Unnecessary controversy over Kalabagh Dam
Weekly Pulse
Jan 27-Feb 2, 2006
Can we, Pakistanis, really qualify as a nation? Or, are we just a collection of a few ethnicities mostly at dagger’s dawn? The sickening ontroversy over Kalabagh Dam, which has for now been put on the backburner by President Musharraf, would suggest a ‘no’ answer for the former question and a ‘yes’ one for the latter.

The Kalabagh dam controversy has been raging for years, fuelling ethnic fissures between Punabis, on the one hand, and Sindhis and the Pashtuns, on the other. This is not to suggest that all Punjabis were in favour of Kalabagh, or, for that matter, every Sindhi or Frontier person backed its rejection. There were broad-based exceptions among both the proponents and opponents of the project.

As clear from the President’s recent address to the nation, instead of Kalabagh, the first to start in February 2006 would be the Bhasha dam, the site for which is located up on the mountainous range pf Karakoram. People have cited pluses and minuses for Bhasha, while comparing it to the now-delayed Kalabagh. However, the very fact that at least one of these dams will soon start to actualize is important. The other four to follow Bhasha, in the President’s words, will be Munda, Kalabagh, Akori and Kurrum Tangi dams.

The main reason advanced by the President for the multi-dam project is the growing shortage of water and power in the country. There could be no two opinions about this. As for Kalabagh, he pointed out that the dam’s feasibility study and structural design were ready, and, therefore, its construction could immediately start. This is not something new, as Shamsul Mulk, the former WAPDA chief, has been telling us about this for years now.

The reason why the project is being delayed is due to the unavailability of national consensus, especially “since there are doubts and apprehensions about Kalabagh in Sindh and to some extent in NWFP.” Such doubts and apprehensions were advanced essentially by a handful of disgruntled ethno-nationalist elements like Rasool Bakhsh Palejo and Haji Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, who went to the extent of calling Shamsul Mulk a “traitor”—just because he spoke the truth.

What can we hope from a democratically elected civilian leadership of this country, when an all-powerful military leader gets blackmailed by a handful of the so-called nationalists, who do not have particular roots among the people? The PPP Parliamentarian did publicly side with the opponents of the dam, but, certainly, the Punjabi leadership within the party would have hated party leaders from Sindh like Khurshid Shah and Amin Fahim displaying victory signs after the President’s speech. Some leaders of a national party playing ethnic politics would surely end up weakening its national strength. After all, Punjab has always proved politically crucial for the People’s Party’s grip over national power.

For now, the Kalabagh dam project has been postponed. However, sooner or later, it has to be revived. Without additional large-scale reservoirs, Pakistan’s economy would not be able to sustain an annual Gross-Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of roughly 7 per cent. If farmers are able to grow more crops, if people are able to get cheaper electricity, if the enormous amount of river water that is annually wasted in the sea is saved, if we are able to store enough water to meet the farming and energy needs of a dry season, then what is the harm in having dams such as Kalabagh?

As for the allegations such as that the construction of Kalabagh dam would reinforce Punjabi domination of the country, they are not only illogical but also morally repugnant. Punjab has as much poverty, disease or hunger as any other province of the country. In many ways, as far as the question of meeting the agricultural needs of the country is concerned, it is primarily the Punjab which feeds the rest of the country. Even if the most backward Seraiki region of the Punjab benefited the most from a project like this, should it not be a reason for celebration for the rest of the countrymen?

Learning from Turkey’s Gap project

We should really be ashamed of ourselves. For the way we have fought among ourselves on ethnic basis on a project that would surely benefit the entire country, is deeply disgusting. We can learn from our brotherly country, Turkey, a lesson that is quite contrary to our experience with Kalabagh. What divided us has in fact united Turkey.

The South Eastern Anatolian Project (abbreviated as GAP in Turkish) is Turkey’s most ambitious and largest development project, involving the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  By 2010, the project is to provide 22 per cent of Turkey’s electricity needs and irrigate 1.7 million hectares of new farmland, 20 per cent of the total cultivable land in Turkey. As the only “water rich” country in the Middle East together with Lebanon, Turkey has visions of becoming the “breadbasket of the Middle East”; exporting food to water-poor but cash-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel. Costing so far around $35 billion in Turkish and foreign investment, GAP was initiated in the 1980s as a purely economic project to exploit this forgotten corner of Turkey by tapping into its only resource: water. By taking control over the 82 billion cubic metres of water that annually flows through the two abundant but unpredictable rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, Turkey aims to boost agricultural and industrial production, create new jobs and increase income levels in the neglected south-eastern Anatolian region, marred by Kurdish rebellion.

The largest of the completed dams on the Euphrates River is the Ataturk Dam. Completed in 1990, it is the sixth-largest rock-filled dam in the world, with an embankment 184 m high and 1,820 m long. Water impounded by the dam is fed to power-generating units at Sanliurfa that have a capacity of 2,400 megawatts. From there the water is gravity-fed to vast irrigation networks in the Harran Plain and elsewhere in the vicinity.

The year 2020 is the target date for GAP’s completion. When fully operational, GAP is expected to double Turkey's hydroelectric production, increase irrigated areas by 50 per cent more than double the Per Capita Income in the region, more than quadruple the Gross National Product, and create two million new jobs in the coming decade.

Unlike Pakistan, where the opposition to the Kalabagh dam has come from a couple of provincial ethnic constituencies, the GAP has enjoyed widespread public support all across Turkey. The construction of a chain of dams in Pakistan, including Kalabagh, could similarly ensure rapid economic advancement of it deprived regions—be it the Seraiki belt of Western Punjab, the rigged terrain of the Frontier and Balochistan or the vast deserts and plains of the Sindh province. Interestingly, the main opposition to Turkey’s gap project is from Syria and Iraq, who claim to be suffering severe water shortages due to the GAP development.  They say Turkey is deliberately withholding supplies from its southern neighbours, turning water into a weapon.  Turkey denies these claims, and insists it has always supplied its neighbours with the agreed minimum of 500 cubic metres a second.  It argues that the dams in fact benefit Iraq and Syria as the water flow has been regulated, protecting all three countries from seasonal droughts and floods.