The great dams disaster

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If Pakistan enters severe water shortage around the year 2025 it will have nobody to blame but itself. Successive governments have failed to build the dams that were obviously essential to future needs as long as 30 years ago.

Water storage and management have never made it to the top of the federal agenda and even when it came close then provincial rivalries prevented forwards movement. Dams were projected and never got beyond the design stage and those that have become mired in local disputes, poor planning, corruption and gross inefficiency.

The dams that are already here are often indifferently maintained and never sufficiently de-silted to achieve their full potential. The Indus river system is itself undergoing changes as a result of global warming and the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is also overdue for overhaul and maintenance – all in all a complex mix surrounding the water of today and tomorrow.

Now there is yet another developing crisis around the building of a dam. The Dasu Hydropower Stage-1 project is in danger of losing its primary funding because the World Bank has expressed ‘serious concerns’ over years of delay in construction such that the $3.787 loan it approved in 2014 could get ‘lapsed’, a polite way of saying ‘withdrawn’ at which point the entire project, which was due for completion in 2021 will come to a shuddering halt.

Once again this appears to be a legacy issue. The previous government claimed that it had completed land acquisition for the Dasu dam but it now transpires that only 7 percent, or 740 acres out of the needed 12,000 acres has been purchased, this according to the Minister for Water Resources who was addressing a press conference on Monday 22nd October.

The current – no longer so new – the government has a rolling water crisis that can no longer be back-burnered, and the minister acknowledged this saying that the government was addressing the issue ‘on a war footing’ and that it was now projected that the Dasu dam could be online by 2022-3.

An indirect effect of the failure to build dams is that the country is now burdened with the import of ruinously expensive natural gas, and this is not going to change any time soon.  There is to be a meeting in Peshawar on 6th November to address and resolve the many issues around the Dasu project, but realistically and beyond what would be a deeply unpopular compulsory purchase of necessary land, there is no quick fix. If the World Bank pulls the plug on the financing Pakistan has nothing in reserve to fill the funding gap.

Add to this the burgeoning water crisis in Karachi and Sindh more generally and the imperatives around water become even more pressing. Water presents one of the very few genuinely existential crises that the country faces, and the future and existence of the state are at hazard. Of all the fixes the government needs to make, water has to go to the top of the list – and stay there. Please proceed with urgency.