Damming the People

Aly Ercelawn, Karamat Ali and Omar Asghar Khan, 1998

For many years, Presidents and Prime Ministers of Pakistan wouldhave us believe that a another large dam on the Indus -- now at Kalabagh downstream of Tarbela dam -- is a harbinger of national prosperity. This suggestion has been roundly and repeatedly rejected by people of all provinces except Panjab which directly benefits from the dam project. Immediately after presiding over the first-ever nuclear test explosions by Pakistan last May, PM Nawaz Sharif become emboldened enough to commit the federal government to building Kalabagh dam. His announcement was met yet again with widespread and sustained protest across the country. Sitting on the fence, former PM Benazir Bhutto agrees that the dam is a good idea but Panjab should get other provinces to see the light.

With 6 MAF storage, Kalabagh dam will be the third large dam in Pakistan after Tarbela (also on the Indus) and Mangla. At a cost of over $6 billion (excluding new canal systems), the new dam is designed to bring many thousand acres of Panjab and NWFP land under cultivation, and produce as much as 3000 mw of hydel power. Where will the dam get its water from? The federal irrigation agency, WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority), has a simple answer: the dam will use water that is now "wasted" by flowing into the sea through the southern province of Sindh.

The federal government argues that Kalabagh dam has a particular urgency to speed economic recovery in Pakistan. International sanctions against nuclear tests have exacerbated an already weak economy. Food security is threatened, and privately generated thermal power is too expensive. According to government, self-reliance demands the Kalabagh dam, whose engineering plans have been ready for many years. It dismisses the need for a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the dam.

Pitted against the federal government and the Panjab establishment are the peoples of the remaining three provinces of Pakistan -- Sindh, NWFP (North-West Frontier Province), and Balochistan. Both NWFP and Sindh protest that Kalabagh dam will bring immediate, widespread, and irreversible damage to their lands and forests. Water-starved Balochistan fears that its plans to expand agriculture from current shares of Indus waters will come to naught. Hoping to defuse tensions, the Prime Ministers seemed to have agreed to proceed with the dam project only with unanimous agreement of all four provinces. But, called upon to evolve a consensus, federal ministers and agencies have shown a distressing disregard of their primary obligation to safeguard the federation.

Leading the evangelists for Kalabagh dam, WAPDA confines itself to proclaiming the dam's necessity and feasibility; casually dismisses the concerns of adverse impacts; and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge better alternatives to meet the dam's objectives -- all in defiance of resolutions against the dam by three provinces as well as the Senate Standing Committee on Water & Power. Fearful of repeated rejection of the dam by the Indus River Systems Authority, the President has now ordained that this oversight body will now be entrusted to loyal servants of the State rather than nominees of public representatives of the provinces.

Spokesmen for Panjab and the federal government base their crusade for Kalabagh dam on the following grounds. First, a rapidly growing population and feeble economic growth need more water and energy to fuel agricultural and industrial growth. Second, the dam will irrigate additional lands and produce electricity through Indus waters otherwise wasted. Third, people of Panjab and NWFP displaced in the vicinity of the dam can be compensated adequately. Fourth, there will be no other significant adverse impacts upon people or the environment anywhere else in Pakistan. Fifth, Kalabagh dam is economically superior to other feasible alternatives for increasing food and energy supplies.

This note explains why Kalabagh dam will be both inefficient and inequitable use of the federation's resources. The dam is unnecessary because there are superior alternatives. If built and used as planned, the dam will benefit a small number of people but impose enormously high costs on a substantially larger number of people now as well as in future generations through large-scale environmental degradation. The note ends by proposing specific steps towards a democratic process for resolving such conflicts.


Through land lost to the reservoir and seepage, the dam will directly displace between one and two hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the dismal performance of WAPDA in compensating and resettling a substantially smaller number of people displaced by Tarbela dam, Ghazi-Barotha Hydropower Project, and Chotiari Reservoir project, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the federal government and its agencies have the will, resources and capacity to tackle an enormously larger number of people displaced by Kalabagh.

WAPDA makes much of a lower dam height and sophisticated water release techniques in order to protect nearby cities and villages (in Nowshera district) from the heightened risk of damage by floods. Witnessing the outrageous conduct of WAPDA during earlier floods when it put Mangla dam ahead of people downstream (in Jhelum), the communities of these regions refuse to place their lives and livelihoods in certain jeopardy at the hands of dam engineers.

All dams cause the water table to rise in surrounding areas. Kalabagh dam will be no exception. Substantial areas of the central districts of NWFP and Potohar plateau of Panjab dam will be rendered waste through water logging and salinity. Such communities are unlikely to receive anywhere close to adequate compensation because WAPDA has not historically been very responsible in these matters.

As has been observed in many international dam projects, the most pronounced but also most neglected are downstream adverse impacts. WAPDA asserts that there will be no such significant effects of Kalabagh dam. When the people of Sindh contrast the history of Indus flows recorded by WAPDA with water allocations in the Water Accord between provinces, they can only conclude that WAPDA is self-servingly casual about the evidence of adverse impacts. It will be an extremely rare year in which Indus floods are large enough to utilise the dam without reducing current allocations of flows to each province. Years of normal flows will permit Kalabagh dam and associated new irrigation schemes to be used only by reducing the allocations to Sindh and Balochistan. Their political clout will ensure that upland agriculture and urban supplies are always protected. In which case, the people of Indus delta will bear the brunt of damage to their lands and forests through reduced freshwater flows and increased sea water intrusion. It is a travesty of national development to build Kalabagh dam by the forced destruction of the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the lower riparian region of Pakistan.

