The Baloch who was developed


The failure of the Mirani Dam must be a watershed moment for planners

On Monday, February 18, 2013, some 19 men from Turbat in Balochistan travelled over 2,000 kilometres to set up a hunger camp at the Charing Cross, just outside the Wapda House complex. Why did they come? Honestly, if it were not for the fact that this was a column written nine days into the hunger strike, I would have said: ‘Please ask them yourself’.

The matter appears rather simple: the Mirani Dam was inaugurated on the Dasht River by General Musharraf to much fanfare in 2007. Promises were made that it would irrigate over 33,200 acres of land and thus ‘develop the people of Balochistan’. While plans were being hatched between the servants of our ‘visionary’ state and the Saudi sheikhdom for leasing these ‘future’ irrigated fields, disaster struck. On June 26-27 the people suffered what they had predicted: the dam created a flood.

As the region was hit by torrential rain, the dam was unable to control the flow of the water and a flood was created upstream of the dam. Over 36 people died while 250,000 were rendered homeless as homes were swept away, date palm fields were flooded and the karez system, the indigenous mountainous irrigation method, was destroyed – the very practice that is such lauded in our geography textbooks. Over 50,000 acres of arable land were rendered unusable: flooded and without irrigation source in the future.

Experts had promised that the water level would never cross 245 feet above sea level. The backflow flood defied the ‘expert’ prediction and reached 271.4 feet above sea level, causing destruction in Nodez, Nasirabad and Kech. Experts, unconcerned with their earlier technical failures, still claim that the Mirani Dam is a “success” for “surviving an unprecedented flood”. The criterion for success being that the concrete structure survived, without regard to what became of the people.

The suffering of the people suggests that the Mirani Dam story is being told wrong. Compensation calls from the affectees were ignored until protests started. A survey was initiated and initial compensation of around Rs1billion was paid to those affected up to 264 feet above sea level. However, those from 264 to 271.4 feet above sea level were still ignored. This constituted a total of over 13,000 families, 35,000 acres of arable land and over 500,000 date palms. Frustrated and in deep poverty, the affectees began to campaign in their local area, but no one heard their demand for compensation.

In a last ditch effort, over a dozen of the men decided to set up a hunger strike camp outside the Wapda House in March 2012. After a six-day hunger strike, an agreement was secured from the Wapda Member (Water) for a meeting in April 2012 to discuss the compensation issue. Promises were made that the Makran Commissioner and members of the committee would conduct another survey within a month and give out compensation in a short period.

The short period continued till 5 December, 2012, when Wapda, the Planning Commission and the government agreed to pay compensation for up to 271.4 feet above sea level in a four-tiered package. This included two packages of cash compensation for the destroyed houses and date palms worth around Rs4.3billion. Additionally, the government agreed to initiate a project to rehabilitate the destroyed karez system and committed building a new 300 feet spillway in case of another flash flood.

The promise was that Rs900million compensation for destroyed houses was to be released immediately. This of course never happened and two months later, after being ignored by senior officials in the Balochistan government, Wapda and the Planning Commission, the flood affectees decided to send another delegation to set up another hunger strike camp.

And so began the current story. WAPDA only met them once in nine days, sent a letter to the Planning Commission and claimed its job was done. Journalists came, but never gave them enough column space. A number of journalists promised to come when approached, but then never came. Frustrated, a people’s tribunal was organised under the rain while the Lahore Literary Festival was under way, but none of the dignitaries attending it agreed to take out 15 minutes to visit the camp. Supreme Court lawyer Salman Akram Raja and a left-wing political party attended but that was it. During the tribunal, one of the affectees took out a newspaper and showed a front page photograph of the Metro Bus model on the Charing Cross and read out the caption: ‘The Metro Bus cardboard replica on Charing Cross looks beautiful in the rain.’ “Why does it not show us who were sitting through the rain, just a few meters from it? Two of our men got sick in the rain. But the media wants to show us we are not important? Is the Pakistani media trying to send out a deliberate message that the Baloch do not matter?” Later, on Monday, two of the men were then dispatched to the Planning Commission to begin negotiations. Planning Commission officials accused them of being “instigators” for merely pleading that an agreed upon compensation be released to flood affectees six years after the floods.

As it stands, an agreement to release the Rs4.3billion promised seems unlikely as bureaucrats continue to wrangle with the question of “who is to pay” the compensation. The 18th amendment has become the new tool for federal bureaucrats to absolve themselves for even that which is in their power: water and power projects are still a federal subject as per the constitution. But deeper suspicions remain fixed on the so-called restoration project planned. While the Mirani Dam was under construction, it emerged that the 33,000 acres plus area supposed to be made cultivable was being shown around to Saudi and UAE-based sheikhs. The then Water and Power Minister Naveed Qamar had touted it to the Arab kingdoms and locals were being offered Rs 600-1,000 per acre per year to ‘lease’ their land to the Arabs, with Gwadar Port ensuring that all the produce was dispatched to their homelands immediately. The question is: if the dam does become functional at some point, however unlikely it may be, will any cultivable lands be corporatised or deliver something for locals? WAPDA still maintains that the “Mirani Dam was vital for the socio-economic uplift of backward areas”. However, the fact that the Gwadar Port was handed over to China after the dismissal of the Balochistan government reaps of the same logic: Balochistan’s resources to be exploited while Baloch people are labelled as slaves to sardars (clarification: Turbat has no sardars).

We are fed a simple narrative again and again: that the solution to the Balochistan question lies in ‘developing Balochistan and the Baloch people’. The question to ask is what is the narrative of development that goes into Balochistan, what are the types of projects built and how they affect local Baloch populations.

The spectacular failure of the Mirani Dam should be a watershed moment for planners. Locals remember that when the Mirani Dam was being made, one of the DESCON engineers on the project, cursed General Musharraf for building a dam in an area without rain. A few months later, when there was a flash flood after torrential rains hit the area during dam’s construction phase, he cursed General Musharraf for making a dam which would be unable to sustain the floods. Locals had delivered the same warning when the dam construction started: they pointed to rain patterns, water flows, irrigation patterns and flood histories to say that the dam would cause devastation.

The developmentalist narrative says: experts comment based on knowledge, locals comment based on myths. The Mirani Dam floods joins the list of a growing catalogue of irrigation projects in Pakistan that reverse this binary, including the Chashma Right Bank Canal in Southern Punjab and the Left Bank Outfall Drain in Sindh. Experts have myths, locals have knowledge, is the Mirani Dam lesson. But six years after the floods, WAPDA still does not mention any adverse effects of the floods in its official press releases. The reason is simple: WAPDA cannot admit a dam has failed. They would be out of job. And dams continue to be touted as a solution to “the water shortage in Balochistan”. Over 46 new dams are planned in the province, a number of which have already raised controversy, including the Shahdikot Dam in Pasni and Hingol Dam in the Lasbela district.

The important lesson from the Mirani Dam is that WAPDA’s Vision 2025 plan for Water Resource Development Programme must be revisited and revised. So does our understanding of what development in Balochistan shall be.

As the hunger strike camp outside the Wapda House in Lahore continues, WAPDA officials would be better served if they stepped outside their grandiose office and began to listen to what the men from Turbat have to share with them. They are sitting just outside their office gate.

The writer is the general secretary (Lahore) of the Awami Workers Party. He is a journalist and a researcher. Contact: [email protected]


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