South Asia Research and Analysis Studies

Diamer-Bhasha Dam; a lifeline of Pakistan’s economy
Khalid Khokhar

EVER since the acceptance of Pakistan’s claim that the Indian Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project (KHEP) would obstruct the flow of water of Neelum River in Pakistan-administered Kashmir by International Court of Arbitration (ICA), Indian water strategists were on a lookout to avenge their judicial failure.

The ground-breaking for the Diamer-Bhasha dam in the Northern Areas by Pakistan’s President Zardari, provided the Indian with an ample opportunity to initiate a fresh water row against Pakistan. The reason for objecting Diamer-Bhasha dam is her stale argument that project is located in disputed territory and can cause floods in Indian-held Kashmir. This politically driven defence by Indian water authorities is totally unjust because Pakistan to slipping into a category of country the United Nations defines as “water scarce”. With the population rapidly expanding, water is running out very quickly. Pakistan is a one-river-basin country and all of its hydroelectric power projects come from the Indus. Estimates suggest that while Pakistan has only achieved 11% storage capacity, India on its allocated eastern rivers has accomplished 52%. In the past, Pakistan benefited immensely from the major water infrastructure (Tarbela, Mangla, Chashma) built in the Indus basin. But now, the storage capacity of these reservoirs is being on a decline due to continuous sedimentation over the last 30 years. Pakistan is left with a very little water storage capacity – for example, United States has 6,150 m3, Australia 5,000 m3, China 2,200 m3, Pakistan has only 132m3 storage capacity per person. Similarly, some major arid basins in the world have been developed to have carryover storages capacity. The Nile basin in Egypt has a carryover capacity of 1,000 days at high Aswan Dam reservoir, India between 120 to 220 days in its major Peninsular rivers and Pakistan can hardly store 30 days of water in the Indus basin.
The country plunged into an energy crisis since 2007 due to rising electricity demand as well as owing to the Indian curtailment of water supplies to Pakistan by construction of Salal dam, Baglihar dam, the controversial Bursar dam on river Chenab, and Kishanganga project on river Jhelum – only to mention a few. This was a flagrant breach of Indus Water Basin Treaty of 1960 (IWT-60) as the projects have tremendously decreased the flow of Pakistani river. In order to help resolve the acute power shortage in the coming years, Pakistan’s “Water Vision-2016” envisaged the need to built Kalabagh, Diamer-Basha, Akhori, Munda and Kurram Tangi dams. The country has an energy deficit of approximately 5000MW – only producing around two-thirds of its energy requirements. The direly needed decision of National Economic Council (Ecnec) to construct Diamer-Bhasha dam first on priority basis was a welcome move. The Diamer-Bhasha Dam would be constructed on the Indus about 315 km upstream of Tarbela Dam, 165 km downstream of Gilgit and 40 km downstream of Chilas, on the border of the Khyber-PakhtumKhwa Province (KP) and Northern Areas. The dam project would cover an area of 110 km2 and extend 100 km upstream of the dam site up to Raikot Bridge on Karakoram Highway (KKH). It would have an installed capacity of 4,500 MW, with the total cost estimated at $12.6 billion. The 272-metre-high Bhasha dam would have a storage capacity of 7.3 MAF, due to be completed in 2017. Diamer-Bhasha Dam would ensure food and water security, besides increasing cultivable lands. The project would also extend the life of Tarbela Dam by 35 years and would help control flood damages in the country.
Indian external strike against Pakistan is not restricted to just objecting the project rather it has an all-round and all encompassing strategy to destabilize Pakistan. In order to off-set the Gilgit-Baltistan Government, India has a well-thought over policy of exhorting the people of the region to stand against the Government in general and mega project, in particular. There is credible evidence of Indian financial support for the separatist forces like Balawaristan National Front (BNF) to create mayhem in the Northern Areas. Nonetheless, the declaration of “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009” that gave self-rule to the people of Northern Areas on the lines of AJK type of governance, frustrated the nefarious designs of India. Besides, India is also exploiting boundary dispute between Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa vis-à-vis royalty issue so as to derail the Diamer-Bhasha dam-building project. This caused a delay of almost four years. Diamer-Bhasha was originally meant to be completed by 2017, but now will likely be finished in 2021. However, WAPDA has come up with a plan that would evenly split the royalties earned from the hydroelectric power generation at the dam between the two provinces. WAPDA officials hope that the new plan – which would set up six power generation units each in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – will avert the escalation of a dispute. Likewise, the issue of displaced families has been resolved amicably. Pakistan’s experience in Tarbela and Mangla resettlement and profit-sharing has been exemplary. The government is considering resettlement costs of the Diamer-Bhasha dam in such a manner that the people displaced by the projects benefit most from them. It is estimated that approximately 28,650 people in 31 villages are affected by the construction of the Diamer -Bhasha dam.
In the wake of commitment to help Pakistan in energy generation ventures, the United States is backing the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. The supporters of a US role in the project say American participation would mend the United States’ tattered image, going a long way toward quieting widespread anti-Americanism. It is recalled that the United States was popular in Pakistan in the 1960s and ’70s, when Washington backed the construction of two enormous dams, Tarbela and Mangla. These mega water infrastructures helped build a prosperous Pakistan with sustainable economy. The Asian Development Bank, had pledged that it would even act as the government’s investment banker in raising the money from international capital markets. However, India is creating hurdles by raising objections to the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam on disputed region. This has made the International lenders a bit apprehensive in arranging funds necessary for the project, despite several of them agreeing in principle to financing the dam. The project also is likely to face opposition from Indian Lobbyists in the US Congress, alleging that Pakistan had allowed Chinese military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan under the garb of repairing Karakoram Highway (KKH). The Indians term it as a dangerous development for Indian security. India’s propaganda regarding ceding of the Gilgit-Baltistan Region to China, is a devious ploy to politically implant US against Pakistan that it is no longer a frontline state of US strategy.
For Pakistan, the Diamer-Bhasha dam is the lifeline for its tottering economy. The Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh showed his resolve by saying that despite financial constraints Pakistan will continue to work on major projects like the Diamer-Bhasha dam. Pakistan has lagged behind in tapping its remaining 86% of 50,000 MW of economically-valuable hydropower potential. A country’s energy requirements are a key part of its national security strategy. China, the US and the advanced European economies, have searched far and wide for energy supplies and pressed their national interest in every international fora. Pakistan, an increasingly water-stressed and energy-deficient country must follow their suit. Diamer-Bhasha Dam may not be panaceas for all the economic woos, but it could be a very critical link in Pakistan’s energy and water requirements. What needs to be done is crystal clear: Pakistan needs to push the World Bank to adhere to its own policies and not be influenced by Indian hectoring or complaints. On domestic front, Pakistan must start work on 314 dams as approved by the National Economic Council (NEC) on war footing. There is no reason in delaying the construction of dams. Additionally, Pakistan needs to bridge the gaps by seeking energy supplies from abroad, where necessary.