The Kalabagh bedlam


Things you should know about the project

With many issues of national importance falling into specific camps of coteries often denigrating each other along ethnic, religious and provincial lines, and the drivel erudition that propped up after chief lord of Lahore High Court’s recent remark on Kalabagh, I choose to pitch in my modicum on the bedlam.

To simplify proceedings, Kalabagh was part of the master plan envisioned in 1960 and for which the northern world and India pitched in money. The 62 million pounds granted by India in accordance with the articles of Indus Water Treaty, along with the financial receipts received from United States, were to be used to construct Tarbela, Mangla, Chashma, Kalabagh, Bhasha, Dasu and Patan dams respectively. Proponents of Kalabagh dam, densely populated in the province of Punjab and towing the scientific jargon of Shamshul Mulk, a former chairman of WAPDA, believe that Kalabagh dam is the most important piece in the 1960 dam puzzle.

The location of Kalabagh is economically viable of all the other proposed dams as the infrastructure needed to connect it with Pakistan’s irrigation and power networks – linking the dam with the existing transmission infrastructure – would be twice as cheap as the amount needed for the next in line (Bhasha).

With practically lying at the foothills of Himalayas with a gradient less than those of Bhasha and Dasu, Kalabagh could be our biggest and the most easily constructed dam. The size of the Kalabagh lake – 15 kilometres north of Kalabagh – has begotten many raconteurs opposing its construction. If Kalabagh dam is built, its height would be 260 feet above the river bed, the length of the dam would be 11,000 feet and its usable storage capacity would be 6.1 MAF. As per the water accords of 1991, Punjab and Sindh would be fed 2.1 MAF of water each, while Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan would receive 1.1 MAF and 0.7 MAF respectively. Total electricity generation capacity of Kalabagh would be 11,750 million kilowatts. Some 89 percent of the total land submerged by Kalabagh would be in Punjab and the remaining 11 percent would be in KP. Per conservative estimates, one MAF of water irrigates 333,000 acres. The mathematics of the dam is simple and feasible if you are an economist and calculate the benefits equaling cheaper electricity and a reduced oil import bill, food security and reclaiming barren lands rich in minerals which possess the potential of increasing our agricultural exports.

However, the stalemate between the four provinces and especially the deadlock between Punjab and Sindh over Kalabagh is not baseless. Yes, the sea is intruding into the Indus Delta and has displaced communities up to 40 kilometres inland. The mangrove cover of Pakistan has been reduced to a mere 260 square kilometres from the once mighty 3,000 square kilometres. It should be mentioned that mangroves are the backbone of our fisheries, and prawns breed there too.

Currently, 36 MAF of water flows downstream of Kotri into the sea and to maintain health of our 260 sq km of mangroves, 27 MAF of water is needed to flow downstream of Kotri. Those who oppose Kalabagh calculate flow downstream of Kotri to be a mere 10 MAF if Kalabagh is commissioned. Moreover, as of today, around 60 percent of our Indus Delta creeks are dry.

Moving on, 30 years between the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 with India and signing of water accords between Pakistan’s provinces in 1991 are amok with animus between the provinces. Punjab, the upper riparian, has disparaged the accusations of stealing water which was meant for Sindh as per 1991 accord repeatedly and sometimes on excuse that it took its share and the reduction of water in Sindh was due to India not allowing the promised water downstream into west Punjab from Kashmir.

The salvo of fancy words aside and being a professor on water affairs left for another day, Kalabagh propping up just months before elections would harm no one more than PML-N. Being the only party that advocated the Kalabagh project or more precisely the only body that could amass power through votes and grant legitimacy to the project, PML-N has run itself into a brick wall. The party of Punjabi lions is trying to woo Sindhi sages who have swelled in their ranks opposing PPP and its allies. The very messiahs whom the Sharif tribe wants to win are miraculously the staunchest opposers of the Kalabagh project. Morale: whatever stand PML-N takes on the Pandora’s Box opened by the LHC CJ, it would dent its prospects of securing 172 seats in the National Assembly. However, it would not be surprising if N-League would shrink out of the proceedings in the name of realist politics and leave a lacuna to be pondered over another day.

Getting back to Umar Ata Bandiyal, the chief justice of Lahore High Court, who has decreed to change the name of the dam located 15 km north of Kalabagh from Kalabagh to any other one deemed fit. His statement makes me wonder whether he is wry or whether he is not versed with the fact that three of the four provincial assemblies of the federation of the pure have thrown the Kalabagh case into a pile of trash. Proponents of Kalabagh paint a famine if told that Kalabagh would not be built.

Yes, Kalabagh is not on the cards in the federation of Pakistan and all voices finding their way into the airways are political.

