Earlier this year, Khawaja Asif, the minister for water and power, warned that Pakistan can become water-starved over the next six to seven years. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has already described Pakistan as one of the most water-stressed countries, with 1,000 cubic metres available per person per year. Having dropped five-fold since 1947, this availability matches that of drought-stricken Ethiopia. Given poor water management, a national predilection towards extravagance, the highest population growth rate in South Asia, and a largely agrarian economy, the impending disaster is quite evident.
Water is also politically volatile. Domestically, it courts controversy as a shared resource, internationally it can ignite an already-hostile neighbourhood: neighbouring India has been accused of constricting Pakistan’s water supply and thus indulging in ‘water terrorism’. Under these circumstances, Pakistan should have declared a water emergency. However, it hardly appears to be bothered. Even the foreseeable energy development has only a small share of hydel projects. Consider the CPEC, for example: out of $34 billion reserved for the energy infrastructure, only $3.3 billion goes to hydel projects that generate 1,570MW together as against a short-fall of 6,000MW, while about $25 billion will fund the projects based on imported fuel and LNG. Innovative water management also attracts no funds. Without being ungrateful, this spectrum of investment doesn’t improve Pakistan’s energy security significantly. More tellingly, the water woes remain.
For a country prone to routine floods, water reservoirs are critical. Pakistan thus sees the Diamer-Bhasha Dam as a solution to many problems. To be built in Gilgit-Baltistan, it can store 8.1 million acre feet of water and generate 4,500MW. Also, being upstream, it can block sedimentation in Tarbela Dam thereby extending its life by 35 years. Moreover, had it been constructed before 2010, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam could have saved an estimated $10 billion by mitigating floods.
The project costs $14 billion though, and funds are hard to come by. Donors like the World Bank and the ADB have shied away due to Indian objections that the project locates in “disputed territory”. There are also environmental challenges such as relocating 30,000 people and a loss of heritage due to construction, as well as engineering challenges in a mountainous region.
Nevertheless, the government insists that the project is both essential and feasible having assessed so formally. Also, in March 2015, the government approved a mammoth Rs101 billion to acquire the requisite land and to rehabilitate those affected. Furthermore, last year, the USAID awarded an $18 million contract to an American firm to assess the feasibility of the project independently. Under these circumstances, the investment for the CPEC should have been a godsend. Clearly, the Chinese should be least perturbed by Indian objections, having already shrugged them off over the CPEC. They are also vastly experienced, being involved in building some 330 dams in 74 countries, including those with environmental risks.
It is not to be so, however: the Chinese Three Georges Corporation, which is building the Karot Dam as a part of the CPEC, met International Rivers to discuss environmental issues, and indicated a disinclination to fund the Diamer-Bhasha project. A separately reported reason for this disinclination is the risk that a hefty investment in a single project entails. Without an official word on the subject though, it is unclear as to what ultimately discourages the Chinese to fund this project, even as the US calls it the “smartest choice” for investment, while the USAID sponsors a feasibility study. Perhaps, the government could arrange this feasibility study much earlier to convince the Chinese. Also, to demonstrate readiness, the government should have acquired the land and rehabilitated those affected by now. If, however, the timeframe for constructing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is a concern — as the CPEC needs to be energised sooner — some funds can help run the existing energy infrastructure of over 22,000MW to capacity to cover the prevailing energy shortfall.
If the situation persists, at the projected commissioning of this project in 2037, the per capita water availability will touch a rock bottom of 711 cubic metres, well below the levels in drought-stricken African countries. It may also expose the country to devastating floods in the meantime. It is about time we re-explored the heights and the depths of our relations with our all-weather friend to chart a sustainable future
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2015.