Kalabagh dam: Fact and fiction (Part 1)

World over water storage and irrigation projects are no strangers to controversies - but difference of opinion surrounding Kalabagh Dam (KBD) Project has some unique aspects. This project, practically in a comatose state for the last quarter century, has ironically become a living symbol of our inter-provincial disunity. The lingering debate continues to evoke base emotions and generate acidic argumentation largely along ethnic and inter provincial lines. The unanimous resolutions passed against this development scheme by Provincial Assemblies of Sindh, KP and Baluchistan, have arrayed three smaller Provinces against Punjab and caused strains in the Federation. Now, with reference to federal cohesion, it is mentioned as a symbol to convey the impossibility of developing a consensus. 

In this whirlpool of arguments containing a toxic mix of appeal to parochial sentiments and political posturing, why then a serving Chairman of WAPDA may willingly wade through the troubled waters. 

One of the reasons is that I came across such information which needs to be brought on record. More than a year ago I expressed my desire to write a series of articles in my personal capacity to honourable Minister for Water and Power, Khawaja Muhammad Asif. He categorically told me that no storage dam including KBD would be constructed without a unanimous approval of the Council of Common Interest (CCI). However, he did not find anything wrong with placing the correct facts before the public. 

Those who are concerned with water issues are influenced by the conflicting viewpoints propagated over a period of time. The following example would illustrate the situation. 

While going through a book “Kalabagh Dam: The Sindh case” written by a respectable intellectual, Mr. Abrar Kazi, I came across a passage wherein it has been mentioned: 

“However the biggest threat felt by Sindh comes from the proposed Kalabagh dam. The KBD will be situated near the Northern boundary of the Punjab Province. Flowing West to East, a 15000 cusecs canal off taking from the left bank of Kalabagh dam is proposed to drain 6 MAF water each year from the dam into the Jhelum, upstream of Rasul barrage”. 

I took the liberty of addressing him a letter and informed him of the correct picture. His reply revealed the confusion about the technical details of the Project. 

Another motivating factor was our continuous inaction over the last twenty five years. We appear to have taken a willful refuge behind lack of an elusive inter provincial consensus. Unfortunately there is no move or a political initiative on the horizon to search for an agreement and the problems of floods and sea water intrusion in Indus delta are continuing. 

Also in 2012, the then honourable Chief Justice of Lahore High Court, Mr. Justice Umar Ata Bandial, gave directions which is a motivating factor behind the current effort. The honourable Chief Justice wrote, “Bona fide steps by the Federal Government are necessary so that the fate of this project is not sealed on the basis of presumptions and surmises.” 

Most importantly all provinces have agreed on the construction of Diamer Basha Dam. Why agreement on the different site for a dam on the same river? 

But before I write further, let me explain why I have chosen the option to involve general public through the media. It was a difficult decision because it ran counter to conventional wisdom. I am still convinced that for developing a consensus on any contentious issue, closed door diplomacy is a preferred option. Interestingly, while going through the old record of correspondence relating to Kalabagh Dam, I came across a letter from Dr. Mehboob-ul-Haq, who in 1986 as Minister for Planning wrote to his Cabinet colleague, Minister for Water and Power. His pertinent remarks were “Unfortunately the Kalabagh Dam Project is mired in political controversies at the moment and any public debate on this issue is counter productive…” He further wrote; “However, it is all the more important that some quiet analysis should be undertaken…” In the end he suggested; “I would therefore, suggest that we get together at your convenience for a quiet assessment of our future options regarding the Kalabagh Dam Project.” 

Thirty years on, Kalabagh Dam Project is mired even deeper in political controversies. Attitudes have hardened. The current situation is best illustrated by an account of my recent interaction with a knowledgeable personality from interior Sindh. In response to my query regarding the difference between Kalabagh Dam Project which is opposed and Diamer Basha Dam on which all provinces have agreed; he kept quiet. I did not give up. “Sir both projects are on River Indus, both would store water and both would generate electricity. KP may have a problem with the location at Kalabagh but what are the objections of Sindh with location.” He dismissed the chance of any further discussion by saying “Sir ye Project kala hai, kala hai, kala hai, yeh kabhi sufayd nahin ho sakta.” (This project is black, black and black, this can never turn white). 

After receiving this shut up call I got convinced that WAPDA’s quiet efforts to engage all stakeholders before the government brings this issue in CCI, may not break the ice. Only media can play an effective role to bring the real facts in the domain of public knowledge. I am, however, conscious that any discussion on a contentious issue is prone to degenerate into a useless debate. 

The next few articles would exclusively recount international experience of dealing with intricate issues relating to resolution of similar disagreements. After all Indus Basin is not the only one, which is shared by more than one country and different regions. We need to educate ourselves about how others have successfully resolved their differences. 

In Pakistan we still need to resolve issues pertaining to sharing of shortages in drought years. We do not have an agreed SOP on filling and release of water from our existing storages. We still need to devise an effective programme to save Indus delta and check sea water intrusion through controlled release of water. Also we have no agreement to fund lining of canals and replacing the existing irrigation structure. 

I earnestly hope and pray that this humble effort, which is not the official position of Federal Government, would be viewed by all with an open mind and evaluated in the same spirit of sincerity and understanding in which it is written. 

(The writer can be approached at chairman@wapda.gov.pk) 

Zafar Mahmood, Chairman WAPDA,  

May 29.