LAHORE – The issue of Kalabagh dam came into limelight once again on Thursday, following the Lahore High Court’s verdict for its construction.

The dam located in the Punjab on the Indus River – a multi-purpose hydroelectricity cum-irrigation project – that could have added 3,600mw electricity to the national grid and store over six million acres feet of water. It has long been identified as a technically feasible project by the Wapda and the top engineers of the country. Over Rs one billion have so far been spent on the feasibility and design of the project, but consensus on its construction by the provincial governments is not forthcoming.

The project, with its feasibility and impact studies carried out, detailed design and engineering work done and project costs estimated, is a shovel-ready project and being considered a lifeline for Pakistan. It was designed in 1984, with the assistance of the UNDP, supervised by the World Bank. Following the submission of its project planning report, it was put up to the federal and provincial governments for approval of the launching of this gigantic project. In the meantime, the project teams were asked to complete the detailed designs and contract documents to make it ready to enter the implementation stage.

This task was completed in another two and a half years and the construction was to start in mid 1987. It was estimated to cost US$ 3.46 billion and scheduled to be completed in six years, with the first generating unit to be commissioned in April 1993. But the programme could not be materialised owing to opposition from some provincial governments, mainly on political grounds, adversely affecting the agriculture and energy sectors directly and industrial and manpower sectors indirectly.

Opponents of the dam in Sindh claim the construction of the KBD will convert the province into a desert. They say high-level outlets will be used to divert water from the reservoir to the Punjab. Cultivation in riverine areas will be adversely affected and the seawater intrusion in the Indus estuary will accentuate, they hold. In addition, according to them, mangrove forests which are already threatened will be further affected and fish production as well as drinking water supply below Kotri will also suffer a big loss.

ANP leaders from KPK, the great opponents of the dam, hold they will never allow the construction of the dam. They have the main concern that vast areas of Nowshera (a KPK district) will be submerged by the dam and other areas will also be affected by water-logging and salinity as had happened to the areas damaged by the Tarbela Dam. Balochistan is not directly affected by the dam as such. Most of Baloch nationalists, however, claim the dam is an instance of grievances of the smaller provinces.

Interestingly, their objections have long been clarified by the experts who are in favour of the project. “Sindh and KPK will become barren in the years to come, if Kalabagh Dam is not built,” says Shamsul Mulk, a former chairman of Wapda and a strong voice in favour of the dam from KPK. He holds: “KBD will be helpful in eliminating poverty from PKK as it will irrigate 800,000 acres of cultivable land which is located 100-150 feet above the level of the River Indus. Kalabagh Dam would provide 6.5 million acres feet of water to cultivate seven million acres of currently barren land. This is in addition to the 3,800mw electricity it would generate.” It is consensus of experts that there is a dire need to construct more dams, especially the KBD, not only to make up for the lost capacity of water, but also to store surplus water at the times of floods and generate cheaper electricity. They say if Pakistan has any priorities, its number one priority should be to build Kalabagh. “If we are not going to build it, no one else will do it,” they say.

The major political parties, however, have been either silent or issue diplomatic statements about the construction of the dam for the past three and four years. “Those who are not advocating the construction of the dam intentionally or unintentionally are supporting what the enemies of the country are fervently praying for a no-new-dam situation and, especially a no-Kalabagh situation, for Pakistan,” said a Wapda official.

A recent study shows that the country has very little capacity to store rain and glacial water which is 75 percent of our total water availability and is further losing the capacity as the dams continue to silt up. In another five to seven years, at the current rate of dams’ siltation, the country will not have enough water for crops and will suffer major food shortages.

“The KBD is the need of the hour and its construction should be started immediately to save the country from turning into a desert,” the official added.

The Wapda deleted the dam from its website in 2008 when then Water and Power Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf termed it infeasible because of the ‘objections of the stakeholders’ to the project.