Kalabagh Dam: Sifting Fact from Fiction

Sailaba (riverain) lands in Sindh would not be irrigated after Kalabagh Dam (KBD) is built, although it has justified claim of water on the basis of history spread over thousands of years.

The sailaba area is irrigated by floods in Indus. Water in the high flow season, lasting from May/June to September/October, overflows the banks and not only lends moisture and alluvial soil but also charges the aquifer of the riverain areas. Would building a dam at Kalabagh reduce the facility of free irrigation? The answer is yes, it can. If all the excess flows during the season are stored through a dam, it can deny flood irrigation to the riverain. Therefore, the capacity of dam and timing of storage are a moot point. The lower riparians are always apprehensive this is natural. However, if there is no such suspicion attached with a Dam at Diamer Basha, how and why a dam at Kalabagh would cause such suspicion? The fact is, that dams do not necessarily reduce the flow for lower riparian areas. It is the management of the storage facility that determines this. To understand the issue, one may analyse the river flow in the period when there was no dam on Indus to store water. The 90 MAF flow of River Indus at the entry point of the Province of Sindh was gradually reduced to around 50 MAF even before independence. This happened without construction of any Dam or storage facility on Indus River or on any of its tributaries, but due to the development of irrigation network on Indus and its tributaries by the British.

It is true that most people consider flood irrigation to be an uneconomical use of precious water. But in my honest opinion, if we have to search for a consensus, the comparative benefits of water allocation purely on most beneficial economic use would not be appropriate. Rather, any sincere attempt must start with understanding the Indus Basin as viewed by the people of the lower riparian areas of Indus River. Indus Valley Civilization is centred on River Indus. This romantic attachment built over 4,000 years is rooted in the role of the river in providing sustenance and support to economic life. The riverain area is the major beneficiary of the unhindered flow of water in Indus. It is therefore natural that the farmers and landlords of this tract are always apprehensive of any storage or irrigation project in upstream area.

To understand this complex issue, one may make a distinction between the use of river water in flood irrigation and man-made canal irrigation. For centuries, the flood water in the high flow season has been irrigating the vast and wide Indus river bed land, also known as Kaccha area. It is mostly owned by the Government and had natural growth of forests which have been cut illegally. In order to encourage people to grow trees, tracts up to 50 acres are leased to farmers with the condition to grow trees in a certain percentage of the given land. Most of this land is reported to be in the control of influential land owners and politicians who are not particularly interested in forestry. The land is watered through annual flooding and tube well irrigation. For a water economist who has its most economical use in mind, flood irrigation may be considered sheer wastage but the flood is considered welcome in this tract and happily tolerated. It may also be accepted with grace that because of peculiar condition which are favourable for agriculture, this area is highly productive. In the following table, the high agricultural productivity of the land known as Kaccha Area is mentioned to prove the point:

Flood irrigation is free irrigation at two levels. Firstly, it is not accounted in the Inter-Provincial allocation of water, therefore in Sindh any water-related scheme to keep the river within its bank would be viewed with extreme concern because it would be seen as a measure designed to deprive the province from that extra supply of water in the high flow season. Also, this extra bounty is over and above what has been sanctioned in Water Apportionment Accord. This is one of the most important factors which is not as prominently mentioned and accounted for in the debate on the issue of building upstream storage dams. The beneficiaries of the flood irrigation who get their aquifer recharged and not required to pay water charges to the Government are naturally apprehensive about the possible restrictions on the free flow through new storages. These are the reasons for an adverse view of Kalabagh Dam. Some experts believe that Kaccha irrigation is at the heart of opposition to Kalabagh Dam.

The province of Sindh raised its concern regarding irrigation of Sailaba area in November 1984 when the then Cabinet considered a presentation by Chairman WAPDA on KBD. According to the minutes of the Cabinet meeting, “The Governor of Sindh expressed an apprehension that the proposed dam and the ancillary irrigation facilities created may seriously affect the water supply situation in Sindh.” From these minutes, one may wrongly gather the impression that water flows after construction of KBD project would not cater for the historical need of the Sailaba area. Was that the case? The answer is no.

WAPDA, while designing KBD was attuned to the requirement of water for the riverain area and was not oblivious to the needs of farmers who cultivate this land. The record shows that WAPDA was, from the beginning informed of this issue. The need for irrigating the riverain area was not only acknowledged but also factored in the storage arrangement of water in Kalabagh Dam. KBD Consultants carried out a detailed study on this issue and submitted their findings in June 1988, which were shared with the Government of Sindh. The findings mentioned that complete inundation of the culturable riverain (Kaccha) area would effectively be achieved if flood peaks of about 300,000 cusecs occur. However, the Government of Sindh didn’t agree and rejected the findings given in the “Working Paper on probable impact on Sailaba cultivations in Sindh and Sea Water Intrusion into the Indus Estuary.”

Mr. Idris Rajput, the famous expert and columnist who was at that time Additional Secretary Irrigation, Government of Sindh wrote a long letter to General Manager, WAPDA on 9 February, 1988 comprising 5 pages and opined that the assessment of the need of water to irrigate the riverain area was on the low side. The Government of Sindh asked to carry out a fresh study – a demand which was also included in its 9 points submitted to the Committee formed on the directions of ECNEC while considering PC-II of KBD Project in May 1989. A fresh estimation of the requirement of water was not done, as the project was practically shelved in 1990.

It is clear that in a future agreement on building this project, the needs of the riverain area would have to be accounted for. Fortunately, better technology is now available since the last estimation of the irrigation needs of Sailaba area were worked out by the KBD Consultants. The satellite imagery can be gainfully employed for a better and current estimate of the total water requirements of the riverain area in the high flow season.

This perception that there would be no water left for sailaba irrigation once KBD is built is not correct. The fact is that the needs of the riverain area were not ignored when KBD project was under process. The Government of Sindh was engaged with the calculations of the requirements of water for this tract at that time. Also, it may be mentioned that if Diamer Basha Dam would not reduce the flows then how can a storage dam at Kalabagh cause such reduction? It would be the timing of filling Kalabagh Reservoir and subsequent distribution which may affect the downstream flow in the flood season. In any future arrangement designed to develop a consensus on water storage and distribution, a regulated and mutually agreed flow of water for satisfying the optimum irrigation needs of the riverain area and delta downstream of Kotri barrage would have to be factored in.

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