The Case of Kalabagh Dam


Water is indispensable for the sustainment of life on earth. It is a lifeline for all the earthly activity and is a driving force of the nature. Although this most-needed natural resource is found in abundance on the earth, its distribution is quite uneven. It covers around 70 percent of earth’s surface, out of which only a paltry 3 percent is believed to be the freshwater that is fit for human consumption while the remaining 97 percent water is highly-saline, thus, unsuitable for crop production or human use. Nonetheless, this precious resource is fast shrinking on account of a multitude of factors, such as swelling population ending up in the awkward quagmire of increasing demand and decreasing supply, expansion of irrigation, silting of water reservoirs, overexploitation of groundwater, use of western rivers’ waters by India, industrialization, urbanization, wasteful use and climatic changes.

Essentially an agrarian economy, Pakistan’s survival hinges largely on agriculture that requires huge amount of water. The agriculture sector accounts for about 24 percent of the GDP, while supporting 70 percent of the country’s rural population. Besides, it employs 48.4 percent of the country’s total workforce.

There are three principal sources of water: (1) rivers; (2) rainfall; and (3) the underground water. Given its scarcity, the distribution of water has been a bone of some messy contentions sub-nationally, and internationally as well. Pakistan has the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. The Indus River System (IRS), along with its tributaries, constitutes the major source of water flow to Pakistan.

The Water Stress Index by Malin Falkenmark suggests that Pakistan, already a water-stressed country, will soon fall in the category of countries having acute shortage of water. Given that, the voices for highlighting the urgent need to conserve water by augmenting the country’s water-storage capacity are raised from all quarters. That is suggested to be carried out by storing in reservoirs the discharges – estimated to be 33-36 MAF – that drop unused down to the sea. The existing dams have lost their storage capacity up to 3 MAF due to increasing silting. The US has the storage capacity of 900 days of average flow, and India 120 to 220 days whereas Pakistan can store river flow only up to 30 days.

Discourse on the issue

Before we delve into the specifications of the proposed large dams, apprehensions of provinces and the rebuttals thereof, it is necessary to briefly overview the assertions put forth by protagonists and antagonists in this regard.

The virulent charge sheet levelled at the large dams is based on the social issue of the submersion of large tracts of agricultural land and the ensuing dislocation of a huge number of people. It is believed that the so-called large dams do more harm than good; and that they are guileful instruments of unabashedly usurping the water and land rights of the poor while benefitting only the rich. In the garb of the ‘national interest’ mantra, lies concealed the furtherance of the interests of the privileged. As maintained by Ernest Gellner, the driving force behind nationalism is the denial of the economic resources by a dominant group to the underprivileged. Arundhati Roy contends that [large] dams put the earth to waste, inducing natural disasters and different epidemics. The contention often dwells on the paradigm of human rights to plead the case against the large dams. It is held that relocating and resettling people against their will and submerge their lands is tantamount to flagrant violation of the fundamental human rights. In addition, the charged buildup of criticism against large dams also centres on the failure of the latter in living up to their promised benefits. To what degree the claim of rehabilitation of the affected on a just basis is actually met is taken with a pinch of salt; in large-scale displacements, the feasibility of the recompense for the land lost and livelihood deprived is doubtful. Social and environmental parameters are pushed forward as the decisive factors behind any project.

The rebuttals hurled to counter the anti-large-dam arguments are no less forceful. It is argued that whatever is said against dams is out of ill information or prejudice. The ecological impacts are outweighed by the benefits; the human deprivation, environmental degradation and migration would take a further toll; thus, benefits greater than the cost. Displacements and submersions are seen as the harbingers of the concomitant development. If dams displace, so does the sheer deprivation. But the former has a conclusive package of rehabilitation to offer.

The Kalabagh Dam

The government’s strategy has been of augmenting country’s water-storage capacity by means of the construction of large dams so as to tackle the imminent water crisis. The reservoirs would also come in handy in the generation of the hydroelectricity to meet the exigency of power shortages and also in controlling the floods. Kalabagh, the subject of a widespread controversy, has been proposed to be built at Kalabagh in Mianwali district on the borders of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. The claimed storage capacity of the Dam is said to be 7.6 million acre-feet (MAF). The cost is estimated at USD 7 to 17 billion. The project, which is expected to employ 35000 people, will also be generating 3600 megawatts of electricity.

The advantages of the site of Kalabagh, as enumerated by various experts, are:

Location: It is located in a developed part of the country that is equipped with sufficient infrastructure in terms of roads and railway networks, etc., thereupon is likely to cost low.

Transmission line: The transmission line for electricity transfer will be shorter as compared to the alternative sites proposed in which enormous transmission losses will also occur.

Conjunctive use with Tarbela Dam: There would be conjunctive use of electricity of both Kalabagh and Tarbela dams.

Mechanism of flushing out silt: It will be much easier to flush out silt through the provided mechanism.

Life: The dam will live longer as compared with the alternative dams.

