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Dams – Necessity of the time

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It is a known fact that civilizations flourish around water sources. No matter if it is the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges, Indus or any other river, remains of old civilizations and roots of new civilizations can be found around or in these mighty rivers.

It is not only that people need drinking water from these rivers; major chunks of economy depend upon them directly or indirectly. Agriculture, that provides the very sustenance for humans, heavily depends on rivers. Since Pakistan is an agro-based country, agriculture is the lifeline for Pakistan’s economy. As per Pakistan Economic Survey 2017-18, agriculture constitutes roughly 19% of the GDP and absorbs 42.3 percent of the labor force.

A decade before, in 2007-08, agriculture constituted 21% of the GDP and used to absorb 44 percent of the labor force. The gradual decrease of agriculture percentage in GDP is not a healthy sign since it is not because of the inter-competition of agriculture with other sectors of economy i.e. the other sectors are not out-performing agriculture.

Besides the rapid urbanization as one factor responsible for decrease of agriculture share in GDP, the poor agriculture practices including non-optimal uses of water, pesticides, and fertilizers; lack of research and development in agriculture; lukewarm support from government institutions; lack of farmers’ education and training in modern methods of agriculture; estrange relationship between land-owners and tenant farmers; water robberies cum water thefts; water shortages and last but not the least acreage stagnancy of cultivatable land.

Pakistan is currently the sixth most populated country in the world. Its population that swells exponentially stands at more than 200 million people. Whereas the land is fixed and under normal circumstances it is not going to increase or decrease, hence in order to feed the rapidly growing population something has to be done. Pakistan comprises of 196 million acres of land; out of which seventy-seven (77) million acres are suitable for agriculture. Nonetheless, only fifty-five (55) million acres are under cultivation (both irrigation and Barani – rain dependent). Twenty-two (22) million acres can still be brought under cultivation. Using these extra acres is desperately needed to feed the exponentially growing population of Pakistan.

Though there is no denying the fact that cultivation methods in Pakistan are still very crude and the resultant yield per acre is far from satisfactory, the need to cultivate these additional acres cannot be further delayed. Since the under cultivation land is facing shortages of water, new land cannot be brought under cultivation without harming the agriculture of the pre-existing cultivated land. Pakistan’s main crops are Rice, Sugarcane, Cotton and Wheat besides Maize, Masoor, Gram, Moong, Mash, Bajra, Jowar, Rapseed, Barley, Tobacco and Mustard. Whereas Rice, Sugarcane, Cotton, Maize, Moong, Mash, Bajra and Jowar are Kharif crops i.e. sown in summer and harvested in autumn / winter; Wheat, Gram, Masoor, Tobacco, Rapseed, Barley and Mustard are Rabi crops i.e. sown in autumn / winter and harvested in summer. Water requirement for Kharif crops is in summer, whereas Rabi crops need water mainly in non-summer months. As per the Water Accord of 1991 between the provinces of Pakistan, apportionment for Kharif and Rabi season are 77.34 million acre feet (MAF) and 37.04 MAF respectively.

The annual water apportionment for the country is acknowledged as 114.35 MAF. The 1991 Accord also acknowledges the need of releasing certain quantities of water (which Sindh insists as 10 MAF) below Kotri in order to check sea intrusion. In comparison to the 1991 Accord, Average System Use for Kharif, Rabi and Annual are being acknowledged as 67.1 MAF, 36.4 MAF, and 103.5 MAF, respectively. Against the Average System Use figures, the actual annual water availability figures during year 2016-17 and 2017-18 were 2.3% and 9.0 % lower, respectively, although water drawdowns in Kharif were higher. Reportedly, for current year’s (2018-19) Kharif, Sindh has faced 35% shortage, while Punjab faced 20% shortage, whereas Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa faced forty-five percent and thirty-three percent shortages respectively. Overall shortage for Kharif remained around twenty-one percent. A bleaker picture is expected for the current Rabi season.

Likewise in normal and dry years the water releases downstream of Kotri to check sea intrusion also remained usually way below the 10 MAF figure considered by many as necessary to check sea intrusion and maintain the ecological system dependent on delta mangroves.

Nevertheless, there is a strong belief that in wet and flood years more than 35 MAF escapes into the Arabian Sea. Hence drawing and storing 6 MAF for live storage for a major dam, and /or less than 1 MAF for live storage of another smaller dam should not be an issue. Albeit these numbers are highly arguable and may be hotly contested by different stakeholders, there is no denying the fact that no drop of water should be wasted in sea, provided that there is no technical string attached to that drop of water.

To save the water from wasting into sea what other solution than a dam could be feasible? The current yardsticks may suggest that a dam may not be feasible based on surplus water availability only during flood /wet years. Nonetheless, since water in the system on cyclic basis is not going to increase or decrease (unless unusual weather patterns melt glaciers in unusual ways), the feasibility yardsticks for constructing dam are also going to be changed once fresh water becomes rare commodity.

Dams in Pakistan are not a new concept. Mangla and Tarbela dams are the hallmarks of Pakistan. The Tarbela is world’s largest earth-filled dam, which was constructed at a time when Pakistan’s technological progress was hardly beyond rudimentary. Constructing the world’s largest earth-filled dam at that time was a wonder in itself. This dam was constructed under the auspices of the World Bank under the Indus Basin Treaty signed in 1960. The Indus Basin Treaty, like Tarbela, is a marvel for Pakistan. For India it is still a bleeding wound. Indians still curse Nehru for signing the Treaty.

Both Tarbela and the Indus Basin Treaty were gifts of a Pakistani friend David Lilienthal who was chairman of Tennessee Valley Authority who had on his credit constructing many dams in America; and who convinced Eugene Robert Black, the 3rd President of World Bank from 1949 to 1962 to pressurize India to settle water disputes and sign the Indus Basin Treaty with Pakistan. What good times for Pakistan! At that time constructing one or two additional major dams (other than the Mangla and Tarbela) would not have been so difficult: Americans were not so hostile; Pakistan had friends in world financial institutions such as World Bank, and it had developed worth-praising institutions such as WAPDA.

Nevertheless, because of lesser population pressure, Pakistanis contended with Mangla and Tarbela in sixties and seventies and have woke up only in year 2018 when there is no cheap financing available and when creating consensus on constructing a major dam has become all the more troublesome. However ‘better late than never’, NOW is the time to act and construct some dams. However, as in English alphabet ‘C’ (for Consensus) precedes ‘D’ (for Dams), efforts to develop ‘Consensus’ should outpace the construction of ‘Dams’ – and surely it is not a difficult task if sincerity becomes the driving force.

The writer is a consultant providing consultancy to various hydro, renewable and thermal IPPs. He can be accessed for feedback and comments on asifabro@hotmail.com