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Skardu Dam under serious study By Naveed Ahmad


Unique idea but no decision so far, says ANG Abbasi

ISLAMABAD: The recommendation of the Technical Committee on Water Resources have still not been finalised due to differences on certain issues, body head ANG Abbasi told The News on telephone.

Terming media reports on the findings of the body as premature, he spoke positively about the ambitious Skardu-Katzara Dam (also known as Skardu dam). Responding to a question on the issue, Abbasi said: "Yes, we have thoroughly studied the pros and cons of the project as it is also part of Wapda's future vision and term of reference of this body."

He said with bitter political controversies over Kalabagh and other dams, this is seen as a unique and technically feasible multi-purpose reservoir. The water body chief said there are a few concerns raised to this project which are also being studied and final decision in this regard would be made by the top authorities of the country.

He said the proposed dam was a unique idea amid various political controversies surrounding the already envisaged reservoirs. Abbasi could not set a particular timeframe for the Committee to submit its long-awaited report to the ministry or other top officials. The Committee was to file its recommendation by February.

The former chairman of Indus River System Authority (Irsa), Engineer Fatehullah Khan, claimed to have discovered the three gorges dam in 1962 on the Indus at "Katzarah" 18 km downstream Skardu, storing 35 maf of almost silt free water during the monsoon, generating 15,000 MW power. He bets that the dam would have 1,000-year lifespan besides being the largest storage reservoir in the world.

The 35-maf Katzarah Dam will be the third largest reservoir in the world after Aswan High Dam in Egypt and Three Gorges Dam in China, followed by the fourth dam in USA on Colorado River.

The supporters of the dam also project it to be cost-wise the cheapest in terms of per maf storage, per MW of power generation, per year of lifespan and per year of service value. At the same time, the Skardu dam would submerge the entire Skardu valley up to certain parts of Shigar (gateway to K2), may be known as the planet's first man-made tsunami.

Led by the former ISRA chief, a pro-active lobby is pushing the dam to all concerned officials in various ministries besides dispatching the envisioned project copies to the Army House and the GHQ.

Fatehullah Khan and the likeminded expert even claim that the dam has far massive hydel-power generation potential than the Kalabagh and Bhasha dam. He wants the dam to be immediately constructed to overcome the country's water storage problems.

Such experts dismiss the Sungi and the Action-Aid reports on "highly technical subject about the unique Gomal Zam Dam" saying it "shows nothing but a great irresponsible act". The pro-Skardu dam lobby says it is the only dam of its kind to justify and transform the controversial Thal flood canal as perennial canal.

"Similarly, Raine and Kachi 70 days flood canals like Thal canal will also become perennial. Even these three mega canal systems will become vital part of Katzarah Dam," says Fatehullah.

The high sales-pitch also qualifies their ambitious plan for a variety of categories such as multi-purpose dam, carryover dam, development dam, replacement dam, inter-seasonal dam, flood control dam, the Indus flow regulation dam and poverty alleviation dam.

On the other hand, development activist and environmentalists reject Fatehullah's idea saying, "Situated amidst world's newest and the most fragile mountain system, it is prone to earthquakes and other natural calamities."

"Some 35 million acres feet dam in the heart of Karakoram will be nothing but a recipe for disaster," experts agree as does noted development expert Ismail Khan of the IUCN. It is feared that a minor shift in hydrological cycle due to permanent storage of a large water body could also play havoc with the sensitive mountain ecology.

At the moment there are three dam initiatives in Northern Areas (NA), a) Sadpara Dam - more of a rehabilitation of the Skardu valley's traditional source of drinking and irrigation water, Sadpara lake - will be used to generate some small amount of energy as well; b) Bhasha Dam - a barren gorge between district Diamir (NA) and Kohistan (NWFP province) - is in advance stage of feasibility study amid serious geological concerns; c) Skardu Dam is seen a recipe to eliminate decades-old controversies and worst fear of the nation.

Various background interviews and documentary analysis reveal that the proposed dam carries many damages. The dam could submerge Skardu valley and adjoining areas, which is the commercial hub of Baltistan region and lifeline of more than 300,000 people equipped with basic health and education infrastructure and all supplies destined for other parts of Baltistan pass through the historic town.

Besides many highly sensitive military installations, the dam would also sink the only airport in Baltistan region. Skardu has been the capital of Balti rulers since ages, thus home to many monuments of historical importance i.e. Khapocho Ford, Mendoq Garden, Buddha statues of Ashoka period, etc. They all would sink for good. "The plan to inundate Skardu, therefore, would mean drowning the Balti culture, pride and their economy," said an expert working with Wapda requesting anonymity.

He believes the local population would "put up a strong resistance to such a plan and may even go violent if not taken into confidence, fuelling another conflict in this otherwise calm region of Pakistan".

Ismail Khan, a noted development expert now associated with The World Conservation Union (IUCN), fears that "an outburst or accident of high altitude dam of this magnitude once unleashed can effectively deposit all major cities of the country, including Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi into the Arabian Sea."

The geologists, environmentalists and development gurus see Fatehullah and his supporters as a "bunch of misguided civil engineers, mostly from NWFP to take the heat off from controversies generated by the Kalabagh and Bhasha dams".

Senior military officials also downplay the uniqueness of the Skardu Dam on the pretext of security concerns. "They also believe that the dam would never become a reality due to strategic importance of the region and turbulent Pakistan-India relations".

Some senior serving army officers say the huge water reservoir literally falls within the artillery firing range of a hot border. Skardu - capital of Baltistan or Little Tibet in the Northern Areas - is the most porous valley offering for defence facilities including the vital airbase and military command and control hub for protection of critical Pakistan - China road link, and maintenance of the status quo in Gultari, Ladakh and Siachen sectors. "There is no other potential or alternate military base to replace Skardu," said Ismail Khan who also belongs to the area and worked there as a development expert for decades.

Skardu valley has its own unique ecological, cultural and environmental significance. Sandwiched between one of the world's highest plateau Deosai and largest naturally formed glaciers outside the poles, Skardu is the historical seat of Balti Kingdom, hub of Balti cultural heritage, and the dusty town dotted with an amazing mix of lakes, sand dunes, streams, snow clad mountain and terraced fields and orchard serve as cultural melting pot of the Balti people.

The meteorologists also agree the world over that the moister and climatic effects generated by a massive water body can hasten melting process of the glaciers thus raising possibilities for massive glacier outbursts and climatic changes.

Senator Nisar Memon, whose body on water resources has submitted a report in August, declined to comment on the technical committee's support for another controversial dam. He told The News "I would not comment on the issue before the press as I am also part of the consultation process." Nisar Memon said he had expressed his views in the committee meetings and various other important fora.

Like A N G Abbasi, he also said, "Let's patiently wait for the final decision which is yet to be made and let these issues be handled by the technical experts than by the politically motivated groups."