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The dam debate


The News, 9/1/2003
Anwar Ahmad

It seems that the contentious issue of water-sharing and building new dams has finally been put on the right track. During his Sindh visit last week, General Musharraf announced the formation of a technical committee to assess four broad issues:

  • Water-sharing - including, presumably the actual need and allocation of each province and the acrimony over alleged pilferage.
  • Construction of new dams - particularly, the comparative merits of Kalabagh and the Bhasha alternative.
  • The Thal Canal - including, presumably, water availability for it, or otherwise.
  • The discharge below Kotri - by dispelling, hopefully, the fallacy that this water is "wasted" and determining the optimum quantity needed to reverse the desiccation of Indus delta and desertification of Sindh, revive the mangrove forests, marine life, recharge the meagre sub-soil freshwater and render the river banks cultivable.

Appropriately, the committee will be headed by a Sindhi technocrat, former irrigation secretary AGN Abbasi, with members from all provinces. These members have not yet been named, nor any timeframe fixed and the committee's specific mandate announced. The latter ambiguity should allow the committee to range freely over all the contentious issues - including, for instance, basics like the availability of surplus water because the anti-dam argument is that there is none, particularly during the 33% below-average years in a decade. General Musharraf has also conceded that the exact availability is not known. It should also examine the comparative viability of the proposed alternative of saving 30-35% of the water lost to seepage by brick-lining the canals. Finally, it will need to factor in the social, economic and ecological dislocation inevitably caused by big dams - which is the NWFP's grouse against Kalabagh and might be more difficult to assuage than Sindh's objections.

General Musharraf also announced a committee of the National Assembly and, simultaneous with his announcement, the National Assembly found time amid the LFO bedlam to form a special committee on irrigation with members from all provinces. This political committee is to interact with its technical counterpart, scrutinise the latter's report and submit its own recommendations and an action plan to the National Assembly which, presumably, will then debate and decide.

The rub could lie in the seemingly innocuous last bit because Punjab has a majority in the National Assembly and it favours the Kalabagh Dam which is bitterly opposed by the NWFP and Sindh. Thus, being an inter-provincial dispute, the Senate seems more suited to take the final decision - which would, and must, rest more on the political acceptability of the project than its technical merits.

While the importance of water conservation is self-evident, the issues involved have been so grossly mishandled and are now so fiddled with suspicions, misperceptions and polarised positions that finding a consensus will not be easy. A sacrifice will have to be made and, for the health of the federation, the majority is always the best candidate for that.

Besides, Punjab's ardour for Kalabagh Dam might wane somewhat after General Musharraf's assurance in Sindh that it would only be a carryover facility without any canals branching-off from it. This kills the Punjab desire, in the near term at least, to further supplement the Jhelum-Mangla command area from the Indus through Kalabagh. But, ironically, this also robs Kalabagh of crucial support form DI Khan area in the NWFP which would have been irrigated by the other canal from it. One reason the dam debate has become so acrimonious is the officially propagated myth that it is "merely" a technical issue needlessly politicised by its opponents. This line was hastily, but ineffectually, peddled after Nawaz Sharif had sprung the Kalabagh surprise and triggered a severe backlash in Sindh and NWFP. The same line, unfortunately, was echoed by General Musharraf at Ghazi-Brotha by criticising the "elements who are politicising the Kalabagh Dam" for their motives. He vowed to "prevail upon" them.

This is exactly the wrong way to approach the explosive issue. It carries dangerous overtones of a monopoly patriotism, arrogating to itself the sole right to decide what is in the national interest and to crush the "traitors" who oppose it. It backfired in the past, and will do so again. Besides, such extremism is misplaced because what we have are conflicting and competing interests vying for more resources. This is inherently a political contest and it is the primary impulse of politics and politicians the world over to maximise the benefits for their electorate. This is how the debate should be handled, rather than forcing it into a "patriots versus traitors" duel. Building big dams involves big investment, entailing profits and imposing socio-economic costs. It also affects the irrigation and other interests of the provinces. Thus, it is not unnatural or unhealthy for the NWFP and Sindh to oppose Kalabagh and for Punjab to support it. The official logic, therefore, needs to be reversed: Kalabagh is primarily a political issue and then a technical one - though its solution could follow the reverse order. Nawaz Sharif's belated vow to go from door to door in Sindh to seek a consensus on it and his promise not to lay a brick until he succeeded was an acknowledgement of this reality. So also is the reported plan of General Musharraf and the Jamali cabinet to launch a political blitz to win over the opponents. Sharif's bid for a political consensus failed, and Kalabagh was damned.

For the renewed pro-dam campaign to stand a chance, it is critical for the government not to support, or even to prefer, any of the options. By espousing Kalabagh, Nawaz Sharif actually killed it. General Musharraf's undisguised preference for it has also ignited a reaction in NWFP (Kala Naag, the ANP calls it) and Sindh. He has the advantage of not being a Punjabi. But this is instantly offset by his uniform - which, paradoxically, may give him physical power but diminishes his political stature and influence - as the army is seen as an extension of Punjab and a major beneficiary of Kalabagh and Thal Canal.

The official posture must, therefore, remain strictly neutral. And this includes the state media which, bereft in any case of credibility, can only do harm by tilting towards or against any option. When Nawaz Sharif's Kalabagh bid boomeranged, the PTV went berserk in spewing pro-Kalabagh data - only to trigger an equal and opposite reaction. To be credible, media debates must reflect all opinions. It could be useful to bring the political parties onstage to see what position they take on the various options. The choice will not be easy for the PPP, PML (N & Q), MMA and the MQM. Even so, they are the ultimate decision-makers. For Kalabagh to get a fair assessment, Punjab must also hold its horses. A consensus can be built behind it, if at all, mainly by the NWFP and Sindh politicians and technocrats. An aggressive pro-Kalabagh stance by the Punjabi media and politicians can only force them into the opposing corner. To buttress Nawaz Sharif's ill-advised campaign, the Punjab Assembly had passed a pro-Kalabagh resolution and Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had declared that it would be built no matter what. The reaction soon forced him to concede the consensus prerequisite. There are many unlearned lessons in the Sharif fiasco.

The exercise is, ultimately, about rebuilding trust. Trust in government per se, and in each other. The telemetry network, shifting of Irsa office from Lahore to Islamabad and the addition to it of a Sindhi member may eventually allay the charges of Punjab's domination and water theft. But, the wounds are deep, and some very recently inflicted. The Rs 30-billion Greater Thal Canal is a case in point. It may be a part of the 1991 inter-provincial Water Accord which Sindh wishes to implement, as General Musharraf said in its defence. But its construction was pushed through with indecent and indefensible haste - without consulting and assuring Sindh, without the mandatory Ecnec and Irsa approval and without implementing those portions of the Accord which Sindh had been clamouring for.

To rub salt in the wound, this "flood canal" was launched amid a scorching drought, and by a military government! What was the hurry? Unless this narrow, selfish mindset of the Punjab-dominated civil-military establishment changes, and unless Punjab develops the capacity to appreciate the others' viewpoint, national projects will continue to become divisive rather than the uniting bonds these should be.

The writer is a freelance columnist
Email: aa52pak@hotmail.com