Govt is pursuing about a dozen large projects at cumulative cost of $2.7 billion

Mar 07 - 13, 2005

Fresh water is globally a scarce commodity and a deficit has already emerged in the country and growing rapidly in recent times and although remains in notice of all the stakeholders, it largely remained un-attended.

The Allah blessed Pakistan this year as heavy winter downpour in arable stretches coupled with snowfall in northern hilltops invited an interim complacency for planners.

They expect to reap bumper crops of food grains due to recent spells of rainfall, however, medium to long-term water needs still pose a big threat to the future of this largely agro-based economy. In the month of February alone average rainfall rose to double almost across the country feeding standing crops with much needed water, which scarcity becomes imminent in winters in semi-arid Pakistan. Rainfalls and heavy snowfall in catchement areas have lifted the hope of filling water reservoirs.

Hopes of good crops this year, however, do not offer any sense of complacency to the planners because of the looming water paucity. "We are aware of the future water shortage which calls for constructing some large dams at any cost," said Pakistan's State Minister for Water and Power Ameer Muqam.

Punjab, the largest province of the country in term of population and effectively in charge of the water resources, while sitting on the upper riparian, is blamed for the long prevailing water scarcity in southern parts, situated at the tail of once a glorious river Indus.

"We have seen repeated breach of inter-provincial water accord and that very fact has created an atmosphere of distrust and discomfort among all the remaining three provinces," said Shazia Mari, a member of provincial parliament of southern Sindh representing opposition. The agriculture sector relies 90 percent on irrigation water, which abundantly available at the rate of 131 million acres feet (MAF) but sheer mismanagement of watercourses and severe inter-provincial disputes over its rationing make peasants look at the heaven for rains.

The government is pursuing about a dozen large projects at cumulative cost of $2.7 billion, which would provide additional reservoirs of 4.44 MAF that could irrigate additional 2.88 million-acre arable land. The completion of these projects is expected by 2007. "We have just got approval of Koram Tangi dam which would cost Rs17 billion having 3 MAF capacity, and Gomal Zam dam of 1 MAF," said Muqam. "But need of Kalabagh Dam still remains there," he quickly added that meeting increasing electricity demand is cited to be another main reason for taking up large dams.

"We want to switch on hydel power generation because we need more but cheapest electricity to cater the industrial and domestic electricity need," said the minister.

Although descending, agriculture still contributes largest share to the GDP, accounting for 23 percent of it. A ruthless and unjust use of abundantly available water has already sparked a severe inter-provincial bickering.

A grand rally of Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM) on last Friday, which mustered over four thousand Balochi, Pashtun, Sindhi, Sariaki nationalists unequivocally opposed the proposed Kalabagh dam.

While political resentment against Kalabagh goes on, experts also don't count on the proposed dam's existence. "Water is abundantly available from the upper riparian of the river but mismanagement and ill-will on the part of regulators create acute scarcity to the lower riparian not because of non-existence of any large dam," said Idrees Rajput, a technocrat and civil engineer, who represented Sindh province in the capital for water accords.

As an only solution for the looming water scarcity Islamabad and Punjab, vehemently pursue the idea of constructing Kalabagh dam. The proposed dam carrying 6.1 MAF capacity is opposed more vehemently by rest of the three provinces.

"Imminent water shortage is the biggest reality of this country but Kalabagh dam is of no benefit to the three provinces," said Mari, who belongs to Pakistan Peoples Party. The opponents of the dam have many alternative proposals to offer including a 35 MAF dam near Skardu, a northern town in the Karakoram mountain range at the eastern bank of Indus. Carry-over dams across the country are also proposed. However, the government is not willing to buy any other idea except Kalabagh dam.

"Yes we are convinced of small dams' need but we must have at least two large dams," said the water minister.

President Pervez Musharraf, is one of the staunch supporters of the dam. In a public address in Nowshera, a town in North Western Frontier Province, and the proposed site of the dam where it would cause a mass people dislocation, vowed the construction of the dam. He cautiously said the decision would have to be taken by the people. "Musharraf can do whatever he wants to but we shall never allow him to construct the dam," the nationalist leaders told the PONM gathering.