The Kalabagh Dam Consequences

The Kalabagh dam is controversial for many reasons. A key reason has to do with the decision making process, which is highly centralized, politically coercive, and technically flawed. Regrettably, when the need is for broad-based stakeholder consultations, the existing trend is towards even greater centralization. For instance, the rotating chairmanship of the Indus River System Authority has recently been converted into a permanent appointment, provincial resolutions against Kalabagh have been given short shrift, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has consistently ignored the matter and community concerns continue to be met with blatant disregard. Small wonder then that the political leadership in the smaller provinces and civil society are up in arms against Kalabagh.

In this essay, we critically examine four contested aspects of the Kalabagh dam. These relate to: water availability; environmental impacts; food and energy; and technical and financial feasibility. The work of colleagues is gratefully acknowledged.

Water availability is an over riding concern. Is surplus water available to justify the Kalabagh project? WAPDA itself — the generic source — has sown confusion on this issue. It cites two average flow figures: 123 MAF (million acre-feet) and 143 MAF. The first calculation is based on a 64-year period (1922-1996) and includes both wet and dry cycles. The second estimate is based on a much shorter and wet cycle period of 22 years (1977-1994). Since the total requirement (inclusive of the additional allocation of 12 MAF under the 1991 Water Accord), is calculated at 143 MAF, there is a clear short fall of 20 MAF if we use the first estimate. This means Kalabagh may remain dry every 4 out of 5 years.

Even the higher flow figure (143 MAF) overlooks certain factors. The first of these is system (evaporation and seepage) losses. If such losses increased from 6.2 MAF post Mangla to 14.7 MAF post-Tarbela, presumably, they will be even higher post-Kalabagh. This would have adverse implications for inter-provincial water distribution. New irrigation infrastructure appears untenable in view of these losses, since the increased upstream off-takes would be at the expense of downstream flows. This concern is also ignored when presenting Kalabagh as a replacement for Tarbela. Tarbela is projected to lose 5.3 MAF of its storage capacity by the year 2010. Since Kalabagh would, essentially, be replacing this loss, the Right and Left Bank canals would divert even more of Sindh’s allocations than they presently are. In addition, illegal off-takes would also tend to be exacerbated.

Consider now the environmental implications of constructing yet another large dam on the Indus River ecosystem. A catalogue of existing degradation provides the context for future environmental impacts of dams like Kalabagh. Degradation of the Indus delta ecosystem, as a result of reduced water outflows, is already a highly visible phenomenon. The present level of silt discharge, estimated at 100 million tons per year, is a four-fold reduction from the original level before large dams were constructed on the River Indus. The combination of salt-water intrusion (some reports show this as 30 km inland), and reduced silt and nutrient flows has changed the character of the delta considerably. The area of active growth of the delta has reduced from an original estimate of 2,600 sq. km (growing at 34 meters per year) to about 260 sq. km.

The consequent ravages to the ecosystem have been exceptionally severe, in particular to the mangroves, which are its mainstay. They sustain its fisheries, act as natural barriers against sea and storm surges, keep bank erosion in check and are a source of fuel wood, timber, fodder and forest products, a refuge for wildlife and a potential source of tourism. Without mangroves and the nutrients they recycle and the protection they provide, other components of the ecosystem would not survive.

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The direct and indirect benefits of mangroves are enormous. In 1988, Pakistan earned Rs.2.24 billion from fish exports, of which shrimps and prawns constituted 72%. Additional income is generated from fuelwood, fodder and forest products was another Rs.100/- million. Not only is this revenue at risk from mangrove loss, but the physical infrastructure required to replace the natural protection provided by the mangroves (dykes, walls) would entail enormously high capital and maintenance costs.

The health of mangroves is directly linked to fresh water inflows. Releases below Kotri barrage in most years and excluding floods average 10 MAF. Of this, little or none actually reaches the mangroves. The rest is lost due to evaporation or diversions. According to the Sindh Forestry Department, about 27 MAF is required to maintain the existing 260,000 ha. of mangroves in reasonably healthy condition. This is 27 MAF more than currently available, a situation which has contributed to ecosystem instability and mangrove loss. Within the framework of the Indus Water Accord, an additional 12 MAF would be diverted for upstream dam construction – including Kalabagh. This would reduce existing sub-optimal flows further and aggravate an already critical situation.

A community of about 100,000 people, residing on the northern side of the Indus Delta, depends on the mangroves for their livelihood. The prevailing view is that being under privileged, such communities are prone to degrade their environment. However, it is difficult to fathom why poor communities should endanger the very basis of their existence. The more likely explanation is that community practices have not changed, but they appear unsustainable because the resource base has begun to degrade. Communities are more often the victims than the agents of such degradation are. The real culprits are water diversion; biological and chemical water contamination and large-scale commercial practices, compounded both by institutional ignorance and complicity in such practices.

Mangrove loss is only one among the many manifestations of “biodiversity deficits” emerging along the entire length of the Indus River ecosystem. The ecosystem has been severely fragmented over time by its extensive network of dams, canals and barrages, resulting in threats to a variety of species and organisms, the most notable among them being the Indus dolphin and the ‘palla’ fish. Both can be classified as indicator species, as their impending loss represents the loss of a way of life, characterized by interdependence between communities and their environment.

Another myth firmly embedded in the minds of our planners is that large dams are the perfect flood prevention devices. The evidence for Pakistan shows otherwise; that its large dams not withstanding, there has been no reduction in the incidence and intensity of floods nor in the associated losses in lives, crops, livestock and infrastructure. There is no seeming pattern to the floods other than the fact that they could have coincided with wet cycles. In actual fact, the severity of flood impacts appears to have increased after the two major dams, Tarbela and Mangla, were constructed.

