Pakistan is projected to become the world’s fifth-largest country by 2030, with a population somewhere between 230 and 260 million people. This projected spurt in population is alarming Islamabad policymakers, if for no other reason than the additional water requirement this will mean. Already the lowest in Southasia, over the next two decades Pakistan’s per capita availability of water is expected to drop by more than 37 percent – from 1100 to 700 cubic metres per person per year.
In particular, this demand would put significant stress on the country’s massive, complex Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS). Begun in 1859, the IBIS is currently considered the world’s largest water-diversion scheme, boasting nearly 60,000 kilometres of canals and distributaries, punctuated by two large dams. The looming step-up in demand for water, coupled with poor water governance, could thus lead Pakistan from its current state of water stress to being an outright water-scarce country before long.
Much of this issue hinges on Pakistan’s poor ability to store water. The country’s current water-storage capacity is barely 12 million acre-feet (an acre-foot refers to the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land to a depth of a foot, a bit more than 1230 cubic metres). This figure represents only 10 percent of the country’s annual river flow; the world’s average for storage capacity, on the other hand, is 40 percent of a country’s annual flow. The two large dams in the Indus Basin Irrigation System, the Mangla and Tarbela, originally offered a cumulative storage capacity of 17.5 million acre-feet. But this figure has been reduced by almost a third due to silting over the past half-century, and will go down further in the near future. Indeed, it is this ‘lost’ water – continuously coursing through Pakistan and on into the Arabian Sea – that has become the primary focus of national and international planners alike. Unlike elsewhere in the region, Pakistan’s dam-building plans are not focused on energy production, but rather on catching some of that water before it disappears.
In recognition of the developing crisis, in 2001 the government, with the support of international donors, developed a plan dubbed Water Vision 2025, a blend of various strategies that add up to a roadmap for the country’s water-sector development. Water Vision 2025 identified three potential large-dam sites on the Indus – the Kalabagh, Bhasha and Akhori dams (see table). But this strategy was formulated without considering the fact that the IBIS has already wreaked havoc on the country’s environment. Water diversions have, for instance, turned large tracts of Sindh into desert. The US-based International Rivers Network has dubbed the IBIS “a prominent example of how corruption pervades economic development and distorts the priorities of infrastructure investment.”
Beyond the concerns of local populations, bitter controversy between Pakistan’s four provinces has also beset each of these three plans. The construction of the Kalabagh Dam in particular has been opposed ever since its official finalisation, in 1984: Sindh, Balochistan and NWFP do not trust Punjab, worrying that their water and environment will be sapped for the benefit of the powerful province in the east. By adding the Kalabagh project to the Water Vision 2025 scheme, planners once again provoked serious unrest in these three provinces, forcing the project to be again temporarily shelved.
Not that this will be the end of Kalabagh, which has garnered supporters in the highest of places, particularly Pervez Musharraf. Not only has the general been keen on seeing the project through since he came to power in 1999, but in 2005 he strongly reiterated that he would see the Kalabagh built. On the recent occasion of Pakistan’s 60th Independence Day, General Musharraf publicly excoriated his own power ministry for having made “zero progress” on the country’s dam-construction plans. A week later, the general launched a broad-based new programme dubbed Vision 2030, which again included a priority on constructing large reservoirs.
Indeed, despite the grand ‘visionary’ rhetoric, planning on Bhasha and Akhori has similarly slowed down dramatically. Work on Bhasha was started by General Musharraf in April 2006, already two years behind schedule; now, engineering schematics will not be ready until 2008. The design was delayed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which forced designers to head back to the drawing board, and eventually increased the project cost by around 31 percent, to USD 8.5 billion. (Nearly all of this money is coming from either multilateral lenders – the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank – or the Saudi government.) Meanwhile, the situation surrounding Akhori, too, is mired in a mix of provincial controversy and management failure; it is already four years behind schedule, and will not be completed until 2020, at a cost of USD 4.4 billion.
The worry about these delays is not necessarily economic, or even the fact that Pakistanis will have to wait for a while longer before nipping in the bud their looming water crunch. The worry here is ideological, or, more to the point, what can be referred to as the short-sightedness of engineering dogma: the most powerful decision-makers in Pakistan have for two decades been attempting to get these mega-dams built, and, as General Musharraf pointed out, have continued to fail. The question is, why have they not entertained other options?
The answer is simple, though a bit bitter. Since Independence, it has been the norm for Pakistani officials to make decisions in isolation. Involving stakeholders is a laborious and, in the eyes of Islamabad, unnecessary option. The view that these three large projects could indeed solve some of Pakistan’s most pressing water problems, coupled with the fact that multilateral funders, particularly the World Bank, are dramatically more keen on building large-scale projects, has evidently been successful in turning the tide away from what are deemed more peripheral issues.
In fact, Islamabad has pushed forward one additional option, but its nearly immediate failure only reinforces the danger of relying only on massive, centralised systems. In 2002, in what was seen as an attempt to promote ‘harmony’ among Pakistan’s four provinces as equitable water-distribution became an increasingly fractious issue, General Musharraf’s cabinet approved a plan to establish a state-of-the-art telemetry system for the whole of the Indus Basin Irrigation System. This subsequently set up a vast network of sensors and automated valves, all linked by satellite, in an attempt to assure that the IBIS would be operating at peak, and in a most equitable, fashion. While the point was ostensibly to get the water where it was needed, and away from where it was not, throughout the whole of Pakistan, the motivation was also more basic: water ‘theft’ was purportedly reducing Pakistan’s water availability by up to 15 percent at any given time. Taking the human hand away from IBIS operation, it was assumed, would do much to mollify both of these concerns.
