Damming the Indus

By Nadeem Jamali, 1997

[Expanded version of a letter titled “Kalabagh Dam: an ecological disaster?” that appeared in Dawn on June 4, 1997.]

This is in response to the numerous articles and letters that have been in the media recently supporting the construction of the Kalabagh Dam. Getting tired of seeing all anti-dam arguments being labeled completely baseless, and not to mention, often lacking in patriotism, I thought I should do a little research of my own. Having the United States' largest engineering library at a two minutes walk from my office, it didn't look like such a bad idea. Better yet, I didn't even have to walk the two minutes. I opened the computerized catalog in a window on my workstation, and found these two books right there. Enough to get me started.

Anatomy of Kalabagh Dam by Abdul Rasool Memon (former GM WAPDA and former CE Irrigation), published in 1992 at the University of Sindh.

Proceedings of PASSP Seminar on Kalabagh Dam held in 1992, but not published until 1994 by the PASSP.

I'll leave detailed reviews for some other time, but for now, it should be sufficient to say that the former clearly opposes the Kalabagh Dam, and the latter serves more to show how lacking in evidence the pro-dam lobby's arguments are. The paper defending seismotectonic studies on the dam site is only half a page long. The one by the GM (Dams), WAPDA (Lahore) is barely two pages (excluding the four pages of tables at the end). A more detailed paper by the regional director of ACE Ltd, Lahore simply downplays the significance of environmental aspect in the few paragraphs addressing the issue. The two pages by Professor Akhtar of National Institute of Power, lacking much substance, concludes that his transparencies show how none of the objections have any basis and that there is no room for debate. The one that follows by Engineer M. H. Masud Butt, a former engineering advisor to the federal ministry of water and power, ends with an insinuation that opponents of the dam are unpatriotic... reminds me of the saying about patriotism and scoundrels.

I proceed to look for papers with the word Kalabagh in their title. There's a 1990 book review in the publication, "New Scientist" by Fred Pearce for a book titled "An Assessment of the Kalabagh Dam Project on the River Indus" by Muhammad Nasir Gazdar (published in 1990, by the Environmental Management Society). The reviewer writes "The Indus in Pakistan once brought down 600 million tonnes (of silt); half reached the sea and half fertilized the alluvial plain. Today, just 50 million tonnes passes the upstream barrages and dams. Giant billion-dollar dams such as the Tarbela are expected to fill to their turbines with silt in less than 40 years.

"The span of this study includes everything from groundwater hydrology to pathogens in freshwater, the effects of acid rain on lakes and of nitrates on aquifers. Admirable case studies investigate the positive and negative impacts of Lake Naser and the High Aswan on the Nile and on Egyptian farming, the largely successful management of the Great Lakes in recent years by Canada and the US, and thorny current issues, such as the Gabcikoyo-Nagymaros barrage scheme on the River Dunabe.

"... For a political and scientific critique of why big dams get built and where they go wrong, Nasir Gazdar's assessment of the forces behind the proposed Kalabagh Dam on the Indus wins high marks.

"Large-scale irrigation of the Indus began with British Imperial engineers in the middle of the last century. Their masterplan to irrigate the Punjab remains the largest completed irrigation scheme in the world. It has been augmented by major expansion programmes over the past 50 years, and, says this assessment, "Pakistan's whole economic future has now been made dependent on the success of these huge projects".

"This is likely to be bad news because the Indus valley contains the largest expanse of land abandoned to waterlogging and salt-encrustation...

"Gazdar, who lectures at the Berkeley as well as the University of Karachi, argues that building the Kalabagh Dam to provide yet more water will "promise a rose garden but deliver dust". It is, he says, "reminiscent of the Indus Valley Civilization downfall 3500 years ago"; archaeologists are now uncovering strong evidence that this, one of the world's earliest civilizations, was brought down largely by accumulation of salt in its irrigated fields."

I'm still waiting to receive a copy of Gazdar's assessment... thanks to the inter-library loan facility, it should be arriving in a week or so.

Next stop was the search engines on the Internet. Just searching on the word "Kalabagh" returned two interesting links. One for "International Rivers Network", the people who publish the "World Rivers Review," and the other one for an organization called "Probe International".

The cover story of the April 1997 issue of World Rivers Review starts as follows:

"Delegates at the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams have demanded an immediate international moratorium on the building of large dams. Attendees of the meeting, held March 11-14 in Curitiba, Brazil, said the moratorium should last until a number of demands are met, including the provision of reparations to the millions of people whose livelihoods have suffered because of dams.

""We have stopped dams in the past, and we will stop more in the future," states the declaration. "Over the years, we have shown our growing power. We have occupied dam sites and offices, marched in our villages and cities, refused to leave our lands even though we have faced intimidation, violence and drowning. We have unmasked the corruption, lies and false promises of the dam industry We are strong, diverse and united and our cause is just."

