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Bhasha Dam: A Tomb Stone of Gilgit-Baltistan’s Aspirations

Priyanka Singh is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 31, 2009

    This year Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage and the shortage during the current Rabi crop is estimated to be around 35 to 40 per cent, which will adversely affect the wheat output, critical for the country’s food security. Pakistan also faces an acute power shortage, which has exacerbated by the reduced outflow from Tarbela Dam. To tide over the problems, Pakistan is building Bhasha Dam on River Indus, which is the largest dam being built in Pakistan since Tarbela was completed in 1976. Continuous silting has reduced the storage capacity of Tarbela and Mangla dams considerably. It had been estimated that to tide over the problems of Pakistan’s water shortages it needed to build a dam of Tarbela’s size (world’s largest rock filled dam) every seven years. However, political discord and lack of clear vision among Pakistan’s ruling elite have prevented even a single dam from being constructed during the last three decades. For a country where agriculture contributes one fifth of the national GDP and employs over 40 percent of the labour force, it could be a costly oversight.

    The experts opine that the ideal site for building a mega dam in Pakistan is Kalabagh, which could provide millions of acres feet of water for irrigation in addition to cheap electricity. Though Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan has always been supportive of Kalabagh, the other three provinces have been resolutely opposed to it. Although Sindh is opposed to any dam on Indus, NWFP feels that a dam at Kalabagh will inundate large agricultural tracts as well as the thriving city of Nowshera. Inspite of being small, NWFP has always wielded considerable influence on the security establishment of Pakistan and it was therefore impossible for the then military rulers to overlook its objections. Despite General Musharraf’s fervent attempts, a consensus eluded Kalabagh. In fact Asfandar Wali Khan, the ANP leader, went to the extent of asking him to chose between Kalabagh Dam and the federation.

    As a result Musharraf in the year 2006, settled for less ‘contentious’ Bhasha Dam to be built as the first mega dam as part of his ‘Water Vision 2025’, which envisages building at least five dams across Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK). The site of the proposed Bhasha dam is located on the Indus River 314 kilometres upstream of Tarbela dam and about 120 km downstream of its confluence with the Gilgit River. Its proponents claim that it could enhance the lifespan of Tarbela dam; by reducing silting. It is also expected to have a longer life span than Kalabagh as the sediment load at Bhasha is considerably lower than at Kalabagh. The construction is expected to start by September 2009 and is estimated to cost a whopping $ 12 billion.

    The dam is slated to have 12 power generating units of 375 MW capacity and the average annual hydel power to be generated by the dam is estimated to be 19,000 GWH. The dam with a height of 272 m,will be the highest roller-compacted concrete dam in the world. There will be 14 gates of 11.0 x 16.5 m size. The gross capacity of the dam will be 7.3 Million Acre Feet (MAF) and the live (usable) capacity of the dam will be 6.4 MAF. A number of roads need to be built to provide access to the project site and the funding requirement has been forecast as Rs 31 billion, however, only Rs 2.6 billion have been provided in the budget for the current financial year. For the project a meagre sum of Rs 200 million has been assigned in the budget and the bulk of funding was expected from the World Bank and the ADB. However, the World Bank has refused to fund the dam or any other project in POK. Moreover, with the global economic slowdown, funding from any international multilateral organisation may become a serious problem and may further slowdown the already slow progress of the project.

    However, the dam will not only take much longer January 2009 5 to build, it will inundate large tracts of land in Gilgit-Batistan. Besides it would also inundate 120 Kilometre stretch of Karakoram Highway, which links China with Pakistan and provides the main access to this otherwise inaccessible region. The dam is therefore strongly opposed by the local population but the hapless population of Gilgit-Baltistan, without any representation in Islamabad’s policy making institutions, has no avenue of getting its voice heard in Islamabad. The local population already has serious grievances against the Pakistan government for the continuing ‘oppression,’ for the last six decades. The government has not only not allowed the people any say in the decision making process, it has even prevented them from forming unions.

    The dam has grave socio-economic and environmental implications. It will displace the residents from at least 32 villages in Diamer District as soon the construction work starts. The large tracts of fertile land, which is extremely scarce in Gilgit- Baltistan will get inundated, making the region even more dependent on Pakistan for its food requirements. The construction will bring in large number of workers from outside the region. As it is the State Subjects Rule, which prevented outsiders from acquiring land in the region has been done away with, consequently, the migrants have been settling in the region and altering the unique ethnic composition of the region. The dam may further disturb the already delicate ethnic and sectarian balance in the region. The construction of a huge reservoir in a tectonic faultline may result in serious ecological complications. The recurrence of a massive earthquake like the one experienced in the Mirpur-Muzaffarabad region of POK in 2005, could lead to severe calamity as a breach in a huge reservoir like Bhasha Dam could inundate most of the cities located downstream on the banks of Indus.

    The fundamental problem with the dam is that while almost the entire inundation will take place in Gilgit-Baltistan, the power plant will be located in Bhasha in NWFP and hence it will receive the royalty from the power generation.Although the entire water in the reservoir will be available for irrigation down stream in Pakistan, not even an acre of land will be irrigated in so called ‘Northern Areas’ (Gilgit-Baltistan). As a sop to the local population the name of the dam was changed from Bhasha to Diamer-Bhasha to give them a false sense of ownership and it was announced that the royalty will be shared with the ‘Northern Areas’. However, NWFP government has refused to share the royalty and Pakistani constitution supports their contention. The provision in the constitution states that the royalty would go to the state where the powerhouse for generating electricity is located. However, this is not a valid justification for the NWFP to reap the benefits of royalty from the dam, as the constitution of Pakistan does not apply to Gilgit-Baltistan, where the dam is actually located.

    There is another dimension of this dam that needs to be highlighted and it is related to the preservation of archaeological assets. In April 2008, there were reports that approximately one thousand rare stone carvings, sculptures and statues of Buddha were discovered at the construction site of the dam. Pakistan as a signatory to international conventions is obliged to protect these heritage sites.

    However,obliterating the region’s pre-Islamic past may suit Pakistan’s political and ideological objectives, but India’s reticence is baffling. The dam is being built in a territory that legally belongs to India and the population of the region, who are ‘de jure’ citizens of India are being persecuted to facilitate its construction. The Government of India must raise its voice against persecution of its citizens. It will be difficult for Pakistan to obtain funding for the project, if India educates the international multilateral organisations about the illegality of the project and consequent violation of the basic human rights of the population of Gilgit-Baltistan. Its unique ethnonationalist character and pristine environment is being threatened to provide irrigation and electricity to Pakistan, without any concurrence of the local population or India.

    (Commentary originally published in January issue of POK News Digest.)