Unfortunately, the provincial suspicion that gave rise to the telemetry system in the first place was also what brought it down. The PKR 320 million project began operating in March 2004. Four months later, the whole system was shelved, ostensibly because of problems with ‘standards’, but in reality because of suspicions between the provinces themselves, and between the provinces and the Central government. The tussle that has kept the telemetry system shut off to this day continues to dog construction on the Kalabagh, Bhasha and Akhori dams.
No big solutions
The simple conclusion is that big dams – controversial from a number of perspectives, both warranted and not – cannot be relied upon as the only answer to Pakistan’s water woes. While these large projects may eventually be able to play a significant role in the country, what are needed now are investments to maximise the existing system’s capacity and reduce its inequalities across categories of people and between Pakistan’s provinces. In addition, investments need to be made to improve groundwater recharge, to construct economically viable smaller dams that are less threatening politically and environmentally, and to foster a significant system of rainwater harvesting. None of these are taken into account by Water Vision 2025 in any way.
Though it was anticipated that the Kalabagh, Bhasha and Akhori dams would also be able to generate a significant amount of electricity, there are other ways to mitigate this issue. If power generation were the focus, smaller scale run-of-the-river projects could be completed on much quicker timeframes and for significantly less money, and without raising the hackles of downstream promises, because they would not be ‘taking away’ any of the water. For instance, small-scale hydro projects in Azad Kashmir alone have the potential to produce around 8000 megawatts of power.
But Water Vision 2025 is focused significantly less on power-generation than on storing water, for irrigation mainly, but also for drinking. In the meantime, estimating the country’s yearly ‘loss’ of water flow has become something of a hobby for many in Pakistan. The estimates vary from eight to 92 million acre-feet per year having been lost over the past three decades. But by falling into the trap of focusing almost exclusively on this ‘escaping’ water, the 2025 strategy has failed to take into account the need to recharge the country’s rapidly depleting groundwater, which by itself contributes (unsustainably, at that) 41.6 million acre-feet of water for irrigation every year. This problem has been particularly exacerbated by the large-scale exploitation of the aquifers that lie beneath Pakistan’s urban areas, leading to rapidly falling water tables. For instance, groundwater below Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which provides nearly half of the drinking water for these cities, is currently plummeting by around five feet per year.
There has long been an understanding of how to deal with this issue. Back in 1961, two small dams (meaning structures that offer storage capacities of less than 500,000 acre-feet) were proposed in the vicinity of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, on the Soan and Ling rivers, with an eye towards recharging the aquifers beneath these areas. These were never built. But constructing these particular dams, referred to as Cherah and Dadhocha, could save at least 1.6 million acre-feet of water per year, in addition to providing all the drinking water that the two cities would need, at very low cost. Indeed, one of the greatest advantages of constructing small, upstream dams around towns is the minimal cost of water they would make available.
To date, however, more-modest dam projects have largely failed to catch the attention of policymakers and planners in Pakistan. The problem again becomes the complicated divide between the provincial governments and Islamabad. Perhaps the most devastating lacuna in Pakistan’s water strategy is that the construction of such smaller dams is currently the responsibility of the former. Indeed, this is one of the more detrimental conundrums facing development in Pakistan today: while the provincial governments have been vested with significantly more autonomy than similar units elsewhere in Southasia, the purse strings are still controlled almost entirely by Islamabad. This sets up a debilitating disconnect, particularly in the case of small-scale development, as with these small dams.
While Cherah and Dadhocha were discussed (again) in 2003, the Punjab government decided that it was simply unable to start construction due to shortage of funds. Similarly, construction at 15 other small-dam sites throughout Pakistan has not been able to commence due to lack of money coming from Islamabad. In recent years, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has begun to look seriously at small-dam construction, and to date 12 new small dams have been built with ADB money. This has taken place only in Punjab, however, which has inevitably rankled other provincial governments. Now again the ADB has recently begun to show interest in constructing more small dams – but again, only in Punjab.
For its part, NWFP has experienced unique success in the construction of small dams. Over the past 80 years, 14 small dams have been constructed in the province, which have succeeded in increasing agricultural productivity and raising local incomes. The Aza Khail Dam, near Peshawar, for instance, not only helped to raise falling water tables, but even to remove sources of groundwater contamination, by preventing the build-up of arsenic and brackish water. But again, 25 additional small-dam sites in NWFP are awaiting decisions for the issuance of funds from Islamabad, further highlighting the confused jurisdiction towards small dams in Pakistan today.
Despite the current wasteful, top-down system of providing water through massive, centralised projects, crucial options do remain available to thwart Pakistan’s ominous water crisis: the construction of small dams, coupled with a vast step-up in the usage of rainwater harvesting. The high-risk Water Vision 2025 strategy needs immediate revision if it is to have any chance of meeting the country’s water demands, now and in the foreseeable future. At the moment, this water strategy has only triggered conflict, reinforced the deadlock in the water sector, and wasted valuable time.
~Arshad H Abbasi is an independent consultant on water governance, renewable energy and environment based in Islamabad