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Dams: To be or not to be

Updated 17 Oct, 2018 01:33pm
Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

If the water bureaucracy of Pakistan and Prime Minister Imran Khan are to be believed, the question of building dams has come to have the same import as its Shakespearean equivalent. To be or not to be was the question that Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, contemplated in the eponymous play as a choice between life and death. But is the choice really that stark as far as building dams is concerned? Can a piece of infrastructure, and that too as mundane as a wall in a river, be a matter of life and death for a country as large and diverse as Pakistan? My favourite analogy about the dam debate is the choice of transport between, say, Rawalpindi and Lahore. One could travel by airplane, train, car, bus, horse, foot and so on. In such a scenario, to declare that anyone thinking about traveling by any other mode but an airplane is an anti-development traitor and an Indian agent is simply madness. A madness that Pakistani society at this time is partaking in with a lot of gusto.

Every Pakistani should have adequate water to ensure their health and hygiene. The entire country should have enough water to support its food security and economic prosperity. But if the objective is to ensure water security, a dam is one instrument besides many others which can be applied to achieve this objective. Obsession with a single pathway to achieve water security, that is, dams, may not only be stupid but also downright expensive and counterproductive.

Many of the arguments supporting large dams are predicated upon a number of fallacies. Let us review the most salient of them. The first argument is that large dams are essential for water storage. It is not true. There are three types of water storage: glaciers, groundwater storage and surface water storage (through dams). From among these three types of storage, human beings cannot do anything about glaciers. Of the remaining two, surface storage is most expensive and wasteful because of evaporative and seepage losses as well as financial and environmental costs. Groundwater storage, on the other hand, is the most efficient and demand responsive. It is little wonder then that in the United States alone hundreds of dams are being decommissioned and water storage for the past 30 years has almost exclusively been undertaken in groundwater mode.

Pakistan is very fortunate to have vast aquifers underlying the Indus planes which provide up to 80 per cent of the crop water requirements in those areas where fresh groundwater is available. Wise management of those aquifers, and not mismanagement as is the case right now, could ensure up to 54 million acre feet (MAF) of stored water as compared to seven MAF that Kalabagh Dam could store in a year. So, the dam argument does not work as far as water storage is concerned because there are cheaper and more efficient ways of storing much more water.

The second argument in favour of dams is that we are running out of water and that we have to store water for when we have less of it. This also does not hold water. Firstly, we are not running out of water. There is no natural or physical process through which we can run out of water. The same amount of water we have had for thousands of years will be around for many more years. We just have to use that water wisely. Even after taking climate change into consideration, there is no scientifically legitimate scenario under which we run out of water. Also, dams do not create water; they store whatever water there is. If in another universe we were running out of water, dams would simply be empty in that case.

The third argument is that every year we waste 35 MAF of water that goes to the sea. For people in Karachi, it might be useful to visit Gharo and Keti Bandar to see what lack of water in the Indus delta does to land and lives. Water going to the sea is not wasted; it is essential for the ecology and livelihoods of people living in coastal areas. Also, a brief look at the amount of water flowing below Kotri Barrage tells a whole different story. For eight out of the past 10 years, the average annual flow of water below Kotri has been under 10 MAF; sometimes even less than five MAF. It is only in the flood years that enough water flows below Kotri Barrage to make up an average of 35 MAF over 10 years. Average flows are the most irrelevant number in the water sector, something that our engineers cannot seem to get their heads around. The upshot is that there is simply not enough water in the system for a large dam, the size of Kalabagh Dam or Diamer-Bhasha Dam, to become viable. If one cannot fill a dam for 75 per cent of the time over a decade, how does that make that dam financially or functionally viable?

The fourth argument is about energy: dams deliver cheap electricity. But given their capital cost, as researcher Hassan Abbas has calculated, a 100 watt bulb run on electricity produced from a dam will cost 100,000 rupees. We have abundant solar power potential using which means the cost of electricity can be 20 times cheaper than what we will pay for electricity from the Neelum-Jehlum project, for example.

Lastly, Diamer-Bhasha Dam is not so much a water storage dam as it is a hydroelectric dam with a projected cost of 14 billion US dollars which is likely to double over its construction period. All that one does with hydroelectric dams is to build an artificial waterfall. At the likely cost of 28 billion US dollars, Diamer-Bhasha Dam will probably be the most expensive artificial waterfall in the world. And that too on one of the most silt rich rivers and in the most seismically active zone in the world. The consequences of the dam’s failure in this case are too terrible to contemplate. It will mean the end of every infrastructure on the Indus and hundreds of thousands of lives. Do dams get built in seismically active zones? Of course, they do. But such dams, for example those built in California which are seismically active, tend to be of lower height, around 100 feet, to protect against their failure. We are instead proposing to build the highest dam in the world, at 933 feet, in a deep gorge. The foolhardiness of the proposal is simply stupefying.

The real cost of building Diamer-Bhasha Dam is likely to be 10 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Few countries in the world would spend 10 per cent of their GDP on a risky proposition.

Is there a water crisis in Pakistan? And what do we do about it, if not to build dams? There is certainly a water crisis in Pakistan and it is a lot worse than we think it is. And it has been around for decades. Children die of renal failure in Pakistan today due to lack of clean drinking water. In parts of Karachi, people have not received water in their taps for more than a decade. The crisis is urgent and it is here. The remedy suggests itself in the simple statistic from Pakistan’s water distribution policy — that 97 per cent of water in Pakistan is devoted to agriculture.

All human habitations combined in Pakistan, including large cities like Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, can only lay claim to about two per cent of the available water. Industry also uses one per cent of the total water. Meanwhile, Pakistan is the second biggest exporter of cotton and one of the major exporters of rice and sugarcane. All three crops are major consumers of water, and all three, generally, are produced by large farmers. Simply removing subsidies on agricultural electricity, I would argue, will solve the problem of water waste in the agriculture sector in one go. Sensible crop choices could, furthermore, quadruple the amount of water available for the all-important domestic water supply sector.

To be or not to be, is not the question. Neither should the question be to dam or not to dam. The question should be: how do we give every Pakistani equitably access to water? How do we use water efficiently enough to get maximum economic benefit from it? How do we meet multiple expectations from water for our ecology, culture, economy and society? The biggest water crisis in Pakistan is its unjust distribution. Golf courses and exotic plants never face scarcity of water in big cities; only the poor have no water. Large sugarcane farms have plenty of water; small farmers do not have enough to grow food. These are the features of the water crisis that deserve immediate attention. And along the way if one needs to build a small dam here and there, to address the water crisis, then so be it.

The writer works at the department of geography at Kings's College London.

This article was published in the Herald's October 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.