"The "Declaration of Curitiba," which was endorsed by representatives of dam-affected people and dam opponents from 20 countries, opposes the construction of any dam not approved by the affected people "after an informed and participative decision-making process.""

It goes on to further say:

"Over the past 50 years, some 30 to 60 million people worldwide have been displaced by large dams. Tens of millions more living downstream have been impoverished due to falling productivity of their farmland and fisheries after dam construction."

The page also points you to some good books:

Catherine Caufield's new book, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations (Henry Holt), a story of the people forcibly resettled for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India.

Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, by Patrick McCully.

Looking at their older issues, I found a brief article on Kalabagh Dam in their December 1989 issue, titled "Adding to the Legacy: World Bank Funds Kalabagh Dam". The article starts out: "The World Bank Planning and Policy department has allocated $150 million for the construction of the Kalabagh Dam on the Indus River in an attempt to postpone failure of major segments of previous World Bank funded irrigation schemes. The allocation has been made even though the Pakistani government has not yet approved the project, and three of the four provincial governments of Pakistan oppose it.

"The legacy of Bank projects in the Indus Basin is seen most clearly in the sedimentation and safety problems at the huge Tarbela Dam located upstream of the proposed Kalabagh site. Built in 1976, Tarbela is now expected to become inoperative due to siltation in the next 15 to 20 years. The dam came close to failure twice: in 1977 by the collapse of two of its outlets due to cavitation, and in 1978 by massive erosion of the plunge pool that began to erode the flow spillway. Since its construction, seismic activity has increased in the earthquake-prone Indus Basin, raising fears of a failure at Tarbela and catastrophe downstream. It is, according to Dr. Nasir Gazdar of Pakistan's Environmental Management Society, unlikely that the proposed dam at Kalabagh would do anything but make matters worse. "If Tarbela goes, the Kalabagh will also fall, like a domino," he says."

It goes on to say: "If completed, the dam would trap an estimated two-thirds of the sediments of the Indus River, which has the fifth highest sediment load in the world. Critics of the project claim that by increasing salinity and waterlogging, the project will further degrade agricultural productivity of the Indus Basin as well as destroy mongrove and riverine forests, fisheries, and the Indus Delta. Current plans for the reservoir require inundating 161,876ha of fertile agricultural land including parts of the highly developed Peshawar Valley, displacing 250,000 people.

"The project site, at the convergence of the Himalayan Foothills and the Salt Range at Kalabagh, has been a source of controversy since 1952, when the then Chief of the United States Bureau of Reclamation, Mr. Savage, found it an unsuitable site for a dam. In 1980, however, a World Bank mission recommended project implementation at the earliest possible date."

After mentioning about the double talk from the Bank on the funds allocation, the article ends with: "Friends of the Earth International, and representatives from environmental and development NGOs from around the world are appealing to Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto, and Mr. B. Conable, President of the World Bank, to reject the plan." An action alert follows that.

Another interesting thing I found was a letter written by the Rivers Network to the Asian Development Bank, about Acres International, the consulting company involved with the Kalabagh Dam. Here's a part of the letter:

"... We would therefore like to draw your attention to the 1994 "Mekong Mainstream Run-of-River Hydropower" report written by CNR and Acres International. An IRN review of this study found it to be seriously flawed on methodological, economic and technical grounds. The study also seriously plays down the likely impacts of the projects. One example of this is that the Executive Summary of the study states that "environmental impacts of the proposed projects are expected to be . . . not severe". Yet the fisheries volume of the study, written separately by Don Chapman Consultants, Inc., warns that the proposed dams "may cause a wholesale decline in the fishery throughout the lower Mekong River".

So much for consulting...

They have a lot of material available on Kalabagh Dam which is available to non-profit organizations. Their web-site is http://www.irn.org

"Probe International" was another interesting site. They also have quite a lot of material on the proposed dam, including Nasir Gazdar's report. They will also send you copies of their communications with the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency, involved in the Kalabagh project, and an open letter to Pakistani Prime Minister, if you pay for the xeroxing/shipping cost. Another set of letters exchanged with the Canadian minister of external affairs are available under the title, "The problem with large-scale Hydro Dams in the Third World."

They were kind enough to send me pointers to the following articles:

Canada eyes Pakistani Hydroelectric Prospects during Power Study visit, World Water, January/February 1990

Damming the Waters of Life, by Nasir Gazdar, International Thirdworld, May 1988

Their web-site is http://www.nextcity.com/ProbeInternational

Another interesting-looking book I found in the online library catalog included:

"The Dammed: rivers, dams and the coming world water crisis", by Fred Pearce (1992), who happens to be the person who reviewed Gazdar's study in "New Scientist".

