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Increasing storage capacity of Mangla Dam, The Nation, Dr Rashid Ahmad Khan, 21/10/2002

On September 30, President General Pervez Musharraf performed the ground -breaking ceremony of raising the level of Mangla Dam by 30 feet. The project will be completed by the year 2007 at an estimated cost of Rs 60 billion. The Mangla Dam was constructed on the river Jehlum under the Indus Basin Treaty between Pakistan and India. When completed in 1967, the dam had a gross storage capacity of 5.88 million-acre feet (MAF); but due to sedimentation, this capacity has been reduced to 4.68 MAF. This is one justification given for the decision to raise the height of the Dam, which has also given rise to a serious controversy in Azad Kashmir and Sindh.

While the misgivings expressed by certain circles in Azad Kashmir and Sindh may not be without substance and logic, the decision to raise the height of Mangla Dam to increase its storage capacity, should be seen in the larger perspective of depleting water resources of Pakistan and growing needs of water for irrigation purposes. Every body knows that along with evolving an efficient system of water management, which the government is doing through the establishment of Water Users Associations, this challenge can only be met by building new dams or increasing the storage capacity of the existing dams. Pakistan has two main dams, namely Tarbela Dam on river Indus and Mangla Dam on river Jehlum. In addition to these two main dams, there are head works/barrages on whom the world's most extensive canal system is built. Out of Pakistan's 52 million acres of cultivated area, 40 million acres constitute gross Canal Command area. This area is irrigated by 43 main canal systems whose aggregate length is 38000 miles. These canals use 104 MAF water from Indus Basin River System whose average annual availability of water is 149.5 MAF. According to an estimate, about 35 MAF of water flows to sea every year from the Indus Basin River System. The agriculture and irrigation experts have since long been arguing in favour of storing this water in new dams and, thus, bring new areas under cultivation. The foreign experts had also recommended the construction of new dams to overcome the acute shortage of water for irrigation and also increasing hydroelectric generating capacity.

It was primarily with this objective in view that Kalabagh project was initiated. But the Project became the subject of controversy because of objections from NWFP and Sindh on human, ecological and environmental grounds. The project, however, enjoys widespread support in Punjab province, as large lands in southern Punjab were to get much needed water for irrigation in case the project was completed. The Kalabagh project was also beneficial for northern Punjab because it would have raised the underground water table in the arid area. As a result of that the water could have been available not only for drinking purpose, but also for irrigation through tube wells. The Kalabagh Dam would have, therefore, brought dramatic changes in the economy, culture and social conditions of all parts of Punjab. But the lack of consensus among the constituent units of Pakistan's federation prevented this work from being implemented.

The failure to reach consensus on Kalabagh Dam has forced the government to look for other options, like small dams and new canals. It is in this context that Mirani Dam and Gomal Dam in Balochistan are being constructed and the height of the Mangla Dam is being raised. After abandoning Kalabagh Dam, at least for the time being till a national consensus was achieved, there is no other option before the government except to undertake the building of small dams and increase the storage capacity of existing dams to meet the ever-increasing demand for more water not only in Punjab, but also in other parts of the country. In case of Mangla dam, however, there are two other supporting arguments that are being advanced in favour of the raising of the height of the dam. One is that the raising of the height of the dam was provided in the original design of the project; secondly, the height is being raised to regain the original storage capacity of the dam that has considerably decreased due to sedimentation. But in spite of the fact that the storage of additional water in the Mangla dam by raising its height is going to bring enormous benefits to the people of the area, voices have been raised in Azad Kashmir and Sindh in opposition to the project. Before we go into the basis of dissent on this issue in Azad Kashmir and Sindh, it should be noted that before making the final decision on raising the height of the Mangla dam, a number of surveys were undertaken to study the social, economic, ecological and environmental impact of the project on the local area and the people. In light of the findings of these surveys, a number of proposals were made to mitigate the adverse effects of the project on the socio-economic life and environmental conditions of the area. The measures suggested in the proposals relate to the resettlement of displaced persons of the reservoir and compensation for the loss of land and property of the affected people. It is good that President Musharraf announced, while performing the ground breaking ceremony of the project, a package of handsome compensation for the affectees and assured that the package would be implemented in letter and spirit, unlike past experiences when people were made to wait for decades to receive compensation. Under the package announced by the President, each affected family would get an amount of Rs 300,000 in addition to the payment of the cost of the house at market rates with an additional 10 per cent of its total price. The President also announced other important incentives for the local people, which included the building of a new city adjacent to Mirpur, fishing rights for the AJK government and the right to get water from the dam for drinking and irrigation purposes. It should be noted that the raising of the height of the Mangla dam would not only lead to an increase in the storage capacity of the dam, it would also considerably improve the quantity and quality of fish in the dam. In addition to that the President also announced the plans for the development of four small towns on the periphery of the reservoir for the affectees who would choose to resettle not far away from the lands of their ancestors, with which, of course they have emotional attachment.

There is no doubt that the increase in the storage capacity of the Mangla dam would have a healthy impact on the development in Azad Kashmir and in the country as a whole, there is still need to remove misgivings about the new project that have been expressed in Azad Kashmir and Sindh. So far as Azad Kashmir and the areas around Mirpur are concerned, the resentment is largely the result of the past bitter experience. The government would do well to put in place an elaborate, efficient and foolproof mechanism to pay compensation to the affectees speedily. The objections from Sindh can be removed by assuring the people of the province that the raising of the height of Mangla dam would not affect the already existing level of water flow in the river Sindh. The Sindhi opposition to the construction of Kalabagh dam and other projects like the raising of the height of Mangla dam had stemmed from their fear that such works would decrease the already low flow of water in the river Indus. Since low flow of water in the river Indus has produced disastrous ecological, environmental and social consequences for the people of Sindh, their point of view merits serious consideration. It is heartening to note that while deciding about the raising of the height of Mangla dam, the government has striven hard to take the people of Azad Kashmir into confidence, but owing to special status of AJK and, more importantly, the ongoing freedom struggle in the Indian Held Kashmir, more needs to be done to satisfy the dissenting elements in the state.