Kalabagh dam: Options and solutions

In the last 23 articles, the focus was on the experience of other countries in resolving water issues as well as the difference between facts and fictions surrounding Kalabagh Dam (KBD) Project. It was clarified with the help of official record that it is neither feasible to take out any irrigation outlet from KBD reservoir nor there is scope of any such plan after approval of Chashma Right Bank Lift Canal (CRBC) Project which will draw KPs share of water from Indus river at Chashma 75 kms downstream of proposed KDB reservoir. Sindh was also reassured that it was always part of the KBD Project to cater for the irrigation needs of riverain (sailaba) areas as well as the regulated flows for Indus Delta. Similarly, it was reassured that regarding KBD project, technical experts to be appointed by Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would have to verify that there is no threat of flooding and salination of land in Peshawar valley, before any action is taken.

Having done that, in the next three episodes, an honest attempt would be made to find a long term solution of water problems. This is easier said than done. Chartering such a road map would in the first place, require a decision on the choice of methodology. Should the matter be referred to courts or should it be left to the technocrats. Or may the politicians be relied upon to find a way out.

Water issues in general and disputes between upper and lower riparian regions are relatively easier to manage in a unitary form of government than in a federation; because each federating unit is a distinct political entity with its separate assembly, electorate and vested interests. As Supreme Court is the ultimate arbitrator in a federal constitutional structure, should it be assumed that such intricate and complex issues among provinces are better resolved through a judicial process. Framers of the Indian Constitution who were mindful of the urgent need to resolve existing and the future water disputes among different states, gave powers to the Union Government vide Article 262 to constitute a judicial forum (tribunal) to adjudicate such disputes. This did not work and most of the issues were in fact not settled by Special Tribunals but resolved through political negotiations. Regarding the KBD project, individuals and groups have exercised the option of knocking at the door of the Superior Courts in Pakistan. And despite their desire to make positive contribution, the courts have most appropriately refrained from adjudication of the dispute and instead goaded the federal government to refer the matter to the constitutional forum of Council of Common Interests (CCI). In 2012, Chief Justice of Lahore High Court Mr. Omer Ata Bandial wrote in the judgment, Bona fide steps by the Federal Government are necessary so that fate of this project is not sealed on the basis of presumption and surmises...

Also the experience of other countries reveal that in matters related to apportionment of water, flood mitigation or even developing a framework to manage shortages in drought years, the option of dispute settlement through political negotiations have far better chances of success. In Pakistan our own experience is similar. After the dissolution of One Unit in 1969, a committee headed by Justice Fazal Akbar in October 1970 and later Haleem Commission headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with Chief Justices of all Provincial High Courts as its members was formed in 1977 to decide water apportionment among provinces. These exercises did not resolve the issue, as the members could not give a unanimous report.

In 1991 the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Nawaz Sharif didnt let issue of Water Apportionment Accord be decided by a Committee of Technocrats or through a Judicial Forum. He took the most practical step by constituting a Chief Ministers Committee. It was the best option because civil servants and technocrats are afraid of taking bold decisions as they do not have the mandate to indulge in bargaining on controversial issues of national importance. Negotiated settlements require out of box thinking and spirit of accommodation to reach a consensus. Instead of legal principles and technical issues, the option of political give and take was used that resulted in the Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) in March, 1991. Many years earlier we had signed Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with India. It was an emotive issue related with water security and only Field Marshal Ayub Khan could have the courage and necessary clout with the military to settle the sensitive issue with India. In both cases, WAA and IWT, compromises were made to reach an agreement. And as it often happens, not everyone was happy and satisfied. But such accommodation of each others point of view has long term benefits which are not immediately obvious. Without going into an analysis of merits and demerits, one can safely say that the difficult compromises made in both instances resulted in the positive contribution for regional peace and national unity.

In recent times an effort was made by President General Musharraf. He knew that an attempt aimed at resolution of controversy surrounding KBD may entail a dangerous political fallout. But the ultimate prize was so attractive that military ruler was tempted. Most tangible manifestation of his effort was the formation of two Committees, one Political and the other Technical; both headed by eminent personalities belonging to Sindh Province. The Political Committee was chaired by Mr. Nisar Memon and the Technical Committee on Water Resources was headed by Mr. A.N.G. Abbasi. Both could not develop unanimity. Once again it became obvious that technocrats tend to play extra safe. They cannot afford to be labeled as Traitors to the Cause and are extremely susceptible to political pressure. The members of Technical Committee split into groups and most of them could not resist the temptation of taking refuge in the already expressed and stated positions of their respective Provinces. Chairman of the Political Committee, Mr. Nisar Memon was harassed by opponents of Kalabagh Dam by bringing in a few bus-loads of demonstrators to his house in Karachi. The Committee instead of resolving the matter, recommended its referral to CCI. This was a sound suggestion, under the circumstances.

In Pakistan, political posturing apart, relationship between our federating units is based on rationality. To start with, we have many positives. The provinces of Pakistan have common thread of religion, culture and historical linkages that weave them together. These enabling environment of national polity equip us to develop consensus on national issues. And, we have done it in the past. In 1973, we passed a unanimous Constitution and in 1991 we agreed on Water Apportionment Accord. Periodically we hammer out agreements on awards of National Finance Commission (NFC) and very recently the Federal Government settled the long outstanding issue of Net Hydel Profit with the KP Government.

But despite all positive factors, finding long term solution of water problems that would confront our future generation much more severely, would be the real test of our ability. The challenges are multiple and different. Of these, lack of storage capacity is only one part. And in this context KBD is only a development scheme having certain benefits in terms of storage, flood mitigation and electricity generation. But KBD has somehow assumed a central position. It symbolizes our failure to develop a consensus. Its opponents want it dead and buried but it refuses to die. Like a sphinx it rises from its own ashes to cast a lingering shadow, paralyzing our ability to act and resolve the matters. The elusive consensus on KBD would be a big prize for the nation. Its multidimensional effects would unleash positive energy in our national body politics. Like a catalyst, it would help trigger a chain reaction; enabling us to resolve our water issues. The mere thought of all political leaders jointly laying the foundation stone of the Project is exhilarating. The image fills our hearts with joy. It will further unify the country and enhance the mass appeal of those national political parties who are somehow shrinking into regional outfits.

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