A real dam in Pakistan
Dams are no stuff of fantasia. Between the charged debates for and against high dams (Himal, March 1998), they continue to be built and are sought to be built. A dam project, it seems, never can be wished or protested away; it may be discarded for months, even decades, until someone comes along and gives it the kiss of life. The arguments for such a revival form the building blocks of what is said to be the irrefutable pro-dam logic: quenching the water needs of present and future population, better irrigation facilities, more power, etcetera.
These arguments have now come in handy to the Pakistan government and some technocrats in justifying the proposed construction of the Kalabagh Dam on the Indus River, a project on the back burner since the 1960s. Suddenly this section, with some able support from the print media, is pushing the cause of Kalabagh and more dams as the saviours of a "water-starved" country, its agriculture and power. Suddenly, institution heads like Chaudhry Rashid Khan of Institution of Engineers Pakistan (IEP), have been hit by the realisation that: "We cannot afford to live without the Kalabagh Dam now. It must be built as early as possible." Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, too, is convinced the dam is inevitable for his country.
Apparently buried now are the controversies that led to the shelving of the initial proposal for the dam three decades ago. Then, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan provinces were not too keen about their water resources being used for the benefit of the lands of Punjab. More importantly, the NWFP was concerned that the project would inundate some of its own areas. Now, Pakistan Muslim League legislators in the NWFP assembly are confident of pushing through a resolution paving the way for the construction of the dam, the completion of which is expected to take just under a decade. Here it is significant that the Kalabagh Dam has just been re-christened "Pakistan Dam", perhaps in a bid to highlight that political consensus has been reached.
Political rhetoric may have us believe that the Kalabagh dam is the only way to overcome Pakistans water woes, but not the logic of sound economics, according to Syed Ayub Qutb, a prominent Pakistani agriculture economist. He believes that the dam would be one colossal wasteful exercise, a case of 360 billion rupees hoping to do what a mere 30 billion could easily achieve.
According to Qutb, the most optimistic estimates about the Kalabagh dam suggest that it would be able to store only six MAF (Million Acre Feet) of water in the summer (for use on the winter crops). The same volume, he says, can also be saved, and at 12 times less expense, if the country invests in the lining of its 100,000 water courses, and distributaries, levelling of land, and so on. The cost of saving one MAF by these methods would be around PKR 5 billion, making it 30 billion rupees for six MAF.
Undaunted by such heresy, the proponents of Kalabagh claim that all the spadework for the dam is complete. Which is certainly true, but true three decades ago. The World Bank says the feasibility reports are outdated, and would have to be redone, at a much higher cost. Meanwhile, more feasibility studies will have to be carried out now, now that legislators and government technocrats are convinced about the need for two other large dams on the Indus -Bhasha and Dosu.
Stuff of dangerous realism is what big dams are.