Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf's government plans to commence construction of a massive dam in 2016 on the Indus river at Kalabagh, near the border between the Punjab and North West Frontier provinces. Opponents of the World Bank-funded dam project see it as another grab for water by the Punjabi ruling elite, which dominates federal politics in Pakistan.
The government claims that the dam is necessary for Pakistan's economic development, that it will provide 3600 megawatts of hydroelectric power and 35,000 jobs.
Musharraf has said that the dam project will proceed against any opposition and that the federal and Punjabi governments will topple any provincial government that opposes the project. Of Pakistan's four provinces, three provincial parliaments — North West Frontier (NWFP), Sindh and Balochistan — have passed resolutions opposing the dam.
On December 31, four progressive parties in Punjab united to protest against the proposed dam. The rally, held in Lahore, was charged by police, and activists of the four parties — the National Workers Party, the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), the Pakistan Mazdoor Mehaz and the Mazdoor Kissan Party — were beaten.
Farooq Tariq, an organiser of the rally and national secretary of the LPP told Green Left Weekly by phone: "The LPP opposes the dam because it will deny Sindh its share of water and turn it into a desert. We oppose the construction of big dams on environmental grounds. Furthermore, this dam will benefit the Punjab ruling class and will add to the exploitation of Sindh. All provinces except the Punjab have repeatedly opposed the construction of this dam. This democratic verdict should be taken as a referendum and the dam abandoned.
"For the dam to proceed, especially under an unelected, military dictatorship, is a violation of all democratic norms."
Two days earlier, protesters at Jehangira, 60 kilometres east of Peshawar, closed the Grand Trunk road between Peshawar in the NWFP and the country's capital Islamabad for seven hours. That rally was organised by the Awami National Party (ANP) and was attended by representatives of almost all political parties, including the Pakistan People's Party, an ally of Musharraf.
The Mutehida Majlas Amal, a coalition of Islamic fundamentalist organisations that form the provincial government of the NWFP, also sent representatives to the rally.
ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan told the rally: "Pakistan and Kalabagh dam cannot co-exist". He said that proceeding with the dam against the wishes of three provinces could lead to a "1971-like situation", referring to the civil war that saw east Pakistan split off to form Bangladesh.
"We are opposed to the disintegration of the country, but if the establishment is bent on drowning its own people — then we will choose how we want to die", he said.
The Musharraf regime already faces an insurgency in Balochistan — ostensibly over inequitable treatment of the Balochi people and diverting resources from that province.
In March 2005, a "Long March" of 500km ended in a rally of 100,000 opponents of the dam in Karachi, Sindh's capital.
As early as June 1998, the day after the dam project was announced, protests of thousands of people around the country erupted against the proposal and protests throughout the country have continued since then.
To understand the passion that this dam arouses it is necessary to understand the importance of the Indus river system to Pakistan and the effects the dam will have on the workers and peasants of Pakistan.
Importance of Indus River
The Indus River originates some 5000 metres above sea level in the glaciers of the northern slopes of Kailash Parbat in Tibet collecting melting snow and rainwater from a wide catchment area. Flowing north-west through Ladakh-Baltistan into Gilgit just south of the Karakoram range it gradually turns south into Jammu-Kashmir, coming out of the hills between Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan.
On its 2900km journey to the Arabian Sea, the Indus is augmented by 10 major rivers and passes through the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan.
Pakistan depends almost entirely on the Indus river system for its irrigated agriculture. Two-thirds of the country's 200 million inhabitants depend on the erratic flows of the Indus for their water needs and millions are directly or indirectly reliant on the river for their livelihoods. It is not surprising therefore that water distribution and control of the Indus and its canal system has always loomed large in Pakistan's politics.
Indeed the dispute over the Indus' water goes back before the creation of Pakistan to the 1870s when conflict erupted between Sindh and Punjab over the latter's construction of irrigation infrastructure on the Indus. By 1945 the British colonial rulers had imposed a solution on the two provinces whereby the right of Sindh to receive the waters of the Indus was held supreme. This arrangement continued until 1977 when the federal government of Pakistan began an ad-hoc process of water apportionment between provinces, which favoured distribution to the Punjab.
