Moving Beyond Kalabagh Dam

Moving Beyond Kalabagh Dam

A Critical Analysis


Recently, a news story about moving the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the construction of the much-disputed Kalabagh Dam appeared in a number of national dailies. A Lahore-based lawyer Ilam ud Din Ghazi filed a petition, in May, in the Lahore registry of the apex court wherein he sought early construction of Kalabagh Dam (hereinafter KBD). The petitioner emphatically maintains that sans the dam, the ‘nation’ had suffered colossal losses worth over 70 billion rupees, and he further claims that the proposed dam would work miracles to stimulate growth in industrial and agriculture sectors of Pakistan, and it would help the country usher in an era of riches and growth. Above all, he adds, the genie of load-shedding would be put back into the bottle; and the bottle thrown into the sea. Mr Ghazi’s petition was followed by a suo moto notice by the Chief Justice of Pakistan to conduct hearing of the KBD case. Again, shortly after the clamour for the construction of the dam resurfaced, the social media, virtually, turned into a polling station – featuring pro and anti votes.

Whether or not is the campaign one facet to the larger propaganda engineered behind the scenes, God knows. However, what was missing in the larger picture being presented to layman, whose blissful instincts the promise of game-changer Kalabagh serves, must be fully sketched to sift fact from fiction. Whilst the charged advocates of the dam religiously press for its construction, one can find their arguments implausible, facts they shed light on doctored, and approach they espouse more polemically pitched than scholarly. Needless to say, any discourse on Kalabagh Dam or any other mega project, if placed within the much-sold context of national interest will go more as hogwash. The thinking that “since KBD booms one region, it should be constructed and construed as a vital national interest” will make our society sharply polarized.

So, to portray a compact yet comprehensive picture, any scholarly assessment on the KBD should not take a dim view of stakeholders’ apprehensions related to its construction; rather, they need to be held in the long view. Since conflict is more between upstream Punjab and downstream Sindh, it will be relevant to build on the Sindh-Punjab perspective in this analysis.

Holistic view of the conflict

In his piece “Kalabagh Dam: Sifting Fact from Fiction,” former Chairman WAPDA, Zafar Mahmood – himself a big supporter of the KBD – maintains:

“It is unfortunate that most of the writers who passionately advocate the construction of this project are unaware of the historical developments in interprovincial tussle over water issues between the two provinces over the last 150 years,” adding that, “It is criminally insensitive to assume that opposition to the KBD project by Sindh is impulsive.”

Following the extensive development of canal system in Punjab during the British rule, which transformed the region into the breadbasket of the Indian Subcontinent, there emerged some serious disputes over Punjab’s ambitious appropriation of the Indus waters, to the detriment of the lower riparian Sindh. Canal development undertaken, indiscriminately, in Punjab by British government had political and economic overtones. The imperial strategy was, firstly, to hold out an olive branch to the marauding Sikhs who, after getting ousted from power, had turned to brigands; secondly, to collect more and more revenue; thirdly, to co-opt an intermediary class of the Punjabis who they had settled in the canal command areas to help the British secure and extend their sway over the entire Subcontinent; and fourthly, to keep odds of uprising or resistance at bay. Interprovincial water disputes came to the fore for the first time when Sindh contended that Punjab was getting much more than its due share of the pie, to which the British government responded by constituting intermittent committees, from Indian Irrigation Commission (1901), the Cotton Committee Report (1919), and Anderson Committee (1935-37) to Justice Rau Commission (1942) and the Draft Agreement of 1945 between Sindh and Punjab.

Needless to say, water conflicts over the Indus existed even before the creation of Pakistan. After the partition, in 1947, the fissures created a sense of deprivation, and transformed distrust into grudges due, in part, to the reckless adventurism by the State, and, in part, to the disparities in the resource distribution.

To appreciate Sindh’s viewpoint, as pointed out by Zafar Mahmood, one must place the case of Sindh against the KBD within the broader context of the historical relevance of the Indus to Sindh and its habitants’ wistful nostalgia for the unrestricted, free flow of the mighty river. The Sindhu, the Indus River, has sacrosanct predominance ingrained deep down the collective psyche of the Sindhi people.

Availability of water resources

Punjab is rich in water resources with abundant aquifers of groundwater, availability of sufficient and timely rainfall, and integrated system of surface water in the form of perennially flowing waterways, supplemented by much-required infrastructure of water-resource management. Sindh’s case presents an altogether contrasting picture. It has vast swathes of fertile land – vast enough for Sindh to achieve self-sufficiency. Unlike Punjab, however, it has groundwater availability because of salinity and water-logging near to nothing. Out of the total cultivable command area of 13.45 million acres in Sindh, only 1.85 million acre is under the treatment of fresh, non-saline groundwater. Rainfall pattern, too, is erratic, uneven and insufficient to rely on. Thereupon, it logically follows that for Sindh’s very survival, the Indus River remains the only lifeline. Far from fiction!

Baggage of the past

Sindh’s vulnerability to desertification is never a bolt from the blue, nor is its apprehension about being deprived of its share of water a figment of its imagination. At least, the way certain incidents unfortunately came about constituted a criminal breach of trust. When asked to seek a prior written permission of the Chief Minister Sindh for letting water flow to the Chashma-Jhelum Link Canal, as decided under the agreement, Gen. Jilani, the then Governor Punjab, haughtily ordered the water release with such a disdain as reflected in his reply: “Bhar Main Jaye Sindh” (to hell with Sindh). The odds for such sensitive interprovincial agreements as KBD getting the nod go depressingly down when the baggage of the past is heavier than that can be carried on one’s shoulders!

