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Published Date: Jul 1, 1999

The Case Against Kalabagh Dam (W-48)

Shaheen Rafi Khan, SDPI


The Kalabagh Dam project comes at an important confluence of events. It reflects a crisis of governance, where decision-makers are at odds with an increasingly vocal society. Among other things, this stems from a concern that Kalabagh could trigger irreversible degradation of the Indus River Ecosystem. Also, the global and regional context for assessing large dams like Kalabagh is changing, with conventionally described irrigation, flood control and energy benefits being viewed through the prism of sustainable development.

The key imperatives, transparency and good governance, were never a factor in the formulation of the project.  Thus, the technical specifications have undergone numerous revisions because of perceived concerns in the NWFP regarding seepage and inundation of surrounding areas, a problem that could have been resolved had affectee communities been consulted. Politically, the dam has been a non-starter as its benefits are viewed as accruing to the Punjab, at the expense of Sind and the NWFP, with both provinces the victims of water deprivation, ecosystem degradation and social displacement. The arbitrary manner in which the Punjab has appropriated water from the Indus River Basin in the past does not set a precedent for credibility. The issue of resettlement and rehabilitation is a contentious one, as there is outright mistrust of the government’s offer of compensation.  Finally, increasing cost over-runs and mounting donor reluctance to finance a large and environmentally controversial project of this nature, give the lie to the government resolve to press on with building the dam; in particular, the government’s present fiscal insolvency precludes an investment of this magnitude.

An important factor in good governance is decentralized and consultative decision making. By contrast, the reality has been the very antithesis of this , with policy decisions being made  in a highly centralized, politically coercive — the belated decision for consensus notwithstanding — and technically flawed manner. WAPDA, the administrative and technical authority on large water projects, appears bent upon an ex-post vindication of a politically motivated step.  Regrettably, when the need is for broad-based stakeholder consultations, as a basis for  informed and democratic decision making, the existing trend points towards even greater centralization. For instance, the rotating chairmanship of the Indus River System Authority has recently been converted into a permanent appointment, provincial resolutions against Kalabagh have been given short shrift, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has consistently ignored the matter and community concerns continue to be met with blatant disregard.  Small wonder then that the political leadership in the smaller provinces and civil society are up in arms against Kalabagh.

Section 1 of the paper examines the official water availability claims used to justify the Kalabagh Dam.  This is followed by an assessment of the arguments traditionally advanced in favor of large dams.   Section 3 assesses the ecological and social displacement concerns, which have acquired center stage in the calculus of aid donors and international bodies such as the World Commission on Dams. Section 4 presents a low-cost alternative to Kalabagh Dam and is followed by the recommendations in the concluding section.