14 January, 2000
Kalabagh dam: the other view
...Leaving aside the fact that Pakistan is a federation of four provinces, the elected representatives of three of which have passed resolutions against the dam many times over, and disregarding the fact that Sindh has reservations about any move of Punjab concerning the waters of the Indus, let us come to the merit of the case.
The arguments for the dam are all camouflaged behind the concern for more food for the galloping population of Pakistan. The logic voiced is: more water, more lands under plough, more food grain. But more food grain can also be produced by:
i) Increasing the yield per acre. ii) Better utilization of water resources, and iii) Better utilization of land.
Pakistan grows around 18 million tons of wheat per year and imports roughly 2 million tons. The average yield per acre is 0.81 tons against 0.97 tons in neighbouring India and 0.87 tons for the world. So is it for each and every crop in Pakistan. A few administrative steps like streamlining the supply of quality seed at proper time; sparing a pittance for research on improved seeds in our excellent agricultural universities; eliminating the use of spurious pesticides, making fertilizers available at affordable rates and mounting a dedicated training campaign for our Haris in the proper use of pesticides and fertilizers, could increase the yield per acre, while costing only a fraction of the Rs. 500 billion needed for the Kalabagh dam. And this is only the empirical side. The effect on our agrarian society and agricultural economy when all these concerted inputs are applied at the designated sectors will be tremendous.
Of the 105 MAF at present made available at the canal heads an estimated 60% is lost through evaporation and seepage as follows: 15 MAF is lost in major river beds, 10 MAF in canals and minors, 10 MAF in watercourses and 25 MAF on farms.
Seepage through beds of major rivers is irretrievable but technology is on hand to greatly reduce seepage in canals, minors and watercourses by lining them with cement or bricks. This will save an enormous quantity of water apart from eliminating the scourge of water logging that is devouring lands in southern Punjab and Sindh at an alarming rate.
Again, our uninformed farmers use far more water than needed for cropping. Massive education in proper use of water along with modern techniques of land levelling can save substantial quantum of water.
In canal-irrigated areas lands are flooded in order to water the crops. Keeping the future shortage in perspective, it is imperative to start experimenting with drip and sprinkler systems of irrigation on selected areas of Sindh and Punjab. The results are bound to be tremendous.
Water seeps underground and charges the aquifer. In Punjab where 80% underground water is sweet, some 350,000 pumps have prevented the level to rise, while helping to increase crop intensity to about 120%. But southern Punjab and 80% of Sindh have seawater in their aquifer and the rising of water level, from zero to ten feet, due to seepage has been catastrophic. When the level reaches about 3 feet, no vegetation can grow. Pakistan loses about 100,000 acres each year to waterlogging.
There is yet another way to conserve land. The 73 sugar factories in Pakistan (39 Punjab, 29 Sindh, 5 NWFP) with a production capacity of 5.5 million tons (when the total national consumption is 2.9 million tons) use 2.5 million acres for sugarcane cultivation (1998). Sugarcane needs much more water than other crops and its yield in Pakistan is an abysmal 350 maunds against 800 to 1000 maunds in neighbouring India. If the greed for more sugar factories was checked and a determined effort mounted on per acre yield, Pakistan could easily save a million acres and substantial quantity of water.
Water flowing into the sea is not a waste. There has been a concerted effort by Punjab and WAPDA to make us believe that 38 MAF go waste each year by flowing into the sea. That the figure is erroneous can be gauged from the simple subtraction of water allocated to the provinces (114.35 MAF) from the average flow of the three western rivers (137 MAF).
But leaving aside the MAF rigmarole, one must realize that there is a vast world of kaleidoscopic life dependent on the so-called 'waste'. The mangrove forest, the life of which is directly proportional to the quantity of Indus water flowing into the sea is home to a million species of birds, fish and insects. The fish trade alone earned $280 million in 1998 in forex and twice as much in local markets. The industry employs at least 80,000 people. Another about 200,000 people living on the seacoast are dependent on the mangroves for wood and fodder.
Sea intrusion, safety of both ports of Karachi from silting, kacha lands downstream Kotri, forests, lakes, drinking water for cities and many more solid economic reasons indicate that water flowing into the sea is far more productive than used for irrigation.
Why do proponents insist for a dam at Kalabagh? Anyone with an iota of common sense must know that in the worst possible scenario, when all other options have been exhausted, if a do or die situation has arisen and a dam becomes imperatives, it must be built upstream of Tarbela. For example, an equal capacity dam at Basha will increase the life of Tarbela by at least 20 years and also increase its peak generating capacity by 2 to 4 months by slowly releasing water into Tarbela. A dam at Basha will also have superior generating capacity (14,500 GWH) against Kalabagh's 11,200 GWH.
Kalabagh is the worst possible choice. River Kabul which falls just upstream of Kalabagh is the muddiest river of all the tributaries of Indus carrying an estimated 150 million tons out of the 400 million tons silt carried by the great river in a year. This, when combined with the residual silt from Tarbela, will turn the Rs. 500 billion Kalabagh dam into a silt tank within 30 years. That means even before it is commissioned, we will need to start looking for other dam sites.
Pakistan has millions of parched acres in central Punjab, in southern Sindh and most of Balochistan. One would wish the Indus river system to provide water for each corner of the country to feed its runaway population. But in order to do that, priorities must be correct. Conservation of water, conservation of land and increasing the yield per acre must precede the myopic desire to rush headlong in foolish and costly ventures like the Kalabagh dam.