Now Or Never

Kalabagh dam

Recently, the Tarbela and Mangla dams reached their dead levels, with the provision of only 30 days of water to meet the country’s requirements. Coupled with the ongoing water crisis, these circumstances have led several opinion makers to seek a coherent solution, as it could be a matter of a few years before the nation runs dry. Storage reservoirs, or dams as they are referred to, seem to be the only way out of the situation. Many proposals have been given. However there is one which I feel tends to stand out, albeit it has been subjected to significant controversy; the Kalabagh dam. The mere fact that it is the maiden dam in the history of Pakistan to have been in consideration for the longest time has compelled me to shed light on it specifically.

Planned to be situated in Mianwali, Punjab, it wasn’t until 1953, that Kalabagh was identified as a potential dam site. However, it was during the early 1980’s, that its construction was taken into consideration, and the project was expected to complete as early as 1993. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding its feasibility has induced unrest amongst two of the four provinces of the country; Punjab being the odd one out (Balochistan, on the other hand, has maintained its neutrality on the matter) As a result, the dam was never made, and still hasn’t been.

In order to address the issue, it would be prudent to assess the extent to which the said dam would be able to provide for the needs of the populace of Pakistan. According to a recent report published in April this year, the amount of electricity which Kalabagh has the capacity of generating is estimated to be equivalent to 20 million barrels of oil. If it were to undergo combined operation with Tarbela, an additional 336 KWH would be generated at Tarbela. Ultimately, the plight of load-shedding, the consequences of which millions are made to bear on a daily basis, will be reduced.

The cost of hydel electricity in Pakistan is known to be Rs. 2.5 per unit, whereas the cost of thermal electricity stands at Rs.16 per unit. The dependence on thermal electricity in the country is far greater, causing a burden on the import bill of the country. Kalabagh, having the capacity to produce 11.4 billion units of hydel electricity on a yearly basis, would ease the strain on Pakistan’s economy as well as stabilize the power tariff.

The Kalabagh dam will serve as a beacon of hope for the agriculture sector, augmenting as much as 6.1 MAF worth of supplies annually. Moreover, it will serve as a cheaper alternative to pumping water for irrigation (the latter requiring Rs.10000 per acre, while providing water through canal system in the case of Kalabagh would cost only Rs.800 per acre aprox.).

The International Water Accord of 1991 aims to resolve disputes between the provinces with regards to the distribution of water and the River Indus Flows, by allocating a fixed share of water to each province. However, provinces such as Sindh have not been receiving their due share, with Sindh not even receiving one-third of what has been proposed, since 1992. The Kalabagh dam would ensure the implementation of the accord by storing water during the flood seasons and releasing it during the dry water periods to the provinces as per the accord. In doing so, inter-provincial disputes, particularly during the dry water seasons when water demands increase would be minimized to a profound extent.

Come Kalabagh, the water crisis that has plagued the nation for far too long may well begin to subside. Additionally, the flood control benefits brought forth by Kalabagh are estimated to be worth $5 billion per annum.

In spite of all that it has to offer, the project has been subjected to considerable opposition. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh parties have passed statements regarding the matter, the salient of which are worth looking into.

The Sindh assembly has often raised the fear of Kalabagh creating a desert-like situation in Sindh.

In order to address this concern, let us take a trip down memory lane. Prior to the construction of the  Mangla dam, i.e right before 1967, the canal withdrawals of Sindh were recorded to be 35.1 MAF. The figure rose by 24 percent after 1976, which is when both Mangla and Tarbela were in existence. Not to mention, rabi crop diversions increased from 10.7 MAF to 15.6 MAF. With Kalabagh in the picture, the withdrawals are expected to increase further by 2.25 MAF. The reason for this is fairly simple: the purpose of a dam is, after all, to store, and subsequently expel the stored water to wherever is necessary, not consume it. Not only do these figures imply that Sindh will benefit from Kalabagh, but they testify to the fact that the ‘apprehension’ is contrary to the fundamental principle of a storage reservoir as well.

The Awaami National Party representing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the other hand, mentioned in their case, the possibility of the inundation of the Nowshera district after Kalabagh. It may be understandable to raise such a concern whilst bearing in mind, the devastating floods in the year 1929, which targeted the Nowshera region itself. However, it is necessary to sift fact from fiction as well.

Firstly, the lowest elevation point in Nowshera is 935 feet (above sea level). Secondly, the highest elevation point of Kalabagh is planned to be 915 feet; that too only over a period of 4 weeks, after which the amount will drop owing to the expulsion of water from the dam. The implication being, that the peak water level at K.B.D would be 20 feet short of the lowest point in Nowshera region, and the chances of flooding would be next to nothing. ( In the rare event of a ‘super flood’ such as of that of 1929 reoccurring, which may result in nowshera being affected, there is always the option of building the Munda dam on River Swat, which would eliminate that possibility.)

In addition, according to the ANP case, the Mardan, Swabi and Pabbi areas would be at risk of inundation. This, the ANP mention, would consequently cause waterlogging and salinity, rendering land uncultivable. The lowest ground levels at each of these areas are 970, 960 and 1000 feet above sea level respectively, reasonably higher than the highest elevation point of Kalabagh. The areas would remain completely unaffected.

Even though a consensus amongst the provinces has not yet been sought, the Kalabagh proposal is still as viable as it was 3 decades ago. It can be said with certainty, that Kalabagh can be deemed akin to any ordinary dam. The ‘claims’ of the opposing parties, which appear to be devoid of even the slightest degree of understanding, have created a situation which, unfortunately, has not reached a coherent conclusion.  What is amusing is, that each province appears to be a beneficiary in some way or the other. Yet, it seems, that over the years the proposal has been blatantly put aside as if its presence doesn’t really affect anyone.

What needs to be understood is, that it is time that Kalabagh be made inevitable. There are numerous solutions which would aid in ending the controversy, ranging from spreading awareness via NGO’s about the consequences of delaying water reform, to comprehensive consensus building efforts by the civil society, government etc. Kalabagh should not be considered dead and buried as the country moves ahead to build the Diamer Bhasha and Mohmand Dams. Those efforts ought to be made, but Kalabagh will continue to remind us of the tremendous potential that is yet to be realized by Pakistan.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Lahore Times.

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