Some 73 years of independence have passed but Pakistan is still facing an acute water crisis. Water is becoming an existential issue for Pakistan’s future which is further aggravated by India’s construction of 40 dams along river Jhelum and Chenab. Agriculture is the backbone of our economy as 95 percent of our water supply is used for agricultural purposes and 60 percent of the population is directly involved in the agriculture and livestock sector.

Pakistan is amongst the world’s 36 most water-stressed countries according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The last major dam was constructed on river Indus, at Tarbela, in 1976 and thereafter different plans were made to construct more dams but failed due to different political agendas. The Kala Bagh dam on river Indus was considered the best for the country as Punjab was on one side and the other three provinces on the other. It could have provided millions of acres of water for irrigation and cheap electricity if all consensus regarding this construction had not failed.

The Indus Water Treaty, brokered by the World Bank, was signed in 1960 between Pakistan and India. The agreement took nine years’ worth of negotiations and divided the control of the six rivers between the two countries. Under the agreement India got control over Beas, Ravi and Sutlej while Pakistan got control over Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. This treaty is important for Pakistan because river Chenab and Jhelum originates from Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir (IIOK) and Himachal Pradesh whereas river Indus from China. India has been violating the Indus Water Treaty in the case of Kishanganga and Ratle Hydro Electric power projects as the matter has already been raised by Pakistan with the World Bank. According to article XII of the treaty, neither India nor Pakistan can unilaterally abrogate the treaty unless there is a modified and duly ratified treaty between the two countries.

The Indian Water Minister recently issued a statement threatening to utilize all the waters of Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers and letting ‘not even a single drop of water’ to reach Pakistan. In 2016, the Indian Prime Minister said that ‘blood and water can’t flow together’. The government of India has reiterated, on different occasions, its plans to disrupt the flow of water to Pakistan from its share. Some hard liners within the RSS-BJP led government are calling for the abrogation of the Indus Water Treaty.

Pakistan is now all set to construct the Diamer-Bhasha dam which is the largest dam to be built since Tarbela in 1976. The project is located along the river Indus, 315 kilometres upstream of the Tarbela dam, 165 kilometres downstream of Gilgit and 40 kilometres downstream of Chilas. Indus, the longest river of Pakistan, originates from the Mansarovar Lake in China and flows through Tibet, Ladakh, Skardu, Gilgit and Tarbela. The river is the main source of water for irrigation systems in Pakistan –especially for Punjab and Sindh. Pakistan depends on the river for all its water needs whereas India has access to eight river basins. The construction of a dam nearby was first suggested in 1980 however no headway was made due to political reasons. President Musharraf also tried to develop consensus but failed due to a lack of funds and the unwillingness of international donors. The dam will be near Chilas, Gilgit-Baltistan and its power house will be situated in Bhasha, KPK.

Feasibility studies deemed the Diamer-Bhasha dam site as a feasible site for a large dam. The dam will be the country’s third largest to be built after Tarbela and Mangla at the cost of 5.85 billion dollars or 442 billion Pakistan rupees. The eight million acre feet reservoir, 272 meter high, would be the tallest Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) dam in the world. It would produce 4500 MWs of power and 6.4 (MAF) of its water would irrigate 1.2 million acres of agricultural land and enhance Tarbela’s life by 35 years. It would increase the country’s storage capacity from 30 to 48 days.

The project will create job opportunities for 16,500 individuals of the area. On completion, by 2028, it will reduce load shedding and will generate cheap electricity. The project will boost socio-economic development, improve the living standards of local people and facilitate tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan. Some 31,000 people in 31 villages are likely to be displaced due to the dam but the government has already paid land compensation to those affected. India objected to the construction of the dam as being in disputed territory which is misleading as it is being constructed inside Pakistan’s territory. China also rejected India’s objection saying that economic cooperation between China and Pakistan was aimed at promoting development and improving the well being of the local population.

The dam is a vital project for water, food and energy supply in the country as its construction will augment water supply to the existing irrigation system. The construction of the dam would reduce Pakistan’s reliance on rivers flowing from India. There are boundary issues between Chilas (Gilgit-Baltistan) and Kohistan (KPK) on the ownership of the land spanning over 8 kilometres in Gandlo Nala. However, the federal government aims to resolve the dispute, as well as the royalties’ issues, through consultation with stakeholders. The dam, on completion, will change the socio-economic condition and prosperity for Gilgit-Baltistan and will be the life line for the country’s economy.