Is the Diamer-Bhasha dam in Pakistan a boondoggle?

The Pakistan government claims that the Diamer-Bhasha dam project will generate 4,500 megawatts of electricity which will be much cheaper in cost. But the reality is that the world has much better, environmental-friendly, cheaper, and sustainable solutions to generate electricity, writes Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli  for South Asia Monitor

Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli Jul 25, 2020
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The world is busy in combating the pandemic of the century, COVID-19, but in Pakistan the Imran Khan-led federal government thinks this is the right time to revive the Diamer-Bhasha dam project which has been in cold storage for the last 40 years. Almost every government of the world is trying to save its populace from the worst effects of the coronavirus, but not so in Pakistan. Pakistan's government, after lifting the national lockdown prematurely, is now planning to disturb the peace and social fabric of the region by fanning the flames through initializing such a boondoggle.

On May 11, PM Imran Khan chaired a meeting on the National Water Security Strategy and construction of dams in which it was decided that construction work on the Diamer-Bhasha dam should start. A day later, the Pakistani government signed a Rs. 442 billion contract with a joint venture of China Power and Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a commercial arm of the Pakistan armed forces, for the construction of the dam. The eight million acre-feet (MAF) reservoir, 272-metre in height, will be the tallest roller compact concrete (RCC) dam in the world. The work on the dam, which is on the River Indus between Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer district in Gilgit Baltistan, which borders China, has begun.

Authorities made tall claims about the benefits of the dam. However, the dam project has not only ravaged the natural resources of the region but has also left a large number of people homeless and poverty-stricken. 

Let's take a detailed look at the claims the Pakistan government has made and the ground realities.

Income-generating opportunities and development of industries:  It is claimed that the construction of this dam will produce around 16,500 jobs and utilize a large quantity of cement and steel. This is a one-sided assumption. Who doesn't know that whenever a project kicks off it surely creates some income-generating opportunities, but it doesn't mean that we should forget all the negative aspects of that project? I think the government and its allies are not seeing things clearly because they don’t want to see the real picture – of people becoming unemployed, homeless/displaced, and further deprived of basic facilities owing to the construction of the dam. What about those thousands of Sindhi and indigenous people who live along the Indus river or in its surrounding areas? The people living in this region earn their livelihoods by fishing and making and selling items related to the use of fisherfolk communities.

Moreover, the construction of the dam will also bring in countless negative environmental impact on these poor communities who are already facing huge existential challenges related to the shortage of water and climate changes.  The argument that it will lead to the development of industries is a specious one as the construction of a dam alone cannot lead to industrial development! It will actually benefit those who have a contribution in planning such foolhardy schemes. Yes, for them bigger projects will create bigger opportunities.

Fallacious arguments

Generation of electricity: The Pakistan government claims that the Diamer-Bhasha dam project will generate 4,500 megawatts of electricity which will be much cheaper in cost. But the reality is that the world has much better, environmental-friendly, cheaper, and sustainable solutions to generate electricity. Why do we invest in dying technologies instead of emerging ones?

Hassan Abbas, a hydrology expert, says, “Through recently completed Neelum Jhelum Hydroelectric project, Pakistan is already paying 3,000 PKR to produce 1 watt of hydropower which means the government has invested 300,000 PKR to lighten a 100-watt bulb. While in the same amount, people can install a better solar system for the entire household. So how can the government claim that it's offering a much cheaper way of generating electricity through hydropower projects.”

Irrigating new lands:  After the construction of the Bhasha dam, 1,220,000 acres of land will be irrigated. It's a very new claim of this government because in the past whenever any government made documents or proposals regarding the start of this project or made those details public there was no statement of this kind was found. Still, it's unconfirmed and the public is yet to be told where that land will be located and how the water will be provided for that land? It was already observed in the past that the prime purpose behind constructing any dam happens to be irrigating more lands in Punjab province. 

Hassan Abbas has said, ‘The government put this point in this document in the context of food security but Pakistan is already a food-surplus country; so there is no urgency to invest 15 billion PKR by building a new dam to counter this threat. Instead, the government needs to make existing irrigation system more efficient."

Controlling floods: It's stated that this dam will be helpful in controlling floods that regularly occur in the country and will save the country billions of rupees in financial losses. The question is which floods are the government talking about?' Previously for the construction of the Chashma-Jhelum Link Canal, the government cited the same justification/reasoning, and now again for this dam, it is using the same kind of reasoning. 

From 1950 to 2011, if we look at the record of floods caused by river Indus water in the country, we find that the floods have not caused much loss. During this period, 22 times floods in the Indus Basin affected the country. In 1957, 1959, 1981, 1983, 1984, and 1998 very low-level floods occurred and their loss can't even be counted. The floods of 1956, 1975, 1978, 2001, and 2003 were also small scale and affected some areas of the country to some extent. However, in this more than 60-year period, Ten floods can be counted as of serious nature which occurred in 1955, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2010, and 2011.

As compared to the occurrence of floods in large rivers of the world, the figure of Pakistan is much lower than many other countries. But many countries don't have dams to control floodwater from rushing into human settlements.

All issues have been resolved: In the same government meeting, the authorities also briefed the premier that all the issues related to dam building, including the provision of financial resources and displacement of affected people, had been resolved. The area where the dam is being constructed will be provided with a 78.5 billion rehabilitation package for carrying out social development initiatives. It is internationally observed that the dam authorities only address some minor level issues of that particular region where the dam is constructed but, actually, the real issues are generated in tail-end areas of that river on which a dam is constructed. The authorities, it has been seen, always turn a deaf ear to the cries of those people.

Dams directly destroy the areas which are located at the tail-end of a river because they give birth to major issues there like water scarcity, famine, sea intrusion, financial deprivation, cut in income-generating opportunities, displacement, and environmental degradation. That's why such governmental claims, regarding solutions of all issues, is an attempt to fool the people of that region.

Water for Punjab only?

Water scarcity will be addressed: The prime objective of Diamer-Bhasha dam is to store water. It is said that its gross storage capacity would be 8.10 million-acre feet. The authorities have said that its construction will address the water shortage issue in the country. According to Water & Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Pakistan currently has a 12 million acre-feet water shortage but after the construction of the dam, it will decrease up to 6.1 million acre-feet. This is a very new claim. And it is not only made by WAPDA but also by the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) too. Both the federal bodies have been misrepresenting figures as per their needs instead of providing genuine data of water shortage in the country.

How much the water shortage issue can be addressed after the construction of Bhasha dam? The renowned water expert and former secretary irrigation, Sindh Idrees Rajput, said, “if the Diamer-Bhasha dam is constructed then the said dam can't be filled every year and will remain waterless for many years; that's why it can't store 6 to 7 million acre-feet water which is its designed storage capacity.”

How deplorable is the fact that at one end our rulers shed tears by citing floods as the justification of constructing dams while on the other hand they say that they want to address water scarcity!  What they call water scarcity is a tactic to provide extra water to the Punjab, which is what everyone has been witnessing in Pakistan since its inception. Punjab has been increasing its water needs from time to time and. consequently, Sindh is fast becoming a desert. 

Who thinks about the Indus delta which once was an epicenter of prosperity but scarceness of water for more than a decade has made it a barren piece of land where only poverty dwells!

(The writer is a Pakistan-based columnist on environmental and social issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at abbaskhaskheli110@gmail.com)

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