Will it be a year of big dams? By Jawaid Bokhari
Apparently, the government seems determined to announce a schedule for building water reservoirs some time this year, perhaps, with constitutional guarantees over water rights and sharing formula to the riparian claimants. Priorities are to be set for the construction of major dams, including Kalabagh. The calendar year 2006 may turn out to be a year of big dams.
But how to go about and arrive at such a major decision of national significance is no less important, if not more, at this point in time, than the need for water dams to prevent eventual desertification as officials claim. Any arbitrary decision on the issue would make governance more difficult with the unitary mode transplanted over democratic federal structure provided in the 1973 Constitution. But a decision by consensus — genuine and not manipulated — will strengthen democratic federalism. At the centre of the raging controversy is the Kalabagh dam, a political and historical drag, working as a catalyst for change in the mode of governance. It is an issue of seeking unity in diversity.
Differing perceptions, which have surfaced over the water issue, can be summed up as follows. Kalabagh is not an issue of a water dam alone. It is not a question of only technical and financial viability. Nor can the impact of massive expenditure on dams in specified areas be insulated from the National Finance Commission Award. It is not merely a question of distribution of water rights among the riparian contenders. Its political implications run deep, whose solution lies in constitutional provisions, the Council of Common Interests, the Senate and the provincial assemblies. Kalabagh symbolizes the maladies that have afflicted governance for more than half a century.
In the absence of mutual trust and confidence among the federating units with an unfortunate record of arbitrary decisions impinging upon provincial autonomy, the Kalabagh dam has become controversial and sensitive. So, the building of water reservoirs would put the federal government to a critical test to ensure that its decisions do not further spur provincial disharmony. Whatever its merits and demerits, the Kalabagh dam has been a politically divisive issue which has held up its implementation for the past 2-3 decades. The current debate on the proposed dam has also produced negative political fallout for the pro-Kalabagh lobby. It has strengthened the nationalists, with the mainstream political parties joining them in protests, rallies and demonstrations. The underlying issue is the stout defence of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the federating units and consequently, the responsibilities linked to them. The goals are achievable, if the supremacy of the constitution is accepted by all segments of the state and the society and more so, as power politics is universally on a course of rapid decline.
Efforts to substitute the democratic method of majority decision among the federating units (three provincial assemblies voting against the dam) by a consensus is not proving an easy course either. Perceptions on the issue differ sharply. Some view the Kalabagh dam from the overriding consideration of its technical feasibility and its perceived benefits. They also see it as a dispute among riparian claimants over water rights.
The solutions offered vary according to the nature of the problem as grasped by the contenders. For those looking exclusively at viability of the Kalabagh dam, an administrative decision would suffice. For them, the other option is to consider the dam as a water dispute and seek legal remedy from the highest judicial court.
Also, there are others who oppose building of any dam on the river Indus, question the technical viability of the Kalabagh and see it impacting adversely on the lower riparian province. And finally there are the constitutionalists, who say the 1973 Constitution lays down a clear cut procedure for resolving water disputes, that includes the Council of Common Interests.
They argue that if the 1973 Constitution could resolve the sensitive issue of autonomy, why the representatives of the four provinces cannot reach a consensus on dams? By not implementing the stipulated constitutional provisions on autonomy, the distrust among provinces has increased. Arbitrary decisions on dams will not be helpful. The solution of sensitive issues and problems lies in democratic federalism. A critical issue is what kind of guarantees the lower riparian province can be offered to assure that their rights over Indus water would be protected by building water reservoirs, including the Kalabagh dam. As press reports go, the Sindh chief minister wants that no canals be taken out from Kalabagh dam and along with the NWFP, recommends that Bhasha dam be built first.
Then the provincial chief minister is reportedly looking for constitutional guarantees from parliament. Any future changes in water arrangements reached now should be subject to approval by the Sindh Assembly. In fact, to add to what the chief minister has said, it would be better that the schedule of building dams should also have the approval of all provincial assemblies. The Kalabagh dam cannot be built with the resources of one province as national resources will be used, and foreign debts will be created — whose burden will be shared by all the federating units. The money will be spent in areas where the dams will be located.