Disputes between the provinces and the federal government over water allocation led to the signing of the Indus Water Accord in March 1991.
Under the accord the provinces were allocated a certain percentage of "balance river supply" which accounted for the need for a minimum flow through of water to the sea. Under the accord, the allocations were Punjab 37%, Sindh 37%, the NWFP 14% and Balochistan 12% of available supply. Water shortages and surpluses were thus to be shared equitably among the four provinces.
However, in May 1994 the Punjab government proposed a different formula for water distribution. Known as the "historical uses formula", this used as its baseline for calculating "historical uses" of water the 13-year period 1977-90 — the period during which the federal government's ad-hoc distribution in favour of the Punjab was in force.
Punjab's proposal was found by the courts to be a breach not only of the accord but of the country's constitution.
However, using its physical control over canal heads and dams, as well as other measures, the Punjab government has been able to impose its formula for water allocation on the rest of Pakistan, an allocation that favours Punjab.
This inequitable distribution of water is set to become worse with construction of the Kalabagh dam.
The Kalabagh dam site
The dam site is close to the massive Kohat and Khewra salt ranges, the latter containing the oldest operating salt mine in the world. The leaching of large quantities of salt from these ranges into the river system as a result of ground saturation and changes to hydrology in the region because of the dam are major concerns for opponents.
Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) puts the total cultivable land to be permanently submerged as a result of the dam at around 14,000 hectares. However, independent assessments have put the figure as high as 74,000 hectares. Neither figure includes lands that will be inundated during a river flood event. Nor do these figures take account of the effect of the rise in river levels above the dam.
The construction of the dam threatens the Nowshera valley in the NWFP with inundation during a flood. Also threatened with flooding will be Nowshera City which straddles the Kabul River and has a population of 200,000.
The WAPDA projects that 83,000 people will be displaced by the dam during and after its construction. Other sources, including the government of the NWFP put the figure at over 100,000 people.
Desertification is already a major problem in Sindh. The fertile plains of Sindh have been contracting for decades and the farming population that once inhabited what are now sand dunes have moved to the cities seeking a livelihood. The construction of the Kalabagh dam includes construction of a new canal on the left bank on the river that will take irrigation water to the Rasul-Qadirabad sector of Punjab to open up new agricultural potential. The government of Sindh believe that it will then be presented with a fait accompli of more water diverted away from Sindh. The lessened natural flow of the Indus caused by the dam combined with the existing political restriction of water flow will accelerate Sindh's desertification.
A striking feature of the Indus river delta is its extensive mangrove forest, the sixth largest in the world. The health of the forest is directly dependent on fresh water outflows and the rich silt deposits carried by it. From 1977 to 1990 this mangrove forest diminished in size by 38%. The Sindh forestry department estimates that an outflow of around 33.3 billion cubic metres of water into the Arabian Sea is necessary to sustain the remaining forest. This is roughly 8.6 billion cubic metres more than is currently flowing into the sea. The Karabagh dam will reduce this flow even further.
A 1991 World Conservation Union paper stated that "wildlife species supported by the mangroves are porpoises, jackals, wild bears, reptiles, migratory fowl birds and three species of dolphins. If the mangrove habitat is destroyed, the continued existence in the Indus delta of all these species will be threatened."
The livelihood of 100,000 people directly dependent on the mangroves will also be in jeopardy. Those indirectly dependent on the mangrove for their livelihoods may run into the millions, including those who fish along the Sindh coast as many of the fish species caught there have breeding grounds among the mangroves. About half the fish exported from Pakistan are netted along the coast of Sindh.
Two other major problems will result from the decreased flow of the Indus River. Salt water intrusion into the Indus is contaminating water supplies and adding to the salinity of agricultural land. Salt water intrusion has occurred up to 100km inland from the sea. People in some areas of Sindh are suffering from various diseases as a result of having only brackish water to drink.
Secondly, the decreased flow has meant an increase in the concentration of industrial (including heavy metals), domestic and agricultural (including pesticides) pollutants in the river.
[Messages of opposition to the Kalabagh dam can be sent to WAPDA via its website at <index.html>. Please send copies to the anti-dam movement via <firstname.lastname@example.org>.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 15, 2006.
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