In actual fact, the shrinking of the riverbeds due to water diversions reduces their absorptive capacity and hence enhances the danger of flooding. River ecosystems have a natural capacity to deal with floods and these natural processes provide many benefits. Flood plains, wetlands, backwaters are commonly referred to as nature’s sponges; they absorb and purify excess water as a hedge against lean periods. They act as spawning grounds for fish and wildfowl. The floods themselves replenish agricultural soils. Communities living around these areas adapt to this natural rhythm and use its bounty to ensure reliable and sustainable livelihoods. It has also been pointed out that dams don’t prevent floods, they merely create ‘flood threat transfer mechanisms’. The solution is to work with communities, rely on their knowledge and to supplement their flood mitigation and coping strategies.

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Two of the most commonly cited arguments in favor of large dams relate to food security and energy. Such arguments have become increasingly compelling in the light of perceived threats to food security and the recent furor surrounding the private power projects. We examine both of these arguments in turn. Additional water from Kalabagh can enhance crop production in three ways: by irrigating new land; by enhancing cropping intensity on existing land; or through yield enhancement. The first option appears tenuous. It is claimed that Kalabagh will irrigate close to an additional million hectares of barren land, and bring Pakistan closer to wheat self-sufficiency. However, the reports of the National Commission on Agriculture and the National Conservation Strategy suggest otherwise. They indicate that available cultivable land is almost fully utilized, leaving little scope for extensive cultivation. Between 1952 and 1977, about 80% of the increase in total cropped area was due to the cultivation of new land. Since then, this proportion has fallen dramatically, with double cropping accounting for the bulk of the increase. The reports suggest that in addition to the water constraint a very tangible land constraint exists as well.

Crop production can also be increased through cropping intensity increases or crop yield enhancements. Both are water dependent and establish an a priori justification for Kalabagh. The NCS report states that at present 12.2 million hectares of land are available for double cropping while only 4.4 million hectares are being double cropped – clearly water is the constraining factor. With respect to yield enhancements, water is again required in large quantities by the high yielding seed varieties (wheat, cotton, rice, maize) and for its synergetic effects upon chemical inputs.

However, a critical choice needs to be made here. Does one opt for additional water, or can the same results be achieved through improved water use efficiency? Higher water retention in the system risks aggravating an already massive problem of water logging and salinity. In fact, the controversial and exorbitantly expensive ($780 million), 25-year National Drainage Plan project has been launched to mitigate its impacts. Kalabagh is bound to add to the problem, not only in its immediate environs but also where new irrigation infrastructure is to be situated.

A clearly preferred choice is to use existing water more efficiently, and to focus on the necessary institutional changes for its equitable distribution. Some of the proposed measures are canal and watercourse rehabilitation, land leveling, improved on-farm water management and, at the policy level, switching demand based management while protecting the needs of the poor small farmers. These are clearly win-win solutions as they are relatively low cost, efficient, equitable and environmentally friendly.

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After the recent commotion over private power, the government began to hype up Kalabagh as an alternative source of cheap and clean energy. In the process, it switched adroitly from its earlier position that energy demand had been overstated, to one where it now posits a deficiency in supply. However, the cheap energy argument is becoming increasingly untenable – both financially and technically. Donors such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are unlikely to provide concessional funding for Kalabagh. This reflects their commitment to the thermal based private power projects, as well as the censure they have faced for getting embroiled in projects with major environmental and resettlement costs. And even if concessional funding was available, it is still not clear that hydel unit costs would be lower than thermal, once these costs are factored in.

At this point, the whole debate appears to be moot since the government is scampering for funds to keep the economy afloat against the backdrop of sanctions. Even so, renewed policy statements suggest there is a resolve to proceed when the situation permits. Apart from the political compulsions, there is an inertial aspect to this decision as well. Institutional and financial paralysis inhibits the scope for energy conservation, efficiency improvements and diversification. The options have been identified often enough: on the supply side these are reduction of transmission and distribution (T&D) losses and renewable energy development technologies (solar, wind, biomass). On the demand side, both technical and economic options exist for energy conservation. While these have been employed to some extent (tariff increases, energy efficient lighting), the efforts are a far cry from the kind of sustained initiatives launched in some South Asian countries, such as Thailand, where revamped energy supply systems are part of a larger network, with linkages to R&D, the private sector and trade facilities.

The title of a study “Tarbela Dam Sedimentation Management”, carried out by TAMS-Wallingford (March 1998) is self-explanatory. It shows that a de-silted Tarbela would yield the same irrigation benefits as Kalabagh, but at one-seventh the cost in net present value terms. The study states that, “replacement of [irrigation and energy] benefits by constructing a new dam and reservoir down stream is feasible, but will be expensive, environmentally damaging and socially harmful. An alternative option cited is the construction of new outlets at the Tarbela Dam that will enable sediment to be flushed from the reservoir.

The proposed Tarbela Action Plan is based on computer simulations of sediment flows. These simulations were designed to determine whether flushing was technically feasible and could be used to enhance long run storage capacity and to predict future sedimentation. Based on these simulations, a three phased action plan was proposed. The implementation of this plan would ensure long term and sustainable storage with only a small annual reduction in capacity. The estimated increase in retention at 6 MAF is exactly what the Kalabagh reservoir is designed to hold.

Our conclusion is that the burden of proof is on those who advocate building the Kalabagh Dam. Our findings show that it is not economically, socially or environmentally viable. Also, the proposed benefits are based on faulty or misunderstood premises and, in any case, there exist in each case more viable and cost effective alternatives.


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