Benefits of the KBD

The supposed miracles of the KBD receive an unprecedented projection. The supporters of the KBD huff and puff about the ‘miscreants’ bent upon depriving the nation of the potential which hitherto remains unexploited in the form of the KBD. The reservoir at Kalabagh is put forward as a once-for-all panacea for the energy crisis. As a matter of fact, insistence on its construction is wholly Punjab-centric. More than any other region, Punjab is the only stakeholder the proposed KBD will benefit most. Punjab has a high benefit-low cost ratio in its construction. Its agricultural and industrial sectors will get a boom from additional and timely release from the dam. Left Bank canal will lift 6.66 million acre feet (MAF) from the reservoir. Apart from it, around 4.65MAF will be drained into Jhelum Upstream of Rasul Barrage to meet shortage in the Mangla Command area. The power generation station is located in Punjab, thus royalty will accrue to it.

It is interesting to note here that two canals are proposed in the original design to off-take from the reservoir to divert water to Khushab – something WAPDA in its pamphlet unsuccessfully denies. The discrepancy in the statement is self-contradicted by the succeeding paragraph which calls for the installation of telemetric system at the KBD under the auspices of Indus River System Authority (IRSA) to ensure fair water distribution. Fair distribution of what, if high-level outlets for water diversion from the dam do not exist!

Sindh’s water woes

1. No surplus available

Various studies by the Sindhi and non-Sindhi researchers this scribe consulted corroborate the veracity of Sindh’s claim of running short of water. The quantum of water flowing into the Indus and its tributaries significantly varies from year to year, depending on the snowfall in Himalayan and Karamkoram ranges. Super floods occur approximately once in 5 years, hence raising the average to 137.27MAF. However, in the remaining 4 years, water availability is below 123.59MAF. The amount for water distribution among the provinces, as agreed under the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991, is 114MAF in total. Minimum flow below the Kotri Downstream was fixed at 10MAF. The above figure of total availability of water in regular years also includes the inflow of Kabul River as a result of its confluence with the Indus. Inflow from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the Indus basin is estimated at 16MAF to 20MAF. Since we have no formal treaty with Afghanistan, it can shut water flow anytime by building its own diversion works. Moreover, there are also system losses. Thus, the surplus is hardly available except in times of the super floods.

Examining KBD through the legal lens of a US Supreme Court ruling in famous Wyoming vs Colorado Case, ‘… in order to be available in a practical sense, the flow needs to be continuous and dependable.’ You cannot invest billions of dollars in an exorbitant dam in anticipation of averages. That sounds silly, doesn’t it?

2. Road to ruin

The fan shaped Indus Delta, located in Sindh, is the world’s fifth largest delta. It has long been the vital source of bread and butter for Sindhi farmers and fishermen. It has the seventh largest mangrove forest system. Thatta and Badin are the prominent districts on the delta. It is home to very rare species of marine life and birds.

However, with the construction of water reservoirs and dams, the delta has begun shrivelling to a terrible degree. With the Indus Delta dying down, salinity has started to permeate the basin, posing a serious threat to its ecology – human and marine life. The flora and fauna here are jeopardised. The rare species of birds are on the verge of extinction. The mangrove trees are threatened. The hundreds of thousands of people surviving on fishing and farming are likely to be deprived of their livelihood. Further, the environmental damage is expected to take a high toll.

Sindh is often berated for wasting water up to 35MAF to sea. However, the data and the situation there show altogether a different reality. The flow of water, except for the high flood, below the Kotri Barrage remains far less than even 10MAF as agreed in the Water Accord of 1991.

As per a World Bank report “The Indus Basin of Pakistan,” over the course of twenty years, at least 2 million acre arable land has been lost in Sindh as a result of saline seawater intrusion.

Sindh is home to some marvellous lakes, Keenjhar, Manchhar, and Haleji to name a few. They are mostly fed by the Indus. However, upstream diversion has inflicted an immeasurable mayhem to these wetlands. With them, the economic and aesthetic purposes they serve will be lost.

Katcho, which is 810,000 hectares area in the lower basin, is inundated by the Indus in flood years. It houses approximately a million of people. It is rich in riverine forests, sailaba irrigation, gazing lands, fishing and animal husbandry. However, already affected, Katcho is slated for disappearance by the construction of the KBD.

The lure of generation of hydroelectric power from KBD loses its appeal when compared to thermal and solar energy potential, which may cost far less than the former. Another argument of flood control by channelizing flood water falls completely flat, for we are already warned of the impending times of ‘No Water’; let alone super floods!


Water conservation can be ensured through a number of alternative strategies suggested time and again by different water experts. Kalabagh is not a divine project. We cannot afford the imbecility to risk federation by constructing a controversial and much-politicized dam now symbolizing a disaster. KBD mantra is bound to stoke up separatism if harped upon recklessly. When the rest of the three provinces have dismissed the construction of KBD by passing resolutions against it in their assemblies, raising the recurrent hue and cry is only a wild goose chase. Kalabagh is dead; better not to bring it back to life!

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