Now a little about the role of international donor agencies in funding such dangerous projects. A couple of good books to look at:

Catherine Caufield's new book, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations (published 1996 by Henry Holt, New York), a story of the people forcibly resettled for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India.

Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, by Patrick McCully (published 1996 by Zed Books, London).

Here are a few excerpts from Dr. Gazdar's May 1988 paper in the "International Thirdworld", titled "Damming the Waters of Life":

"The Indus Basin development works, particularly after the signing of the Indus Water Treaty (1960) between India and Pakistan under the auspices of the World Bank, and their implementation were executed by temperate zone trained engineers of the developed world based on the North's abundance of surplus conditions, with water seen mainly as a technical element. Consequently, their projects did not work in the Third World, and the same is happening in the Indus Basin.

"To camoflague their conceptual and design failures, and to give new life to the sagging international construction business complex, the legacy of engineering megalomania is promoted by the so-called international consultants of the World Bank, and WAPDA's techno-bureaucracy. However, these tactics would not divert public attention from the colossal failures in water development projects, in salinity and waterlogging control, declining agricultural yields, and ecological destruction of the resource base land, water and soil resources of the Indus Basin.

"The tactics of diversion for non-sustainable solution of water and land development have been manifested in a "Sabz Bagh", that is the planned construction of a colossal superdam on the River Indus... "

About the Rs. 100 crore ($ 25 million) studies we hear, one has to wonder how much was spent on actually studying the environmental impact of the proposed dam. According to a letter (Sept 18, 1990) sent by Michael H. Wiehen (World Bank Director, Country Department I) to Probe International's Margaret Barber, "This (UNDP-funded) study was completed in 1988. As part of this work, a preliminary assessment of the project's environmental impact was carried out and several other relevant studies were undertaken by the Pakistan WAPDA and the Kalabagh Consultants. Further investigations may be desirable in this area."

"Should the Government of Pakistan decide to go ahead with construction of the dam, the World Bank's decision as to whether to participate in its financing would be determined only after a careful review of the conclusions of such environmental impact study."

In another letter dated February 11, 1991, Wiehen expresses his inability to provide a copy of the 1988 UNDP-financed study because of its large size, and asks PI to approach the Government of Pakistan. A copy of the executive summary (published October, 1988) of the study was sent to PI though, which I have acquired a copy of. Here are the few lines about "Downstream Degradation" from the 67 page summary:

"The water released from the reservoir during most of the year will carry less silt than the river carries at present, and will tend to pick up sediments from the river bed downstream and cause some degradation of the bed levels. However, due to sediment sluicing every year, a lot of silt will be discharged downstream which would partly compensate for such degradation. The maximum degradation is estimated at about 7 feet (2.1 m) at Jinnah barrage, an existing structure downstream of the project. Further downstream, the degradation will be much less.

"`Sailaba' cultivation and salt water intrusion:

"The effect on the flood irrigated agriculture (sailaba) practiced in the riverian areas downstream of Guddu in Sind will not be significant. Tube wells could be installed to compensate marginally effected areas.

"The tidal intrusion effect in the Indus estuary is dissipated below Aghimani (87 miles, 140 km downstream of Kotri) and is independent of river flows."

Have they conducted a detailed environmental study of any consequence since 1988? A look at the proceedings of the PASSP Seminar (published in 1994) will tell you that they haven't. Dr. Gazdar's highly acclaimed assessment of the project is as recent as 1990, and it severely criticizes the project. What do they have to say about it? Many experts have a lot to say about the officially sponsored environmental studies... or should I say, the lack of them.

Earlier in his 1988 article, Dr. Gazdar explains, "The infatuation with building engineering megalomania still persists inspite of irreversible damages being already done to the resource base of the Indus River Basin. The planned project of constructing another super dam on the River Indus at Kalabagh adds to the ongoing episodes of degradation of resource base of the Indus River Basin.

"Water development and planning in Pakistan has been long under the domain of bureaucrats who have had a marked tendency to see these as technical projects. Scientists and environmentalists, on the other hand, have looked at water as an element of the landscape, focusing their interest on water supplies in rivers, lakes, and groundwater, and their human, floral and faunal habitats from the point of view of natural conservation, preservation, fishing, recreation, aesthetic values and public welfare.

"The aspect of water as key element in soil and thus crop production is also present in this perspective. Economically, environmentally and socially sustainable water development solutions for Pakistan are vital where water is a critical resource."

