Sanctifying dams

Since so much has already been said or written on the merits of dams, it is appropriate to air the dissenting voices.


By Abdul Sattar

The Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar has done so many good works in the interests of public. His visits to hospitals may have offended detractors but a large number of people appreciated these visits. Many were also prompted to heap praises on the top judge for taking on the owners of cement factories, private schools and medical colleges. Sindh Water Commission, an initiative of the apex court, has also done a great service, compelling many factory owners to hold out an assurance to the commission that they would install industrial waste treatment plants.

But the recent statement of the chief justice reportedly regarding the invoking of article 6 against those opposing dams is really unfortunate. Mega projects all over the world tend to attract intense debate. Nations spend not weeks or years but sometimes decades having deliberation on such issues because the bigger projects, the more people they are likely to affect. It would have been better if the respect apex court had also summoned other people, especially the ones having reservations towards the construction of dam.

Since so much has already been said or written on the merits of dams, it is appropriate to air the dissenting voices. The people in Sindh believe legally the province, being the lower riparian, is a big stake-holder in any construction on the river Indus. They cite a pre-partition agreement and several other pacts which disallowed any construction on the river Indus without the consent of Sindh. Punjab insists that it was before the time of independence but nationalists in the second largest province by population assert then the Pakistan Resolution was also passed before the partition. They cite a number of colonial agreements that Pakistan respect as a state.

Sindh also blames the Punjab for the reduction of river Indus water. Sindhi nationalists claim that the English judge of arbitration court suggested to Pakistani leadership soon after the partition to get a verdict over the issue of water but three leaders from the West Punjab went to the East Punjab, holding clandestine talks with the government, which have not been made public even today, and said India would not stop Pakistan’s water. But New Delhi did so in 1948. Then in early 1950, the only Sindhi engineer into water body opposed any further construction on river Indus. The body was reconstituted with the all members from the Punjab, deciding to construct Mangla and Tarbela and later giving away the water of three rivers to India, which not only affected the Punjab but Sindh as well.

Sindh believes because of the constructions of dams and canals, the share of southern province has been drastically reduced, badly affecting the delta and the life of the people living along the river. The first question should be asked whether there is enough water in the system. The Punjab claims millions of acre feet water waste because of the absence of storage facility. This claims leads to another question: if there is enough water in the system then why does enough water not release downstream Kotri? Why did the Punjab initially oppose the allocation of 10 MAF for downstream Kotri and delta?

Experts believe at least 25 to 35 MAF must be released into the soil to counter soil erosion. Fresh water is also needed for mangroves that are the necessary of marine life. It not only prevents natural catastrophe like storms and cyclones but also help to cause rain. Most of the fishing of any country is carried out in continental shelf and this is full of fresh water. Owing to the lack of fresh water, the mangroves that used to be spread over 600,000 hactres has been reduced to 70,000 hactres. Thousands of acres land in Badin, Thatta and Sajawal is facing sea intrusion, which is not only displacing people, depriving them of their livelihood but also creating the scarcity of fresh water that used to be found underground.

The phenomenon of dams should not be viewed in the context of Sindh Punjab water dispute. It should rather be studied in the frame of capitalistic model of development. It is said to be 60-billion-dollar industry with most of the companies belonging to the West. In order to secure business, they want to impose dams on third world countries, leaving them in the vicious circle of debt. Many countries are decommissioning large dams because they create environmental disasters, displace millions of people and are extremely costly. For instance, only in India more than 25 million people were affected because of the construction of dams. Most of these people are from the bottom layer of social stratification with no one to speak for these voiceless people.

Before the movement against dam on Narmada river in India, environment and social cost of dams would not be included in the cost of these mega projects. In India dams have irrigated as much land as they destroyed through floods and water logging. Experts believe since the dams are time consuming projects and their construction could take eight to ten years, the costs of these mega projects are different at initial stage but any dam, having an estimated cost of 10 billion dollar, could end up extracting 14 to 20 billion dollars.

Prime Minister Pakistan has begun austerity drive. Many questions as to why he does not extend it to irrigation where we lose 20 to 35 MAF because of the canal lines that have been in shambles. The flooding way of irrigating is also another burden. If we can introduce sustainable ways of irrigation and improve the lining, the country could save around 35 MAF water, which two times more what Basha and Kalabagh dams can store. For energy production we should go for alternative ways. If Scotland and Germany with little sun light could switch over solar, why can we not with the plenty of sun light do the same? We also have the potential of wind energy, why should we not direct our potentialities towards these resources.

It is important that we have a serious discussion before undertaking such a huge project which is not likely to affect just the local people but millions others in Sindh province. Sanctifying dams is not helpful. It is just a project that should not be turned into a matter of life and death. It is hoped that all stake-holders would be given a patient hearing before the government makes any final decision on it.