THE THAL CANAL PROJECT

Sindh government has its own reservation

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI
Islamabad
Mar 18 - 24, 2002

The approval of the Thal canal project by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) without consulting the Sindh province and bypassing the normal procedure has evoked sharp reaction in the concerned circles. 0n a protest lodged by the Planning and Development Division of the Sindh Government the Federal Government has directed the Planning Commission, Ministry of Water and Power Development and the government of Punjab to clear the apprehensions of Sindh on the issue of Thal canal before proceeding with the project.

The controversial Thal flood water canal project was approved by the (Ecnec) in its meeting on Feb. 28 following a heated debate between the officials of Sindh and the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). During the arguments between Wapda and Sindh officials it transpired that the authority had already started work on the project without the approval of the competent authority. Wapda official, explaining the authority's point of view, recalled that the project had been inaugurated by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Aug. 17, soon after unfolding his economic development plan and the authority had already started work and had already spent substantial amount of funds.

The Sindh government maintained that Wapda should have waited for an approval by the competent authority before starting work on the project. It pointed out that the opinion of the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) had not been sought by the Planning Commission, which was mandatory in the project concerning irrigation, under a decision of the federal government. It transpired that Irsa had also written a letter to the relevant authorities reminding them that the work on the project could not be initiated without seeking their opinion particularly in view of the fact that one of the federating units had serious reservation on the project.

Sindh officials stressed that the project should be reverted to the Central Development Working Party (CDWP) for discussing the technical details of the project. They observed that at the stage of the CDWP no working paper had been circulated by the sponsoring agency. The main thrust of the arguments of the Sindh government was that there had already been serious shortage of irrigation water in the country and the construction of canal would further aggravate the problems of the province.

The canal would be taken out from the Chashma Jehlum Link Canal and would irrigate an area of 1.5 million acres in southern Punjab. in its protest letter the Planning Division of the Sindh government alleged that PC-l of the project was not signed by anybody and asked the federal government to direct WAPDA to return the PC-1 of the project to the Central Development Working Party (CDWP) for consideration and comments. Previously it was sent late and could not be discussed at CDWP. A copy of PC-1 should also be sent to Sindh government so that its representative could study and evaluate it before attending CDWP meeting.

The Sindh government has maintained that construction of any new canal must be in conformity with the 1991 Water Sharing Accord and the views and comments of Irsa may be obtained before consideration of the scheme again in the CDWP. The nomenclature shows that the canal will be a flood canal, but there is no check that this canal will not flow during normal conditions.

As expected, the decision to go ahead with the construction of the greater Thal canal in Punjab has led to an outpouring of outrage in Sindh. The decision comes at a time when the country is facing one of the most serious water crises in its history, with the Tarbela reservoir reaching its dead level and Mangla soon likely to follow suit. Given this alarming backdrop, the stage is set for another acrimonious row between the country's two largest provinces. This scenario is both depressing and predictable. Agriculture forms the backbone of Pakistan's economy and water is obviously an emotive issue. As the lower riparian province, Sindh had always been extremely wary of any major irrigation project in the north. The angry reaction to the construction of the Thal canal is only the most recent example. While Punjab argues that the Thal canal is a flood canal that will only be used from April to mid-October, Sindh sees it as an attempt to divert more water away from the province's share. It also fears that Punjab could double the canal's capacity and use the water whenever it pleases. Sindh believes that work on the project had started even before it was approved by the competent authority and a consensus reached. Sindh fears that Punjab could double the canal's capacity and use its water whenever it pleased.

It is commendable to note that the Federal Government has taken immediate note of the protest from Sindh Province and directed the concerned authorities to first address the concerns. The Sindh should be provided firm guarantees that the flood water canal will really be used only to store flood water as its nomenclature suggests and would not be used for any other purpose.