored for human use unless we want to countenance a desertification of our lands in future.

According to a World Bank study, the minimum possible water flow in River Indus needed below Kotri Barrage is 8 Million Acre Feet Per Year (MAF), with 3 MAF in winters and 5 MAF in summers. So those in Sindh misleading people about ecological dangers to mangroves and the threat of sea intrusion have no legs for their specious anti dam arguments to stand on.

For detractors of the same dam in KP, the story is more interesting. Kalabagh Dam was initially recommended for construction by the World Bank consultants after Indus Water Treaty. The idea was to make the best use of the water resources of the three Western rivers allocated to Pakistan.

The whole water reservoir building endeavour of Kalabagh Dam, however, became victim to petty politics and personal vendetta of some selfish politicians and vision-less leaders.

The role of some high ranking WAPDA bureaucrats sulking due to lack of extension in service is also a saga of shame in the jinxed dam’s history. The anti Kalabagh dam lobbies based their visceral hatred to the idea of dam on the highly untenable premise of sinking of Noshehra. Despite expert opinions to the contrary, that clearly stated that a dam at 860 feet elevation could not imperil an area 961 feet high and 190 kilometers away, the opposition persists. The misled population under sway of a political party’s specious narrative refuses to grasp the logic that areas like Swabi that were not threatened despite 400 feet Tarbela dam in near vicinity could not be threatened by some reservoir 190 km away and 101 feet down either.

In order to understand the significance of Kalabagh Dam, one has to understand the nature of water threat facing Pakistan along with other associated challenges. Some vested interests, generously bankrolled by external actors, have been in the forefront of the propaganda that there was no need to have a big reservoir when electricity could be produced through small run of the river projects.

Such tendentious analyses fail to point out the trinity of Pakistan’s water resource challenges. Pakistan due to its peculiar geography, faces heavy floods especially affecting lower Indus basin in 2-3 months of summer and monsoon. 50 per cent of precipitation also occurs in these 2-3 months presenting the peculiar water conservation challenge. Pakistan only stores 9 per cent of its annual river flow as compared to 30 per cent that India does.

The requirement of water in Rabi season is twice that of the required flows and each year the farmers are in distress during Rabi and early Kharif season due to shortage of water. The shortage of canal water forces farmers in Punjab especially to draw down heavily on ground water that lowers the water table besides salinisation of the ground water aquifers.

There are three challenges that need to be viewed and remedied holistically i.e flood mitigation, power generation and irrigation. Only a big reservoir can fulfill the above requirements.

The water resource development of the country has been politicised due to selfish agenda of few politicians who fear that their politics will die its natural death if and when Kalabagh Dam comes on ground

A big reservoir such as Kalabagh Dam would provide 2.6 million MAF for Sindh alone, besides 2 million MAF for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and 1.5 MAF for Balochistan. Big landlords in Sindh who get annual flood irrigation due to uncontrolled flooding in their 25 lakh acres of river edge (Katcha) lands are the biggest hindrance in the way of a dam that would bring the fruits of government planned irrigation to the province.

One large dam like Kalabagh alone has the potential to bring one million acres of cotton, 0.4 million acres of rice, and 0.2 million of sugarcane growing areas under cultivation. According to researchers, one million acre foot of storage adds $2 billion to national GDP and since we lose 35 MAF annually to sea, we are incurring $70 billion of loss annually. The Council of Common Interests (CCI) had in the past ruled on the need for more large dams on River Indus after proper site selection through field and desk studies. The water resource development of the country has been politicised due to selfish agenda of few politicians who fear that their politics will die its natural death if and when Kalabagh Dam comes on ground.

What is the way ahead then? The answer is securitisation of the water resource development of the country by declaring a ‘Water Emergency’. The US example in developing Colarado River Basin water works and the famous Hoover Dam in the 1930s may provide a guideline. The US army Corps of Engineers was employed by the US flood reclamation service, a federal agency created to develop canals and dams in the early nineteenth century.

The development of the water reservoirs was taken out of the states’ rivalry by the federal government through legislation as well as federal courts. When US federal and states’ interests clashed a water bureaucracy emerged including US Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennesse Valley Authority ensuring government planning without state interference. The bitter rivalry between a suspicious Arizona and an economically developed California over Colarado River Basin water rights was ultimately resolved in 1960s through a US Supreme Court ruling.

Pakistan has reached a stage where further procrastination through prevaricating tactics over construction of large dams like Kalabagh simply cannot be afforded. The dithering politicians lacking political vision and gumption will never be able to do it. The last hope like the US example may perhaps lie in our Supreme Court where a case for Pakistan’s water resource development may be won by agitating it as a national survival issue. Either we dam or we are damned is a verity writ large on our parched land’s horizon.

The writer is a PhD scholar at NUST and can be reached at