Our water issue has thankfully made it into the news these days. TV shows are discussing it as is the SC. One expert Dr Hassan Abbas has been regularly arguing against dams in articles that are being shared on various social media platforms. I’m not a hydrology expert but will nevertheless attempt to ask questions that, hopefully, Dr Hassan and others can take up in newspapers to create a more informed discourse on this matter.

I’m an entrepreneur with interests in progressive farming. I’m actively working on developing marketing channels whereby better-quality produce can be grown and sold nationwide and then beyond. When I read Dr Hassan’s articles against dams, one thing that seems to be missing to me is the absence of consideration of our agrarian economy. When we say dams are un-natural and there is a reason why deserts are deserts, then we are ignoring at least a century worth of developments in our lands. The British initially and then successive Pakistani governments developed an extensive irrigation network based on canals that brought under cultivation large tracts of previously barren lands thus giving rise to our agri-economic system that we know today.

Over the years, our farmers developed bad farming practices of flood irrigation and growing water-intensive crops like rice and now sugar cane, thanks to plentiful and almost free “nehri” water. Respective governments tried to introduce flimsy water conservation projects, but very few farmers have attempted to conserve water. I have put up drip irrigation and shifted to growing produce on my farmland, but I know firsthand how hard it’s been to convince people of the usefulness and necessity of this. Changing habits and cropping patterns will not only take time but also it will also require massive policy shifts and awareness campaigns. Even then, our agri-economic system will centre on the canal network that in turn requires dams.

What about our growing population? As we grow, we have more mouths to feed. If we allow nature to take its course and let the process of re-desertification continue unhindered what will we do with the farmers losing their livelihoods and the food, they grow for us? How will we cope with the resulting increase in malnourishment for an already malnourished nation?

Not to mention Pakistan’s economy which is suffering from severe structural issues that result in our economy’s crash landing and recourse to foreign lenders time and time again. One fundamental issue is the rapidly eroding competitiveness of our industry and resultant retardation in exports. The primary factor that hinders competitiveness is our energy cost. We are producing energy that is just too expensive. Secondly, we are producing energy reliant on imported sources like furnace oil, coal and LNG. Therefore not only are our dollars earning exports faltering, but we are also spending increasing amounts of our scarce dollars on imported fuel sources for our power plants.

Neelum-Jehlum has been a disaster with cost overruns, no doubt. But that is not because hydel is inherently expensive. That is because of WAPDA and our power sectors mismanagement and corruption. Instead of fixing WAPDA or letting the private sector take the lead we are condemning and ruling out dams. That too, to me does not make sense as we have globally seen many statistics proving hydel energy to be the cheapest.

If I were to accept the logic of Neelum-Jehlum, then I’d rule out solar energy as, well given the catastrophic Quaid e Azam solar park and its prohibitively high energy cost. But I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Solar is needed, and its costs are coming down. We need the private sector to take the lead or at least get corrupt officials out of the way.

Hydel to date is the cheapest and most efficient form of renewable energy. It displaces people and affects ecology, but it’s not like we are developing the three gorges dam on the Indus. Do not build dams for the sake of building dams. Build dams where it makes sense. Kalabagh technically, environmentally and economically makes sense. Other sites may not.

Life of dams again is an issue with silting a problem but is the life of a solar panel unlimited? Even with storage capacity coming down, power generation capacity remains unaltered. Solar panels on average degrade by 1% each year. I’m sure solar will improve its efficiency, and Tesla batteries will change the dynamics, but the same is happening with hydel turbine technology as well.

As a part-time farmer, I see water shortage in Pakistan in the winter months. I see water in some summers like in 2010 and 2011 being way too abundant. I see snow melts and monsoons coinciding and overlapping. But for the monsoons, I know no reservoir capturing them. I see Kabul River and its flows going untouched. I see climate change increasingly bringing extremes into our weather with one-year increased snow melts and the next, like this year, having alarmingly low levels of snow melts. I see much of the world coming up with time-tested techniques and mechanism to help them regulate and modulate water flows, which include dams as well as natural flow techniques. Then, why dams don’t make sense for Pakistan? Do dams stop floods? Of course not. Do they store some of the excess water? Of course. Have our aquifers been recharged or does the water flow out to the Arabian Sea? I don’t know. NASA publishes satellite imagery showing Pakistan’s water table dropping, while we see hundreds of thousands of cusecs flowing into the sea every summer. In the city of Lahore, I have to bore down to 700 ft to get water now. Do I see the work happening on aquifer refilling or wastewater recycling happening? Not really

I’m a big believer in technology and creative disruption. That’s what I’m actively trying to do in my professional life. I also believe in being solution oriented and not rigid in belief when it comes to solving complicated issues. Water is life, and I am first hand experiencing alarming changes in our water and energy economy. I believe we need dams, small and big. On the Indus and riverine receiving hill torrents. We have to do it smartly. We have to recharge our aquifers. We have to conserve water and start pricing it appropriately. We have to transition away from growing sugar cane and rice to crops that require less water.  We need urban wastewater treatment and recycling. We need Solar, wind and other indigenous renewable sources so that we can get a grip on imports and oil price fluctuations. We need a government that prioritises service delivery makes policies for the next 100 places and above all uses technology and global best practices to reduce corruption and mismanagement.

In the meantime, though water riots are a reality. Malnourishment is a reality. Corrupt governance and bad power deals are a reality. Dams being bad though is one reality I’m not buying.

 

The writer is a freelance columnist.