After deeply polarising the entire country over Kalabagh Dam and pledging that he would not dither from taking hard decisions, General Pervez Musharraf has executed a tactical retreat on the question of Kalabagh Dam. When the heat generated became too much to handle as NWFP and Sindh made it amply clear that they would not stand by the General's dictate, a deft about-turn was executed and the Kalabagh dam project has been consigned to the dust bins of history from where it had been extricated some time ago to meet a particular agenda of the military.
The bogey of the Kalabagh dam was meant as a distraction from the follies of Pakistani Army specially the flak that it had been receiving after the earthquake for its inability to provide timely succour to the affected population. But once the passions were inflamed and it became apparent that there was stiff resistance to the proposal, including some of it from within the government's own ranks, it had to be abandoned. Moreover it had achieved what it had set out to do - to distract attention of the unaffected population from the earthquake to the dam. However, to give it an appropriate spin President Musharraf has vowed to construct a string of big dams by 2016. He has merely changed the order in which the dams would be constructed. Kalabagh will now be constructed later after educating the nation on the necessity of big dams.
Unfortunately, in his attempts to distract attention, General Musharraf has turned the building of a dam into an emotionally charged issue, with parochial and even secessionist overtones. There were accusations and counter-accusations; and some political parties have even threatened to break up Pakistan on the issue of building a dam.
Agriculture has been the backbone of Pakistan's economy but it cannot survive and prosper without irrigation since almost 90 per cent of the country does not get sufficient rainfall. Pakistan inherited one of the most elaborate irrigation networks in the world thanks to the British colonial rule. However, with the passage of time, silting of dams, growing population and poor water management have led to the scarcity of water for agriculture. On top of this almost 40 per cent of the total arable land in Pakistan remains uncultivated, due to lack of irrigation.
Though there are several possible dams that could be built, namely, Kalabagh, Bhasha, Skardu-Katzarah, Akhori and Munda. General Musharraf has ordained that the Bhasha dam would be built first. The Pakistani experts are divided along ethnic lines on their analyses of the merits and demerits of these dams, including the cost of construction. But the military government decided to pull back from Kalabagh due to strong opposition in NWFP and Sindh. The people of Sindh in particular have demonstrated a rare unity on this issue. Neither the Sindh Chief Minister nor any of the federal ministers from Sindh supported the Dam. However, what probably settled the issue was the unequivocal opposition of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)-a key ally of the government, which had threatened to pull out of the government if the government decided to go ahead with Kalabagh.
As per the latest figures Bhasha (It is proposed to reduce the height of the dam by 10 metres to ensure structural stability of the dam being built at a highly seismic zone) will have a water availability of 50 MAF, a live storage of 6.34 MAF and will produce 4,500 MW of electricity as against a water availability of 90 MAF, live storage of 6.1 MAF and power generation of 3,600 MW for Kalabagh. Though the figures are comparable, the power generated at Kalabagh would have been easier to distribute as compared to Bhasha, which is high up in the mountains and will cost at least $ 1 billion to carry electricity from the dam to load centres.
The construction of Kalabagh Dam could have been started straightaway as Rs 1.2 billion have already been spent on its feasibility and structural studies and the basic infrastructure is in place, Bhasha on the other hand requires few more years of homework in terms of detailed engineering, economic and geological feasibility study, prior to the commencement of construction. It also requires upgradation of 323-km of road from Havelian to the dam site and relocation of 140 km of the Karakoram Highway that links Pakistan with China, which would have to be moved higher up in the mountains and will be extremely expensive to build. Bhasha is also more exposed to seismic risk as compared to Kalabagh. However, despite these apparent drawbacks General Musharraf has opted for Bhasha, as displacing 24000 people from Northern Areas is politically much safer as compared to evicting 120,000 affected Pakhtoons from NWFP, especially as they have a fairly large representation in the Armed Forces. In any case in Pakistani scheme of things, the hapless people of Northern Areas have neither got any voice nor representation.