The Dam Rhetoric
I am not sure when it started, but the trend to willy nilly label people who question the feasibility of dams in Pakistan, as traitors is very much in vogue in the Islamic Republic. This is not just limited to the confines of drawing rooms in Islamabad and Lahore, as may have been the case as recently as a decade back. The meteoric rise of social media means that, consensus around designating fellow citizens as treacherous nobodies can now be built in merely 280 characters (or less). This resonates with a street hawker, a banker, a soldier, an academic and even a judge of the highest court in the land! Consider this recent statement by the honorable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with regard to the proposed Diamer-Bhasha Dam, “Everyone opposing this effort is a traitor and an enemy of the state.” He further added, for good measure, “I have starting studying the Article 6 (high treason charge), and will apply the article against anyone who tries to halt the dam.” Water has always been a contentious issue in Pakistan, but never has such a proclamation been made, in such a manner by a person, in such a position of responsibility. It calls into question everything that this country was supposed to stand for after independence. In fact, the statement harkens back to the era of colonial rule.
We don’t have to guess the response of founder of the country, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to the above statement. His words, as spoken in front of a session of All India Muslim League held in Calcutta in 1917, bear repeating. He said, “Instead of Government meeting the complaints of the people what do they do in this country? They want to muzzle you. They say, we shall pass a Press Act. If you write anything, we will, they say, strangle you…..Is this really the method by which you can continue governing people? Is it possible for any Statute to destroy the soul of the people?” Fast forward a hundred years and these words resonate like never before. And to anyone thinking that the Quaid’s words now would have been less forceful given that we are no longer under colonial rule, if anything, he would have been even more unequivocal, considering the high standards he hoped to see instilled, in an independent Pakistan.
“They say, we shall pass a Press Act, If you write anything, we will, they say, strangle you… is this really the method by which you can continue governing people? Is it possible for any Statute to destroy the soul of the people?” — Mohammad Ali Jinnah
While the government’s focus is squarely on large dams, our problems pertain less to availability than to allocation, efficient and equitable use of water already available in the system. These are the low hanging fruits of water governance that we have ignored to our great detriment. Building more dams in Pakistan, is akin to adding water to a leaky bucket, you will never get your fill. There are some statistics that have been doing rounds on TV talk shows and social media. These pertain to the number of days’ worth of water storage in the country. The thing with statistics is that without proper context they are meaningless. The argument goes that Pakistan has 30 days of storage capacity while the required amount is 120 days. Of course, examples of India and United States are cited to highlight our failure to keep up in the race.
Never mind the fact that Americans rue the fact that the Colorado river doesn’t reach the sea anymore, and that there is an effort to remove dams in the country, so that water flows in harmony with ecological and cultural realms. Also, never mind the fact that many countries far worse off than us in terms of water availability are doing much better with what they have. The impression given is that by building more dams; we can increase the storage capacity. On paper this may make sense, but not if you consider the fact that outside summer months when Monsoons bring rain, and there is glacial melt, even our current set of dams struggle to maintain their levels. In fact, in most of the year water quantity feeding the Indus delta is negligible, so much so that the mangrove forests have been degraded immensely and sea water inundation has deeply impacted communities in coastal areas. The second impression that we have as a country, is that large dams, are the only possible way of storing water. This ignores the natural storage options available to us, such as groundwater and wetlands. Finally, the focus on large dams detracts from sustainable practices such as rainwater harvesting and conservation initiatives that; can help sustain our water resources. It also allows us to put aside discussions on issues such as varied as abiana (irrigation water charges), drip irrigation, sustainable cropping patterns, groundwater consumption patterns, environmental flows below Kotri, and industrial pollution of our waterways.
Water, is indeed life for a vast majority of the people of this country. A woman and her children, having to migrate from their ancestral lands in Badin, due to the death of the Indus delta, should be forgiven for thinking that large infrastructural projects, while a boon for vested interests; have only wreaked havoc on their way of life. She and individuals like her across Pakistan, are a reflection of our society at large, hardworking, caring, strong yet vulnerable. And like the rest of us, they are not looking for a handout but some empathy, a recognition that they exist and that their lives matter. The rhetoric emanating from the halls of power does the opposite. In our technocratic mindset, to use the much abused cliché, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It is time to have an honest discussion about our water and our future. We can start by agreeing to listen to the other point of view.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.