A Dam At Skardu
20 February 2005
Karachi: Another big dam on the Indus is more than a matter of technical feasibility; thanks to improper handling, it has become a political issue. As reported in this newspaper on Saturday, the Senate's technical committee has come to the conclusion that neither Kalabagh nor Bhasha is a proper site for a dam, and that it is a dam near Skardu that is more practical and desirable. It observed that the Skardu dam will be able to store the flood water that becomes available once in a decade and that this water can be used to irrigate large parts of the country, including those downstream. It will have a storage capacity of 35 million acres feet (maf) as against the Kalabagh and Bhasha dams' 6.1 maf and 7.3 maf respectively. While no one doubts the committee's technical competence, the point to note is that the committee itself reported a lack of consensus among its members. There was no agreement, it said, on such basic issues as the filling criteria, the operation of the link canals, the total availability of water and its distribution among the provinces. The committee correctly suggested that these issues should be sorted out by the Council of Common Interest (CCI). Unfortunately, the CCI's record as a trouble-shooter is not very encouraging. That the country needs another big dam on the Indus is obvious. More land must be brought under cultivation, and more power must be generated to meet the future needs of a population and economy that are growing. The Tarbela dam has more than done its job. It is fast silting and has lost 30 per cent of its storage capacity for that reason. Desilting the reservoir could be a solution, but that would cost a huge fortune. That leaves the nation with no choice but to build another multi-purpose dam. However, can this be done without putting further strains on inter- provincial relations? The small provinces have serious reservations about another dam. Sindh especially feels that another dam upstream will not only deprive it of its share of irrigation water; it will also have serious ecological consequences for the province. Already, sea water has moved far inwards along the coast. This has adversely affected marine life in the mangroves, turned fertile agricultural land saline and hurt the coastal communities which depend on fisheries. Sections of the farming community in Sindh believe another major dam will accentuate these problems. Large sections of people in the NWFP, too, have serious reservations about another big dam. The issue needs to be settled through a consensus. Those who stand for the Kalabagh dam need to have Sindh's and NWFP's fears removed. This can be done by presenting the critics of the project with facts, statistics and hydrological data. Conversely, those opposing another dam should come forward with technical facts and solid data to buttress their point of view. They should know that a politicization of the issue will not serve their cause. While opposition to the dam comes from many well-meaning people, there is no dearth of trouble-makers who would like to make political capital out of the controversy. This must be resisted. The primary responsibility is that of the federal government. It must try to convince the critics of the dam of the desirability of the project and confront them with technical data to convince them that a new dam will not hurt the interest of the small provinces. Any attempt to adopt a uni lateralist approach on the dam issue could damage national unity and bolster centrifugal forces.