Of late the realization has dawned in Pakistan that the Tarbela Dam has more than done its job. It is fast silting and has lost 30 percent of its storage capacity. Desilting the reservoir could be a solution, but that would cost a huge fortune. That leaves Pakistan with no choice but to build one if not two mega dams on the Indus at the earliest. Increasing the height of Mangla Dam is at best a partial solution, which can only delay the inevitable by a few years. The most favoured site for building the dam has been Kalabagh which could provide Pakistan with enough water to irrigate millions of acres of land in addition to cheap electricity. General Pervez Musharraf has made an impassioned plea for the construction of new reservoirs and canals. He has been trying to build a consensus in favour of the Kalabagh Dam but does not seem to be making any headway. Though the Punjabi rank and file is in favour of building the dam at the earliest, Sindh, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan assemblies have already passed resolutions opposing the dam and are unlikely to change their mind. There are serious differences on the amount of surplus water available in the Indus to make a big dam viable. In Sindh, it is felt that the dam will not only deprive it of its due share of Indus water but will also result in the level of the sea water rising to destroy the fragile Indus Delta ecosystem and turning the fertile districts of Mardan and Swabi into water logged marshlands. The dam will also lead to inundation of large tracts of fertile lands in NWFP and would endanger the city of Nowshera. The smaller provinces feel that their interests are being sacrificed to irrigate the fields in Punjab and have threatened civil war if the dam is constructed.
Recently the NWFP cabinet has come out strongly in support of the Bhasha dam project near Chilas in Diamer district of Northern Areas, as it would spare large scale inundation in NWFP and relocation of population. The site of the proposed Bhasha dam is located on the upper Indus, 314 kilometres upstream of Tarbela dam and about 120 km downstream of the confluence with the Gilgit River. The dam unlike Kalabagh could also enhance the lifespan of the downstream Tarbela dam reservoir; by reducing silting. It is also expected to be cheaper to construct by around $2 billion. The dam will also have a longer life span than Kalabagh as the sediment load at Bhasha is less than half of that at Kalabagh. However, the dam is expected to generate only 3360 MW of electricity against 3600 MW for Kalabagh and would have lesser storage capacity (7.3 MAF against 7.9 MAF for Kalabagh). It would also inundate a 120 Kilometre stretch of the Karakoram Highway and take longer to construct. And yet again, the local population is strongly opposed to the construction of the dam. And in Islamabad's calculations, local opposition to the dam, in disputed territory may result in adverse publicity.
After such considerations, the Pakistani establishment appears to be veering around to the idea that neither Kalabagh nor Bhasha is a proper site for a dam, instead a dam near Skardu about 315 miles upstream of Tarbela would be more practical and desirable. The dam will be able to store the floodwater that becomes available once in a decade and its storage capacity could be up to 35 MAF, which is the estimated annual discharge of the Indus there. It would therefore be capable of regulating the entire flow of the Indus at that point. Those in favour think it would be a panacea for the water problems of Pakistan. However, the critics feel that being located in world's newest and the most fragile mountain system, which is prone to earthquakes and other natural calamities, a 35 million acre feet dam in the heart of Karakoram will be nothing but a recipe for disaster.
It will not only submerge entire Skardu but any outburst or accident in a high altitude dam of this magnitude can effectively swamp all major cities of Pakistan. It would also be very close to the Line of Control and within Indian artillery range.
Though General Musharraf is in favour of starting Kalabagh first as it can be completed within six to eight years, both Bhasha and Skardu will avoid inundation of large tracts in NWFP. Any major dam will still raise the tempers in Sindh, but despite its larger population, Sindh hardly enjoys the status within Pakistan that NWFP enjoys because of its immense contribution to the Pakistani Army. Events in Balochistan have shown that the federal government gives attention to the smaller provinces only when faced with violence. The need for another big dam on the Indus for Pakistan is obvious but it may further strain inter-provincial relations. A unilateralist approach on the dam issue could damage national unity and bolster centrifugal forces. One mega dam built without national consensus could as well be the last one for Pakistan.