Explaining the irreversible damage already done by projects completed in the past, he adds:

"The Indus Basin irrigation system has critical water management problems (waterlogging and salinity of soils) and constraints in terms of the quantum, frequency and timely application of water for crops, from the canals to watercourses to farmgates (nukkas). Lack of drainage of irrigated lands and environmental impacts have been tailed salinity and water-logging reclamation schemes. Yearly, 22.4 million tons of salt is brought by rivers, but only 11.6 MT is carried or flushed out to sea. About 10.8 MT of salt is added to the Indus Basin annually. About 0.16 tonne of salt is left by each acre foot application of water in the Punjab, while it increases to 0.29 tons per acre-foot of water in the Sindh.

"Water quality at Sehwan on the Indus River has deteriorated by 24 percent during 1968 to 1980 and by 1985 it has reached a level of 50 percent deterioration. As the quantity of river flow is decreased, the quality is correspondingly degraded. According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (1987), `If the saline condition of Indus river reflects a new trend, then the water reaching downstream users will soon be unfit for most purposes'. This should be an eye-opener for all of those who want to regulate and impound more of the already regulated flow of river, and the environment and health of people inhabiting the vast fertile plains of the Indus River in all four provinces of Pakistan."

There are sustainable alternatives to huge dams. Quoting from Dr. Gazdar's paper again, "By constructing small and medium size water development schemes with minimal hazards and economic burden on the nation's limited resources, the propensity of land, water, soil and all the life-forms, including humankind, can be achieved.

"Instead of leaving monuments of mega-dams and wet graveyards for the future generations of Pakistanis, we should aim for better management of our water, energy and agriculture for the future of the nation, its resources and its coming generations.

"The alternatives to today's water resources development problems are through efficient water delivery systems for on-farm conservation and usage of groundwater; The development of strategy to shift funding and water development planning toward more sustainable projects that will provide long lasting social, environmental and economic benefits for progress and prosperity. Sound alternatives such as solar and wind energy production exist to meet critical energy and agricultural needs. We must move towards sustainable and indigenous renewable development and restoration of the rich integrity of the natural resources of Pakistan."

I'm not an environmental engineer... not even a civil engineer. But is it just a lack of patriotism that would make me question the wisdom behind construction of this monstrosity of a dam? I for one don't think so. There are numerous studies all over the world that talk about the environmental threats that this project poses to the regions downstream, the areas in Sindh. The "Indus Delta is on the brink of an ecological disaster", as pointed out by Peter Meynell in his paper to the 1992 PASSP seminar on the dam, and as he says, it "is irresponsible to say that we may as well cut off all the water and sediment reaching the delta, since the damage has been done and since Pakistan needs all the water it can get for energy and agriculture upstream. This would be denying the remaining benefits of the delta to the coastal communities and to the national economy."

Earlier in the paper, he explains: "The moral of the story is that before you make decisions of such environmental significance you should try to know and understand what it is you are putting at risk and what economic and social benefits you will be losing."

Now, Peter Meynell is not a Sindhi nationalist... nor are Fred Pearce, Nasir Gazdar, or most of the people world over who are campaigning against construction of large dams in third world countries. There is an established environmental cost of the Kalabagh Dam, to be paid by the communities living downstream. This of course is in addition to the forced resettlement around the site of the proposed dam.

The only thing that the masterminds behind this dam have offered us is downplaying the environmental significance of the project. Either they refuse to address the issue or they claim it to be an acceptable cost to pay. It is easier for them to find the cost acceptable, considering how most of them, curiously enough, represent interests located far from the most threatened areas. Their latest position is that the project should be kept on hold for political considerations, even though there are no technical problems left, insinuating that environmental concerns do not constitute anything technical.

The point is not whether the government officials sitting in Islamabad and Lahore are sadists looking to cause misery to their brothers in Sindh. The question is why they are ignoring an aspect that is so widely recognized as a very significant matter. Is it possible that the threats to Sindh are insignificant only in comparison to the benefits to be reaped by the Punjab? Or perhaps the World Bank agenda has found new ways to push through the system? If the only responses we get ask us to trust them (which means their judgment and their intentions), I'm afraid we have no logical justification to do that.

First, if they want us to believe that their studies are more reliable than those of experts world over who are campaigning against large dams, they have to prove it. All papers I have found so far in publications of any significance, have been against the Kalabagh Dam. There are numerous other publications and books available that are against large dams in general. Pakistani engineers have yet to build such a high tradition of excellence that one can afford to ignore criticism from experts world over. The burden of proof is squarely on the pro-Kalabagh Dam lobby.

As far as trusting intentions is concerned, the federal government's record is all too clear today, just as it has always been in matters such as the current. Punjab's interests get the highest priority. Anyone having trouble believing this has probably not seen a newspaper in the last few months. If protesters in Sindh become less of patriots by just refusing to trust some government officials' intentions (who may even have their own personal agendas to serve), probably the people deciding what is patriotic and what not need to strive harder to ensure that being patriotic to Pakistan doesn't amount to being unpatriotic to the soil, the environment that sustains them. People have been known to make surprisingly logical choices.