The Kalabagh Dam (KBD) has been turned into a touchy subject as controversies and differences of opinion on its construction are still rife. In the face of strong resistance from provinces to the proposed dam, the federation is likely to be in jeopardy if any bid at its construction is sped up; every government has stepped back in order to avoid putting the integration of the country in danger. Punjab supporting passionately its construction stands on one side while other provinces are on the other side by vehemently resisting the same with concrete reservations. Here is a gist of the points of view of the three provinces vis-à-vis the KBD to ascertain as to what extent the provincial apprehensions are substantiated by objectivity. Since the conflict is more between the upstream Punjab and the downstream Sindh, their views will be under thoroughgoing scrutiny.

Sindh’s viewpoint

1. Punjab is involved in ‘water theft’. The case of stealing 16000 cusecs between Taunsa and Guddu in just one week is presented as an evidence to corroborate Sindh’s accusation; thus, revealing the apprehension of being deprived of its due share of water.

2. Surplus water is available only in flood years with great a variation. The construction of dams such as Kalabagh, etc., will unleash a great mayhem to the lower riparian Sindh, for whatever surplus water is available in times of flood will be stored in them. The past record discloses that extra water is hardly available every year. “If such a mammoth dam costing USD 7 to 17 billions is built, Punjab will be tempted to fill it to the detriment of Sindh’s due share even when water is in scarcity.

3. A number of canals have been proposed beforehand to take out from the KBD. This again will divert water to irrigate farmlands in Punjab to the disadvantage of the downstream Sindh’s rightful share.

4. Sindh’s Sailaba (or the riverain) areas will be adversely affected with the KBD’s construction.

5. Water flow below Kotri is too little to check seawater intrusion. Even 10 MAF, as agreed under the water agreement, is not released; the result being that the saline seawater intrudes inland up to 100 kilometres. That has resulted in the increased salination of lower Sindh, slow death of the once mighty Indus Delta, extinction of rare species and biodiversity and acute poverty in the coastal areas. Indus Delta is exposed to annihilation. Ecosystem the former sustains is imperilled owing to the low water flow to the sea. The low flow below the Kotri has wreaked some serious havoc to the world’s sixth largest mangrove forest that has been reduced in size by 38 percent.

Punjab’s assertions

1. Punjab pleads the cause of the KBD and asserts that the claimed 36 MAF water flow, which goes waste by falling into the sea, can be utilized. This wastage can be turned into an asset by a storage reservoir wherefrom water would be transferred to the needy areas when they face a deficiency of this precious source.

2. The multipurpose KBD will help the country pull itself off the load shedding dilemma, water crisis and flood devastations visiting on the people every other year.

3. The storage in the KBD would hardly leave any impact on the Indus Delta. In fact, the extent of the sea intrusion is now at its maximum with human activity, flora and fauna having adapted to the new regime. The ecological conditions have stabilized.

At this point, however, Sindh’s point of view seems substantiated, with factual data, to a large extent. The fan-shaped Indus Delta, the world’s sixth largest delta, has long been a vital source of bread and butter for Sindhi farmers and fishermen and also has the sixth largest mangrove forest system. Thatta and Badin are prominent districts located on this delta. It is home to very rare species of marine life and birds. However, with the construction of the water reservoirs, 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 ecological footprint of the region. However, Punjab continues to push for more decrease in the amount of freshwater released by the Sindh from the Indus River to stabilise the environment – something at which Sindh has always protested. Not to forget, as per the report by Asia Dispatch, 17 major creeks of the delta have dried out.

4. Punjab contends that Indus River System Authority (IRSA) should be sufficiently authorized to impose sanctions in case of water theft or violation by any stakeholder. The regulatory regime needs to be bolstered.

5. Sindh’s sailaba areas are not likely to be affected much. The dam will take away only part of the flood flow, and flood discharges of 300,000 cusecs will continue to occur.

6. Fish production below Kotri will not be affected; rather, there would be a lot of catch from Kalabagh reservoir.

Reservations of KP and Balochistan

1. Flooding of Peshawar Valley and Nowshera town.
2. Submergence of fertile land; and dislocation of locals exceeding 100,000.
3.Effect on the drainage of Mardan and Swabi plains.
4. Royalty to the KP.
5. Balochistan supports Sindh’s point of view believing that reduced share to Sindh will, in turn, affect its share drawn from Sukkur and Guddu barrages.


A circumspect look at the dynamics of the KBD controversy in a broader context of interprovincial conflict that has a history predating Pakistan’s inception, suggests that the mistrust of smaller provinces has been based on a number of factors. Sindh contends that water apportioned to it is lesser than that it is entitled to under the 1991 Water Accord, and that the Punjab has not abided by the Accord. There is a pressing need to overcome this distrust by ensuring the implementation of the agreements in letter and spirit. Telemetry system should be made accurate to the maximum possible extent. IRSA also needs to be empowered to impose heavy penalties for water theft, and it should also be brought under the administrative control of the Cabinet Division. The rights of the smaller provinces should be respected.

The prodigious water scarcity rings death bells. It calls for comprehensive national water policies and visionary leadership to shore the boat. Above all, it is indispensable that the feeling of being a Pakistani should take precedence the feeling of being Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun or Baloch.

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