The imbalances in the national development budget so created for the other provinces, need to be corrected by increased allocations of funds to the federating units not directly benefiting from the construction activities, under the National Finance Award or otherwise. To facilitate matters, the NFC Award should be announced first. With the growing mistrust among the federating units for a variety of reasons and the weakening of mainstream political parties which could promote inter-provincial harmony through a culture of give and take, the regional outlook is being strengthened rapidly. As the coalition of ruling parties is divided on the issue of dams, it may turn out as a case of centralization of decision-making without countrywide political moorings. Political isolation brings counter-productive outcomes.
In the present, more important than the big dams is a network of small dams which can be financed from domestic resources. The money spent on these dams will be a source of livelihood for the small contractors and its benefits would be far more widely dispersed.
Unlike the big dams which will benefit the big sharks, the small dams would help reduce poverty countrywide at a much faster pace than the big demands because these projects would be completed much earlier. What is needed is an effective policy to attract the domestic private sector in the building of these mini-dams. Small dams should be constructed simultaneously with big dams, if not earlier.
Quite a sizeable quantity of water is lost through seepage from canals, whose lining must be completed to ensure that water of the new big dams is not wasted. The efficiency of water use for irrigation is pretty low and needs to be improved to overcome shortages through waste. Building big dams to create more surpluses for wasting water is not a good option. Recent water shortages have induced farmers to opt for a more economical use of water. The process should be continued.
Time has arrived to link rights to responsibilities. The alternative is a perpetual crisis in one form or another. Neither denial of rights nor lack of responsibility would work in the long-term. And the first step is that all segments of society and state must accept the supremacy of the constitution and act upon all its provisions and not on a selective basis as has been the practice so far. The remedy lies in democratic federalism working for the greatest good of the largest number.
WCD stresses trust building for dams: Big reservoirs termed disadvantageous By Our Staff Reporter January 2, 2006 Monday Zilhaj 1, 1426
ISLAMABAD, Jan 1: The World Commission on Dams (WCD) says that large dams built round the globe have produced more disadvantages than benefits. It calls for trust building and consensus among all stakeholders before going for construction of big reservoirs to achieve maximum economic outcomes. The WCD reached the conclusion in 2000 after analyzing the outcome of about 45,000 dams, country-specific studies and input of international community. The Technical Committee on Water Resources led by A.N.G. Abbasi has recently reported that the WCD report had not been given ‘adequate consideration’ by Wapda and called for its adoption as a guideline for future reservoirs.
“Dams fundamentally alter rivers and the use of a natural resource, frequently entailing a reallocation of benefits from local riparian users to new groups of beneficiaries at a regional or national level,” said the WCD report. People of Sindh have been saying that construction of large dams on Indus will deprive them of their rightful water share and benefit Punjab at their cost. The WCD acknowledged that dams had made a significant contribution to human development, but pointed out that in too many cases an unacceptably higher price had been paid by displaced people, downstream communities and natural environment to secure those benefits. It said the lack of equity in the distribution of benefits called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs.
The commission advised the governments to keep in mind that shortfall in technical, financial and economic performance of such projects could cause significant social and environmental impacts and their costs would have to be borne by poor and indigenous people and other vulnerable groups. Keeping in view of the huge capital involved in construction of big dams, the commission noted that substantive evaluations of such projects were few in number, narrow in scope and inadequately linked to decisions on operations.
It noted that large dams displayed a high degree of variability in delivering predicted water and electricity services and related social benefits with a considerable portion falling short of physical and economic targets. Large dams have demonstrated a marked tendency towards schedule delays and significant cost overruns and have typically fallen short of recovering their costs. Dams generally have a range of extensive impacts on rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems; these impacts are more negative than positive and, in many cases, have led to irreversible loss of species and ecosystems.
It said the project planning and appraisal for large dams should not be confined to technical parameters and the narrow application of economic cost-benefit analyses and instead higher attention be given to social and environmental impacts. The commission is of the opinion that all those should be brought to the table whose rights are involved so that conditions for finding a resolution of competing interests and conflicts could be created. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the construction of large dams became synonymous with development and economic progress and this trend peaked in the 1970s when on average two or three large dams were commissioned each day somewhere in the world.
The report said many of the non-dam options available today, including demand-side management, supply efficiency and new supply options, could improve water and energy services. It pointed out that a number of supply-side options at all scales (from small, distributed generation sources or localized water collection and water-recovery systems to regional-interconnection of power grids) could collectively improve the delivery of water and energy services in a timely, cost-effective and publicly acceptable manner.