As of how the chessboard stands, the fate of Kalabagh has been handed over to the Council of Common Interests. The council was envisioned in the Constitution of 1973 and upgraded in 2010. The revised edition of CCI has prime minister as its chairman and all four chief ministers along with minister for provincial coordination as members. The council is mandated to meet at least once every three months and no issue would be discussed in the meetings until its summary is circulated to all members 15 days in advance. In addition, no meeting would be deemed official if a notice for it was not provided 10 days in advance. The quorum of the council of interest would be of four members. The summary provided to members for discussions in the meetings shall not exceed two A-4 size pages. Be objective, it says and bans ranting.

With Kalabagh out of the way, considering the refusal of World Bank and international donors to fund it citing the political mess it can lead to and Bhasha at least a decade away, we in Pakistan need not cry over our fate lost with Kalabagh. A solution lying on relevant tables for decades is that of ‘Tarbela Action Plan’. The proposed plan is based on computer simulations of sediment flows designed to determine whether a) flushing is technically feasible, b) to predict future sedimentation, and c) to estimate storage capacity that could be sustained for the long run. The Tarbela Action Plan findings proposed to raise the minimum reservoir level of Tarbela to 1,365 feet by the year 1998 and by four feet each year thereafter. Secondly, constructing low level high capacity sediment flushing tunnels to reclaim storage capacity periodically; and lastly, to build additional underwater rock filled dikes and install an additional turbine on one of the tunnels.

It should be noted that both Tarbela and Mangla have lost more than a third of their combined original storage capacities in four decades. Sedimentation over decades means that water did not carry minerals required to sustain the ecosystem as nature ordained it. This fact is also quoted by those opposing construction of large dams. Scientifically speaking, Pakistan has around 680 sites fit for commissioning small dams. For your interest, Kalabagh would equal 900 small dams.

Anyways, political rhetoric with the dam at its centre would evolve into catch phrases defaming the competitors till and much after the 2013 elections with self propagated true sons of the soil rhetoric.


  1. The mention of sea intrusion, displacement of people and damage to mangrove forests presumes that the flow in the Indus will reduce if KBD is built. Dams increase rather than decrease supplies, KBD will store only the surplus flood water from mid June to end August without in any way interfering with the flow in the Indus, Sindh will keep getting the same amount of water as before. In fact Sindh will get more water when its share of 2.2 million acre feet stored in the reservoir is be released into the river thereby increasing the flow in the Indus.

  2. The question is not whether there should be Kalabagh or not, especially since the case had been closed on it not by the rest of the provinces. the question is WHY NOW? Why bring this up NOW? 14 years have elapsed and the Lahore High court NOW wants to talk bring it up when no one else is? Something smells fishy.

  3. A UNDP report published in 2010 states in part. ‘in 1947, the per capita water availability in the country was 5,000 gallons per annum. Presently water availability is down to 1000 gallons per person per annum.’ It goes on to further warn that there will be no water available from the glaciers after 2060 given the rate at which they are melting (The News, June 13, 2010). Apart from all else it means that if Bhasha Dam ever gets built it will have very little water to store.

    There is a serious misunderstanding about the purpose of dams. They do not take away any water at all. Their only purpose is to store excess water during the summer and release it mostly for the winter crops. In doing so they also help reduce the impact of floods that would otherwise devastate the countryside. As a by-product they generate large amounts of electricity for very little cost.

    What consume water are the agricultural lands irrigated by canals that originate from the barrages built downstream from the dams, like the ones at Guddu, Sukkur and Hyderabad (GM). Even in their cases most of the water that percolates into the ground find its way back to the main channel downstream. We cannot do without these barrages for without the water they help distribute most of Sind will revert to being a desert. And to feed these barrages we need water storage upstream in suitable locations like Kalabagh for instance.

    If there is less water in the rivers it is not because the provinces upstream are depriving Sind of its share. The available water is distributed on the basis of percentages. If and when there is a shortage it is distributed proportionately between the provinces. The only solution to alleviate the shortage is to build an additional dam downstream from Mangla and Tarbela to make up for their lost water storage capacity. If it is not done very soon you will see agricultural production dropping precipitously leading to starvation and famine.

    As for the Indus Delta, it is a complex issue. Construction of the dam at Kalabagh will not affect it one way or the other. If anything, it may help bring more water to the area especially in the winter. River deltas are by their very nature unstable. The channels keep shifting, some even closing down, mostly due to silting and new ones open up elsewhere. You only have look at history to know this —- Bambhore and Thatha used to be ports not very long ago. They became landlocked for causes that have nothing to do with the construction of dams and barrages. In the same way, sea coastline also shifts depending upon factors not which are fully understood even today.

    Water is primarily an economic and technical issue that has been given a parochial twist by some unscrupulous politicians. They are exploiting the sentiments and sometimes ignorance of well-meaning Pakistanis. This is a national issue and not something that provinces should quibble or quarrel over. It concerns us all equally. We are all in the same boat. If something were to God forbid happen to it, we shall all go down with it regardless if one is Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi or Pathan. We need to think nationally and not parochially if we are to have a worthwhile future.

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