June 21, 1998
State vs Community, Centre vs Territory, Nation vs Federation
Aly Ercelawn and Muhammad Nauman
Is the state acting wisely in its insistence upon building Kalabagh Dam? The Council of Common Interests met about a month ago, only to shelve the proposal. Instead, it set up a committee to persuade the other provinces to agree to what is essentially Panjab's case for the dam. The subsequent crisis over nuclear tests apparently side-tracked the committee's functioning. With unseemly haste, Islamabad then took cover of its suspension of fundamental rights to unilaterally announce the damming of Kalabagh. With the fervour of evangelists, some spokesmen in Islamabad and Lahore preach endlessly about the benefits of Kalabagh, while others mindlessly belittle the fears of severe and sustained adverse impacts. Following the elitist manner in which development agendas are formulated and implemented in Pakistan, the state has now deigned to renew consultations and debates between provinces, i.e. the political establishment, rather than to negotiate consent from the people of affected communities.
Proponents of Kalabagh, as the dam lobby usually does, paint a grim picture of future unmet food and energy needs for a rapidly growing population (closer to 3%, despite wishes to the contrary). By all indications, it would be cheaper to invest in reducing population growth rather than build endless dams to feed and electrify a largely illiterate nation of muslim men and women. Itís not as if Islam is a hindrance to smaller families - both Indonesia and Iran have brought their fertility rates down to less than 3 children as compared to more than 5 in Pakistan. Why cannot we begin by damming the floods of illiteracy and ill-health among our mothers, and the sisters and daughters that are mothers-to-be?
Kalabagh dam is supposed to function on the basis of "water that runs wasted into the sea." A seemingly sensible statement, which is a favourite of the WAPDA Chairman amongst others of the mountains and plains. Regrettably, this is a fantasy that runs counter to the known facts. First, there is no such thing as waste in natural ecological systems. Fresh water flows support the entire coastal ecology, and any further reduction will simply add to the enormous damage to the Indus delta imposed by previously constructed dams. Its not just the mangrove forests and the fishes that are affected, but the millions of peasants and fisherfolk of the coastal districts whose livelihoods will be destroyed. All reliable estimates suggest that fresh water flows are already much, much below what is required to sustain the present ecological system, and things will get worse when an impecunious Karachi increases its intakes from the Indus. A bad Water
Accord does not mean that we should worsen matters further, anymore than thrusting an inequitable National Finance Award implies that Islamabad can further fiscally devastate Sindh without protest and resistance.
Yet another variant of the "wasted water" fantasy is that there is more water available up North than has been allocated by the Water Accord. WAPDA is a past master at fudging data, and this is precisely what has been done. Using selective data, Kalabagh is shown by WAPDA to have enough water to fill up the reservoir in most years. As established by Abdul Majid Kazi and A. N. G. Abbasi, among others, the actual case is the opposite: there will be enough water in only one of every five years. Unless Kalabagh is provided water that is diverted from the shares of other provinces, in violation of the Water Accord. If this is not to happen, Kalabagh will lie under-utilised. It is more likely that the presence of Kalabagh dam will provide incentives to divert water in tight years, with or without the connivance of the Centre, as is evident from the many years of Chashma releases in violation of the Accord. Discord and fragmentation is surely likely to follow.
Federal Ministers defend the dam as a compensation for rapid sedimentation which reduces the amount of storage at Tarbela. One does know what to make of their convenient ignorance of, or indifference to, a recent international study. From what has been summarised about it by the consultants in DFID's WATER, the sedimentation problem can be resolved at 10 percent of the cost of building a new dam for an equivalent additional water storage capacity. Official spokesmen also fail to tell us why it is infeasible or more costly to increase Tarbela storage capacity by raising the height of the reservoir, an option built into the design of Tarbela.
Consider also the reluctance of Islamabad to examine the mostappealing alternative to Kalabagh and all major dams. At present,only a third of irrigation water is actually utilised by cropsthemselves. Among those who have studied the issue, such as Ayub Qutub of PIEDAR, a nation-wide program of investments in waterconservation is estimated to cost a trivial sum in comparison to anydam. As with the Tarbela sedimentation solution, there will be nodislocation or displacement of tens of thousands of people.
An outstanding advantage of this decentralised, people-friendly solution is that it is also very favourable to the land and soils that sustain our lives. Water conservation will reduce water-logging and salinity, quite the opposite of Kalabagh dam which will not only render large areas infertile in the neighbourhood of the dam but also accelerate soil degradation throughout the newly irrigated areas. If Kalabagh gets built, it will demand even greater resources for drainage than the billions already envisaged under the 25-year National Drainage Plan. Moreover, this Plan itself can become an ecological nightmare for the coastal districts which are planned to receive the entire effluent from Sindh and Panjab.
The power-hungry of Islamabad and Lahore point to Kalabagh's large energy output as a major benefit to the nation. The key point in their argument is that public hydel power has been historically substantially cheaper than current private thermal power. The flaws in this argument are many. First, hydel power is cheaper only if the capital for dam construction is obtained at heavily subsidised interest rates, and those adversely affected are compelled into accepting miserably low compensation and wholly inadequate resettlement (such as in Tarbela). Second, hydel power will not come cheap if the turbines lie silent for four of every five years. Third, unless Islamabad reneges on the private power contracts and fails to complete the Ghazi Barotha Hydropower Project, or launches into an unlikely hyper growth, there are no realistic scenarios of a power supply shortage that requires another major dam. Fourth, there is no likelihood that additional "cheap" hydel power will be distributed across the country in proportions anywhere close to the widespread burdens of Kalabagh dam as a "national" project.
