Dam Projects Must Take Into Consideration Social Factors

The Hindu - Date: 12-12-1998 :: Pg: 14 :: Col: C

By Kalpana Sharma

Colombo, Dec. 11

India and Pakistan were not at war in this unusual hearing on large dams being held in Colombo, convened by the World Commission on Dams. The official line from India and Pakistan on water resource use and large dams was almost identical as was the presentation of the problems the two Governments face in building large dams.

The controversial Kalabagh dam, downstream of the existing Tarbela dam on the Indus river, was the main focus of the presentations from Pakistan before the commission. ``The project stands shelved'', announced the Member and Managing Director of Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Sardar Muhammad Tariq. He stated that this was because of the opposition to the dam from different quarters. ``The world has changed. There are more than two views on these issues. That is why we are sitting together here as we have to learn from each other,'' he said.

Such a conciliatory attitude came as a surprise to most people attending the two-day South Asian hearing on large dams as the presentations by Mr. Tariq and two others from Pakistan representing the non-governmental point of view bristled with considerable hostility and tension.

The common thread that ran through their presentations, however, was an acknowledgement by both sides that environmental and social considerations had not been taken into account when the two large dams, the Mangala and the Tarbela, were built in the Sixties and the Seventies. Mr. Tariq acknowledged that in both cases, there were disputes over compensation, the displaced could not get possession of allocated lands and had problems adjusting to their relocation sites.

``Settlers in the new hamlets suffered from delays in the availability of lifeline facilities whereas those who continued living in nearby old places along the reservoir rim suffered from dislodged communications and health facilities'', he said.

Siltation was the other major problem affecting the efficiency of Mangala and Tarbela. The Indus is the fifth largest silt carrying river in the world bringing with it a load of 200 million tonnes of silt a year. Half of the new storage capacity that Pakistan hopes to gain if it builds two more large dams on the Indus - Kalabagh and Basha - will go towards replacing what is lost due to sedimentation from the existing dams. The only alternative to these two dams, Mr. Tariq argued, was several smaller projects for which an adequate number of suitable sites were not available. Thus, he saw no option but to go ahead with plans for the larger dams.

Contradicting the Pakistani official on almost every point, Mr. Shaheen Rafi Khan of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan (SDPI) argued that building the Kalabagh dam was not justified. He pointed out, for instance, that the water availability figures being projected by WAPDA had not just changed over time but were highly suspect.

For instance, it first gave a figure of 123 MAF (million acre feet) as the surface flow to justify building the Kalabagh dam based on calculations of flows over a 64-year period, which included both wet and dry cycles. Later, it revised this to 143 MAF, based on a 22 year period of only the wet cycle.

Secondly, Mr. Khan pointed out that even if more water was made available from the Kalabagh dam, there was not enough land available to use the water. At present, there was a wastage of 30 per cent in the existing water supplied for irrigation. Thus, more prudent use of water was a better option, he argued.

Compensating adequately for environmental damage that such a dam would cause, Mr. Khan argued, would completely alter the cost- benefit ratio and would not support the belief that hydel power is cheaper. He pointed out that the Indus delta ecosystem had already been adversely affected by the existing dams.

Mr. Khan also countered the argument that large dams were useful for flood control by showing figures which revealed that despite dams, the losses from floods in Pakistan had not decreased.

Finally, on the question of consulting people before any such large projects are built in future - projects which result in large-scale displacement of communities - Mr. Tariq stated that the Government had learned its lessons from past mistakes and was going through a process of full consultation in the case of the Ghazi Barotha Hydro project, due to be completed in 2001.

In all the presentations made on the first day of the hearings, the central issue that is emerging is how governments can devise an adequate mechanism of consultation before a project is planned so that it does not get delayed because of opposition from communities facing displacement or by groups concerned about the long-term adverse environmental impact.