COULD THIS FLOOD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?

(Edited version published in “The News” September 27, 2010)

“Water shortages”, warns the British scholar Anatol Lieven, “present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and society”. While this assertion may be exaggerated the fact remains that Pakistan is already one of the most water stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to deteriorate into an acute water shortage.

What does Global Warming do to this situation? Climate change is affecting the western Himalayas more seriously than the other mountain systems of the world. In the next few decades, the river flows will increase which is going to exaggerate flooding. After the glaciers have melted there are likely to be serious decreases in the river flows, which may not be adequately compensated through rain water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body regarded as the world’s top authority on climate change, has warned Himalayan glaciers could disappear all together by 2035.

Global Warming’s other affect, erratic weather patterns, was also amply seen in Pakistan recently. Rainfall of about 16 inches in just two days in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan triggered a torrent of water down the Indus and Kabul rivers. The historic floods that devastated Pakistan could be a sign of the future as climate change brings greater extremes of weather to the region.

The fundamental question a lot of Pakistanis are asking is whether this flood could have been avoided or mitigated if Kalabagh and Bhasha dams had been there. All storages can control floods, bigger the storage greater the flood control potential. A dam stores surplus water and distributes it through its power or irrigation tunnels or through the canals of its reservoirs through the year. Contrary to what the barrages to, dams do not reduce the flow of the rivers but add to it. Mangla dam replaced the water of rivers Ravi, Sutlej and Beas that we lost to India. Tarbela Dam increased the canal flows by 25%. In an average year 30 MAF of monsoon water flows un-tapped down the Indus. In this year of un-precedented floods the flows were considerably more.

Lack of transparency and trust has made the discussion of large dams a very difficult subject in Pakistan. Unfortunately, dams which can take Pakistan out of the power, water and economic crisis, have become a victim of parochial politics. Let’s look at some of the apprehensions of some KP politicians. They say that in a flood Nowshera and Peshawar valley would be wiped out because of Kalabagh dam. On July 30th 2010, the worst day for the Nowshera flood, the water level stood at 961 feet. If the Kalabagh Dam had been there, the highest level of its reservoir that day would have been 860 feet. They say that the drainage of Mardan, Pabbi and Swabi would be adversely affected. The conservation level of Kalabagh Dam at 915 feet is lower than the lowest ground level of Mardan, Paabi and Swabi SCARP areas.

Let’s look at some of the apprehensions of some Sindhi politicians. They say that no water is available for filling the Kalabagh reservoir. If so why did they agree to Bhasha dam then? The fact is that the average annual outflow below Kotri is 35.2 MAF. Most conservative estimates show 16 MAF of water available for storage. They say that Sindh would be converted into a desert. The fact is that after Mangla and Tarbela, Sindh canal withdrawls increased from 37.2 MAF to 44.47 MAF. Canal withdrawals for Sindh would further increase by 2 MAF after Kalabagh. Sindh has the maximum irrigable land lying wasted due to lack of water. They say that the riverine area would go out of production due to control over Indus. The Kalabagh Dam would only moderate the floods in the riverine area, not stop them altogether. Flood peaks in excess of 300,000 cusecs would still be coming. Thousands of tubewells are proposed in this area which will assure water supply throughout the year.

They say that the Indus delta mangrove forest will vanish. Only 7000 acres out of 294,000 acres mangrove forest are in the active Indus delta. After Kalabagh, flow in the Indus will actually increase when Sind’s share of 37% of 6.1 MAF, equal to 2.2 MAF, is released into it. Since the flow will not decrease, there can be no adverse affects to the Indus delta. Various figures are afloat, ranging from 4.32 MAF to 8.6 MAF to Sindh’s demand of 10 MAF that must flow below Kotri to stop sea incursion. Whatever the required amount is can be determined scientifically, but if the water flows only during the flood months how will the sea incursion be checked in other months. The Indus delta does not only need water to stop sea incursion, it needs a steady flow through the whole year which only a reservoir can provide.

In order to build confidence amongst provinces there needs to be a totally transparent and verifiable implementation of the 1991 water accord. This accord, of which all provinces are a signatory, states: “All provinces agree to the necessity of more dams on all the rivers including the Indus”. It is clear that the accord of 1991 took a major step to remove distrust regarding more dams, in particular Kalabagh dam. River water distribution was taken away from WAPDA and entrusted to a newly created federal body IRSA. It is true that water theft has not stopped after IRSA. Theft continues to take place within each province, but not by Provinces. Dams are just a scapegoat. Punjab has no direct control over the supplies to its canals. Sindh’s share was increased in all future dams to 37% from 34% by reducing Punjab’s share from 40% to 37%, despite the difference in population and area under cultivation. KP’s share was 14% and Baluchistan’s 12%.

The water accord is already an unwritten agreement on Kalabagh. Otherwise it could not have allocated 14% to KP, which can only be utilized through a right bank canal at Kalabagh. Also Sindh has no other means of getting the additional 2.2 MAF from any source other than Kalabagh Dam.

Creation of more water storages is absolutely necessary for Pakistan, not only for firming-up of water supplies for existing projects and to meet the additional allocations under the 1991 water accord, but also to mitigate the expected floods and handle the droughts in the future due to climate changes. The only dam suitable for storage of monsoon water is Kalabagh. It is also the only one which could enable integration of Indus – Jhelum – Chenab Rivers into one single basin. At the same time construction should start on Munda dam on Swat River. Nowshera and Charsada were flooded this time because of the absence of a dam on Swat River. Work should also start on the off-channel storage at Akori in Punjab which can be an effective storage for flood water. This is the first phase of the flood control efforts. Needless to say the power and irrigation potential of these projects will also be considerable.

There can be no better way to pull Pakistan out of its economic miseries than pursuing these Dam projects. The exact figure of recent floods damage is being worked out. The Prime Minister has given a figure of $43 Billion. Imagine how many dams could have been built from this amount. Also imagine how much destruction and loss of lives could have been avoided had the dams been there and how many lives and property can be saved in future if we start building these dams now. My message to the current political leadership: all your inadequacies would be forgotten and sins washed if you give the nation the present of Kalabagh dam. You will be remembered forever.

I wish to acknowledge with gratitude the input provided to me by a number of Pakistani professionals to write this article.

The writer is the Secretary General of Pakistan Muslim League and a former Federal Minister.