In addition to the adverse consequences we have listed above, there are the well-known fears of people in areas surrounding Kalabagh about an increased risk of devastation from floods. Proposed technical modifications are unconvincing to them, and we were certainly not convinced by the dammers who spoke at a recent seminar. As with nuclear war, it is absurd to minimise the scale of destruction by referring to low probabilities of occurrence in a good command and control system.
Kalabagh dam will result in the direct dislocation of about a hundred thousand men, women, and children whose homes and lands will be submerged by the reservoir. Spokesmen for the dam are singing rhapsodies of houses, hospitals, schools and colleges for the displaced. Priests of a fake order, they ignore the record of resettlement. After nearly three decades, the victims of Tarbela still await restitution by an uncaring State, a greedy nation, and selfish provincial leadership. Chotiari resettlement promises to be yet another mess, and the people of Ghazi Barotha are faced with empty promises and endless delays. Federal and provincial governments and agencies, local and international consultants, aid donors of all hues - all get handsomely paid to endlessly plan, implement, and supervise the agonies of our people.
Proponents expect to get international funding at highly concessional rates for building Kalabagh dam. Even if there were no sanctions against our nuclear ambitions, it is most unlikely thateither the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank would offer such funding. The reasons for rejecting Kalabagh would at the very least include their support to full utilisation of private therma lcapacity, and their reluctance to get embroiled in a project with such major negative environmental and resettlement outcomes. In fact, when the World Bank gets around to recalling its own covenants, Ghazi Barotha should face suspension of funding because of the failure of the government to resolve outstanding claims of Tarbela resettlement.
Private infrastructure funding does not come cheap, as we all painfully know from the thermal projects. Such funding will therefore render Kalabagh dam unattractive, specially if those adversely affected across the nation are compensated fairly. Moreover, it is not obvious that the proponents of Kalabagh are indeed ready for the complete privatisation of irrigation water that this step would necessarily entail.
What of a national infrastructure fund that diverts tax resources to this project? As long as dam benefits and costs are distributed so unfairly, it would be a travesty of a federation to use federal resources for this purpose. It would be far more equitable to borrow only from areas that will benefit directly and appreciably, and impose user charges on the same areas to retire the special debt.
The controversy surrounding Kalabagh is intense and wide-ranging: from the very need for any large-scale dam to the ability of effective mitigation and fair compensation for adverse environmental and social impacts. In consequence, opposition to the dam is both intensive and extensive, and is highly likely to come under international scrutiny. In fact, if the government is up to the challenge, the Kalabagh dam proposal should be sent for scrutiny by the World Dams Commission. Information gaps remain an obstacle to informed debate and discussion, in part because of the very low credibility of government and its agencies, both federal and provincial.
We believe that the Centre has taken a most unwise step in proposing the construction of Kalabagh Dam. All the information now publicly available establishes that the proposal suffers from a series of shortcomings which render irrigation and power benefits extremely dubious. If these benefits are increased to become more certainly sizeable for a small section of capitalist farmers and industrialists in a limited part of the country, their adverse consequences will impoverish the livelihoods of a substantially larger mass of ordinary citizens across the country.
There is an urgent need for broad-based, public consultations on crucial issues of moral and legal rights to life and livelihood that surround claims to water. Any prior interventions by the state and its donors which affect historic claims to the Indus waters will be largely viewed as arrogant and oppressive repudiation by State and
Centre of such fundamental rights in a democratic federation of communities and citizens. Only in recognising this can we seriously begin work towards forging a national consensus on whether or not to build Kalabagh or any other dam. Meetings of the Council of Common Interests will remain a poor substitute for responsible and responsive governance.
If they are sincere, what should dam proponents do about a better understanding of their case? First, government and its agencies need to come clean with all documentation about Kalabagh. Second, prepare additional documentation to publicly disseminate realistic estimates of dam benefits, damages, and both direct and indirect costs -- not just their scale and probability but also to which groups in what areas of the country. Third, dam lobbyists should not be content with discussing this information with political elites in federal and provincial legislatures with whom they can always strike deals on the basis of class and cultural affinity and interests. The real developmental challenge to the state is to transparently negotiate with the millions of ordinary citizens in the thousands of communities in the federation of provinces. Is civil society upto the task of supporting citizens in these negotiations? Its hard work for all, but why should good governance be thought of as a mandate for any kind of laziness?
When the Centre in Lahore and Islamabad defends the construction of Kalabagh with public resources of the federation, it can do so only on the basis of a socially abstract calculus of national development, and the ideology of a majoritarian state -- which alone can justify greater inequity and poverty among its peoples, devalue community rights over resources, and blatantly promote territorial expansion by the Centre. All of these are ominous portents for Pakistan as a just, equitable, and democratic federation. We must therefore actively support all local voices for resistance against the greed and callousness that threatens to devastate life and livelihoods of vast numbers of poor across our country.
Think Locally, Act Globally