In 2016, the news of Pakistan running dry and approaching absolute scarcity level of water by 2025 gained great traction by the media. Several local as well as international publications covered the report, warning Pakistan of the looming danger of a near future with no water in an already energy starved country. The report was by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), which is part of the Science and Technology Ministry. An official from the ministry told the media in 2016 that the country will run out of water if authorities do not address the issue and if adequate funding is not provided to the PCRWR for research purposes.
On June 4, 2018, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar, took a suo motu notice of the water situation in Pakistan while hearing a 20-year-old petition regarding the Kalabagh Dam, where it was discussed that no new dam has been built in the country since 48 years. In July 2018, the Chief Justice stated that keeping the water crisis in mind, Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand Dams should be constructed immediately. He appealed to the general public, Pakistanis in the country as well as those residing abroad, to donate generously for the dam and began a Supreme Court Dam Fund. To further spread the message, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting prepared an advertisement to be run on all print and electronic media channels free of cost as a public service message.
On September 7, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, in a brief address to nation stressed upon the need for the dam to be built as soon as possible and requested expatriates to contribute $1,000 each to the fund.
But while the Diamer-Bhasha dam is being sold as the magical solution to all water problems in Pakistan, experts claim that may not be the case. In fact, without addressing problems of water management, storage and wastage that deeply plague the country, we may be facing the same issues even after the dam is built.
“First things first, the 2025 report by PCRWR needs to be debunked,” said Dr Hassaan Furqan Khan, a Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University in the Department of Earth System Science. Any scientific analysis anywhere in the world needs to be peer reviewed before it can be accepted and PCRWR’s report has not been and, in fact, goes against all literature published by researchers regarding future flows in the Indus Basin. Dr Khan, who is also a visiting scholar with LEAD Pakistan, further stated that the report has not been made publicly available and should not have been given the attention it was by the media. “Pakistan is not going to go dry by 2025, actually in the short term, Pakistan is going to have more water in the next 30 to 40 years because of climate change,” he added.
Rafay Alam, an environmental activist and lawyer agrees with Dr Khan. “What I understand from our climate policy and climate assessments is that climate change is going to affect the way glaciers melt, bringing more water,” said Alam. However, glaciers are not all water; a lot of it is stone and rock so what does come down is water and silt. “And because the Indus is already so heavily silted, that would impact the life of any dam that is constructed on it.”
According to sources within the Ministry of Water and Power, the total cost of Diamer-Bhasha Dam is estimated at Rs1,400 billion. The cost of land acquisition and resettlement is estimated at Rs101 billion, the dam is estimated at Rs471 billion, and the expected expenditure for the power house has been calculated at 751 billion rupees, according to an official in the ministry. However, it has been decided that once the government has raised 30 to 40 billion rupees, through donations, it will start the work in 2019. Previously in Pakistan, Mangla and Tarbela dams were both financed by The World Bank — which has refused to fund Diamer-Bhasha because it falls in disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Dr Saher Asad, a development economist, said that studies from everywhere in the world show that large dams suffer from schedule and cost overruns. This particularly makes crowd-sourcing funds for it a big problem. The average from a study that uses data from dams all over the world suggests that the average cost overruns experienced is at 96 per cent. “That’s just the average and globally cost overruns go from 30 to 500 percent on large projects,” said Dr Asad, who also teaches water economics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). “Just imagine the uncertainty for planners and the government who will then have to overnight raise twice the amount than they initially set out for.”
She further added that data shows that every eight out of ten large dams suffer from schedule overruns. This proves very problematic as the more the schedule changes, the more cost changes as well. Dams on average take 44 per cent longer than the estimated time frame, which affects the cost-benefit analysis of constructing the dam. “There have been cases where the cost benefit analysis had a ratio of 1:4, which ended up having an opposite effect,” said Dr Asad. “Because the cost changed so much while the benefit did not.”
“This is why crowd-sourcing funds only works in places where you have definite targets in terms of time and cost, which is not the case for the Diamer-Bhasha Dam,” she said.
Imran Khan stated in his address to the nation that self-financing for dams has happened before in another developing country, citing the example of Ethiopia. The money for the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia was raised by the government from local banks and by deducting money from the salaries of civil servants for bond purchases. However, the total cost of that dam was cited at $4 billion dollars compared to the $14 billion dollars currently needed to build Diamer-Bhasha dam.
Dr Khan said that the dam in Ethiopia is much more technically feasible than Diamer-Bhasha and has the potential to unlock Ethiopia’s agricultural sector, which is why there is so much support for it. “The part of the world the Bhasha Dam is being built is in a seismically dangerous location because it is prone to earthquakes, which is why experts are against it,” he added.
Dr Khan believes the government initially could have taken other imperative steps to improve water management and water storage in Pakistan that would not have cost them Rs1,400 billion. Pakistan uses 95 per cent of its water in agriculture, according to literature published on Pakistan’s water usage, and there is an urgent need to improve farming practices to control water wastage.
The government also needs to look at how water is distributed across provinces — a constant dispute in the country, and also devise policies regarding water pricing. Currently, Pakistan has no effective water pricing for agricultural use. “You can work on all these things and build a dam, but unless these issues are addressed as well, you’re going to end up with the same problems even after the dam is built,” said Dr Khan.
“Dams are to water storage and water management what overpasses and underpasses are for traffic,” said Alam. It’s a way of improving traffic, but not necessarily the only one and similar is the case with water. “We have a lot of options before us for managing our existing supplies of water and because dams are one option, we shouldn’t ignore the others.”
Approximately three billion rupees have been collected through the dam fund and till now the government has not declared when the fundraising will end. While it is true that water management and water storage are problems that need immediate attention, for a country that is financially struggling to say the least, decisions regarding water pricing, water distribution across the country and better agricultural practices may be politically difficult, but would prove effective and cost less than the current estimation of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam.