An Assessment of the Kalabagh Dam Project on the River Indus, Pakistan

By Nasir Gazdar, 1990


There is increasing awareness that our global ecological life support system is endangered. That is true for the Indus Basin of Pakistan, where there is growing disharmony among the links between population, resources, and the environment. For the past four decades, intensive and extensive water resources development in Pakistan's Indus Basin has expanded irrigation agriculture. The resources of the Indus River and its tributaries provide food security and production abilities for a population of approximately 110 million people. Presently, serious problems of land and water degradation and pollution throw into question the Indus Basin's carrying capacity to sustain the resource base for present and future generations.

Sustainable development has been defined as the development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Thus, there should be no separation of conservation from development activities. The environment is every one's business -- whether government or citizens -- and it is everyone's responsibility. There are no quick fixes to development of natural resources or their degradation by misuse and overexploitation.

Pakistan's economy depends on the food, fiber, and other agro-based materials reaped from the bounties of this life-giving gift of nature. Just how new water resource deveopment will improve the quality of life for a majority of Pakistan's people is a question of central importance, for today, only 10 percent of the populaion has access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Nearly all who have access live in urban areas.

The serious problems of resource depletion and pollution are not yet a priority for the Government of Pakistan (GOP). People have every right to know when the GOP functionaries, its Planning Commission, and the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) make decisions that will affect their livelihoods. Previously promoted and superimposed water and power projects have overlooked the social, economic and environmental impacts of such development on the integrity of the human habitat and the ecosystem.

Plans announced by the WAPDA to build the Kalabagh Dam Project (KDP) on the Indus River have stirred great interest and controversy. Since the early 1980s, the KDP's objectives and goals have been shrouded in secrecy, perhaps in order to move quickly and begin pouring concrete into the Indus River without full consideration of its costs, and impacts or the concerns of those it will effect. Such project promotion do not contribute to sustainable development for the present and the future generations.

In Pakistan, where everything demands urgent attention in the nation's economy, environmental concerns are seldom paid heed in national planning. The project planning scenario of the KDP is reminiscent of past Indus Basin development, such as the Indus Treaty projects and the Tarbela Dam Project. The furor over the KDP's impacts contributed to the bitter rivalries among the military junta which ruled Pakistan during 1977-87. Ecological concerns, socio-political problems and strategic vulnerability exposed the Kalabagh Dam Project's Sabz Bagh `Promising Rose Garden But Delivering Dust' in the Indus Basin.

For the past forty years, Pakistan has been spending 12 to 15 percent of its total development budget on new water development projects and on rehabilitation of on-going schemes. Public water and irrigation projects have put enormous drain on the nation's budget because cost recovery of these schemes has always fallen far short of even the modest targets. Gross public revenues from irrigation services represent only 10 to 13 percent of the fiscal cost of public irrigation services. Salinity control and land reclamation from waterlogging takes billions of rupees annually. Yet, there is little to cheer about loking at the annual growth rate in agricultural productivity. Moreover, there is no taxation on the income derived from the irrigation and agricultural operations, though tremendous subsidies are provided to the irrigation and water sector. The beneficiaries of these projects are the large land holders of irrigated acres.

The purpose of this report is to bring into public view the assessment of the KDP using sustainability -- economic, social and environmental -- as a key criterion in project evaluation. The planning process as pursued by the Federal Planning Commission and the WAPDA is evaluated. The purpose is not to unveil the `Sabz Bagh' but to set an environmental planning process and an agenda for sustainable and equitable natural resources developmen in the Indus Basin, and for the rest of the country.

Recommendations and alternative solutions have been proposed so that any future policy-making decisions are based on sustainable and equitable development for `Our Common Future' in the Indus Basin and Pakistan at large.

The citizens have a right to ask for the public disclosure of all the relevant facts and figures regarding project designs, cost estimates, environmental and socioeconomic assessment, national government priorities, and methods of financing the planned construction of another harness on the Indus River. Through public hearings, the citizens should participate in the project planning and make it a sustainable and equitable development for the public welfare.

People's participation through the non-governmental organizations in the development process is a pre-requisite for improvement in quality of life for the masses. There is an urgent need in Pakistan to revamp planning institutions and to lay down policies for decentralization of the development process. Complete, accurate and timely assessments of the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of all projects and policies will ensure accountability.

There is need for consensus and partnership between governmental functionaries and the people, creating a working environment which is dynamic and interconnected. Such a coalition is necessary for the restoration of the Indus Basin's vitality, to relieve the already overburdened resource base of the Indus Basin, and for `Our Common Future'.

N. M. Gazdar, Ph.D.

Secretary General

Environmental Management Society

141-A, SMCH Society

Karachi, Pakistan 74400