Concerns of the Indus delta have unfortunately received short shrift by the infrastructure lobby. It is not just Kalabagh, but any additional storage dam or barrage anywhere on the Indus that is a grave threat to the livelihoods of millions of peasants and fisherfolk along the Sindh coast - because such diversions of freshwater promise to devastate the dwindling natural resources of the delta. These are not imaginary fears; it is Mandarins of the State who treat people of the coast as invisible victims of their "development" agendas. Ever since the construction of the Sukkur Barrage in the 1930s, and continuing with the barrages and dams into the 70s, the Indus delta has been steadily deprived of fertile silt and freshwater which nourish its land and forests. Commercial interests of upland agriculture and "cheap" energy production have colluded with construction carnivores to take cover behind the self-serving myth of using "water flowing wasted into the sea."

In discussing the impact of the Provincial Water Accord of 1991, IUCN's Peter Meynell bluntly stated that the Indus Delta was already on the "brink of ecological disaster." This bleak assessment led him and other experts to recommend a minimum flow of around 30 MAF downstream of Kotri barrage. Sindh irrigation expert, and former Senator, Kazi has argued time and again that historical records of WAPDA establish that total availability of Indus flows cannot satisfy committed allocations. In consequence, any additional upstream reservoir such as Kalabagh will either lie unfilled in all 5 out of 6 years, or the Indus delta will be lucky to get even a measly 10 MAF of water in only 1 of 6 years. After the inequitable 1991 Water Accord and the 1997 National Finance Award it should be obvious who will be made the sacrificial goat by Islamabad.

Do dammers in the mountains and plains really want to transform the Indus delta into "a desiccated place of mud-cracked earth, salt flats, and murky pools," as the Colorado delta has become for the Mexican "people of the river... who are at risk of extinction?" This is the bleak outcome of the Colorado River being so heavily dammed and diverted in the western US that "it literally disappears into the desert before it reaches the sea."


Except to construction carnivores, Panjab's enthusiasm for the dam is inexplicable in the face of a number of well-known alternatives that will cost less money and completely avoid the massive human and environmental costs of another dam. Reducing waste within the irrigation system is an obvious measure, since at least half of the water is lost to evaporation, seepage, etc. At more than 1100 cm per capita, Pakistani agriculture gobbles more than half as much as what Egypt uses and 3 times more than what India consumes by way of freshwater. One estimate is that measures for lining water courses, land levelling and the like will cost only 10% of the cost of getting the same water from Kalabagh dam. All water for new cultivation in Panjab can therefore be recovered from investing in conservation measures for its own current share of Indus waters. This would be cheaper and pose no threat to other provinces.

The present WAPDA power system incurs line losses of no less than 25% in transmission and distribution. Clearly, investments in reducing this waste are cheaper than building more capacity only to lose another one-fourth again. In addition, present generating capacity is already underutilised by a large margin, and a surplus is likely to remain when the Ghazi Barotha Hydropower project comes on stream in a couple of years. When getting power to the villages is a priority, decentralised projects of wind and solar power need to be taken far more seriously by provincial and federal governments.

A recent study by TAMS and HR Wallingford for WAPDA compares the cost of desilting Tarbela dam with building Kalabagh dam. It concludes that desilting Tarbela dam and reducing future sedimentation will cost nearly one-half of Kalabagh dam to achieve the same irrigation and energy objectives. Action towards desilting Tarbela will also go some way in restoring the natural fertility regime of the Indus.


A just and equitable water policy would become easier to plan and implement only when citizens strive to give priority to communities over the nation, to territory over the centre, and to the federation over the state. This democratic vision suggests some concrete steps.

First, and most importantly, federal as well as provincial governments must announce a complete moratorium on any more dams and barrages.

Second, the federal government and provinces should constitute a National Water Commission. Its terms of reference should be two-fold: to examine basin-wide social, economic, and environmental impacts of all existing and proposed irrigation and drainage systems; and to propose alternatives for expanding irrigation and power supplies. To be credible, the Commission should be headed by an expert from the non-governmental sector, with commissioners representing dam affected communities, NGOs, technical experts, and provincial governments. The recently formed World Commission on Dams can be of much assistance to the National Water Commission.

Third, public representatives should subsequently ensure broad-based public discussion and debate of the Commission's findings, with a view towards informed consent of communities affected by any water projects, including Kalabagh dam.

Fourth, federal and provincial legislators would ensure that all water projects are given public hearings in Standing Committees, and endorsed by provincial assemblies before qualifying as a subject for negotiations at any federal forum.

Fifth, federal legislators would proceed with federal funding of only such projects as have received the Commission's approval, been given provincial ratification, obtained unanimous agreement in the Council of Common Interests, and gained subsequent approval by the federal Senate.


The authors are partners of the creed alliance in Pakistan, an advocacy group for efficient and equitable reforms in development. Aly Ercelawn used to be a senior economist at the University of Karachi; Karamat Ali heads the Pakistan Institute of Labour Economics and Research; Omar Asghar Khan leads the SUNGI Development Foundation.

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