Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kalabagh Dam and internal cohesion

Dr. Umar Khan

Kalabagh Dam and internal cohesion

General Musharraf feels that building of Kalabagh Dam is important for Pakistan and has repeated his resolve to build it for the national good. Pakistan is a semi arid region whose sustenance and survival depends on irrigated agriculture. Its economy and even the industry is agriculture based which is also the biggest employer. The population is increasing and available water is decreasing. In this situation we must make full use of the water available from our rivers and should not waste it by letting it go in the sea. All this sounds like a very convincing argument but unfortunately there is another part of it. Two of the four provinces are very much against building this dam. Irrespective of the merits of their arguments, they believe that this dam could devastate their economies and hamper state of their land in sequence. The provinces endangered by the situation feel that their sustenance would be threatened if the dam remained poised to be built. Sind and the NWFP feel so strongly against it that they threaten with violence and all other means if this dam is built. Reality is that building this dam may fetch some economic benefits but it would be at a cost of internal cohesion and the national unity.

We are repeatedly sermoned by our rulers that the strength of a country depended on its economy and the armed forces. This is certainly partially true, but a bit simplistic as there are other more important factors that need to be reckoned. Further, internal cohesion of a country along with its record of human development play a much more important role in determining the strength of a country. Even a wealthy country lacking cohesion and peace would not be able to remain wealthy for long. Glancing at Africa we see many states like Angola and Congo that are potentially very wealthy, loaded with gems and other valuable resources, actually experiencing the worst forms of poverty due to political instability and civil unrest. In Pakistan we do not have to look for experiences in the far off countries. During the Ayub era Pakistan was progressing fast. Experts from today’s tiger economies like Korea and Taiwan used to study us as a model of progress. Unfortunately this economic progress was not accompanied by political progress, so instability accrued and resulted in civil war and dismemberment of the country. It didn’t end up here and created a strong movement of nationalization destroying the economy even further, with consequences many economists feel that we are yet to get out of.

Water is important for Pakistan. We receive an annual flow of around 140 Million Acre Feet (MAF) from our rivers, out of which we harness around 115 MAF with the help of our extensive irrigation network. This leaves around 25 MAF of water going waste in the sea every year. Although all these figures are contested, still the loss is no small. Building of Kalabagh dam will enable us to use another 6 MAF of water annually, irrigating another 2.4 million acres. Additionally, 11750 Mega watts of cheap hydroelectricity would be a welcome bonus in the situation. But before coming to conclusions we must consider if water shortage remains our only problem or a part of it? Experts tell us that we are losing over 40% of available water before it reaches the roots. It is pleasant to know that we are lining the canals and water channels to counter seepage, however the process needs to be geared up for optimal results, it is felt. We are still using flood irrigation that is inefficient and could result in degradation of land with water logging and salinity. In figures, 28% of agricultural land in Punjab and over 50% in Sind has already been affected by the situation. The world is using sprinklers and drip irrigation that does not require much technology either and is a point to ponder for us in the situation. By optimizing the use of water we could save up to 50 MAF of water that is nearly 10 times the water we could save with the Kalabagh dam. Israelis could cultivate Pakistan many times over with this much water. Good surgeons don’t start infusing blood to the bleeding patients until they have stopped the active bleed. Let us first plug our bleeding spots. Our successive governments have repeatedly shown their affinity for large, capital intensive, foreign debt funded water infrastructures while ignoring the less expensive, locally fabricated options irrespective of their utility or effectiveness. This affinity has its own set of dynamics in decision making, not always concerned with the overall good and must be checked. Then there are social, political and economic factors associated with water distribution needing urgent attention. Selecting the most controversial, expensive and divisive solution while ignoring the easier ones might not be very prudent.

Pakistan is a fedration of four provinces all enjoying different cultures and languages while sharing the same religion. Any such setup needs to be handled most carefully whether in a family or on a national scale. The decisions affecting all must be taken with care after reaching consensus. Even an unreasonable brother needs to be accommodated no matter how unreasonable he becomes. Exploring the families and nations who have retained their name and respect we find accommodation of unreasonable elements common in all as compared to the families and nations who got divided and destroyed. Most of the objections that are raised are either of technical nature or more importantly of mistrust. This mistrust of the smaller provinces has not always been baseless and must be addressed. Bengalis harbored this mistrust and we tackled this problem initially by questioning their allegiance to the state and later by using force. Any reasonably intelligent person could have predicted the outcome of this policy, but we as a nation could not and so had to face many embarrassments. Our failure to accommodate our brothers in 1971 still haunts us when we have to answer painful questions of different types even today. Today our Sindhi and Pathan brethren have doubts about Punjab that have become symbolized in Kalabagh dam to the extent that the closest associates of the present regime cannot openly support the project and face their constituencies. These experiences teach us that we should never try to force our will on our brothers, or the small provinces, irrespective of the strength of our argument. The answer does not lie in brute force but in force of persuasion. If we could accommodate Indian point of view on Kashmir as well as water issue, why not the same approach be followed in case of our own brethren's? Let us not forget the proverbial that wise learn from wisdom and fools through experience. Unfortunately the second instance that has been too often repeated in our history needs to be checked when going in for construction of mega dams particularly Kalabagh Dam.

Nawaz Sharif prided in taking quick decisions which many allege were without sufficient thought to the possible after effects. He considered it an effective way of working in Pakistan as getting too deeply involved in the decision making could bog down everything and the country could not afford to lose any more time. This attitude made him announce the building of Kalabagh dam which he later had to dump due to obvious reasons. Fortunately the government headed by General Musharraf has shown its ability to change track after realizing its errors without unnecessary insistence. It responded well by stopping its campaign against the businessmen in 1999-2000 and also responding intelligently after 9/11, reaping the obvious benefits. It might consider assuring the small provinces of government’s commitment not to take any steps unilaterally without their consent. All types of water saving and optimum utilization campaigns may be launched immediately while consensus making for Kalabagh dam although initiated should be expedited. The steps thus ensued would include educating the people about the project with its pros and cons. Discussions should commence and a consensual stance may be achieved. If it takes a little time it would be worth it, as we have already lost around 20 years since a General, who was also a governor of frontier province, became a champion of its anti movement. If the government still believes that it is important to build this dam, a genuinely fair referendum might be considered. Only after building this consensus such a project may be launched.

Politics, thus political process is the best known way of forming consensus or creating agreements. Apparently the procedure looks long and cumbersome but in the end it produces solid results. Unfortunately this science has been ignored in Pakistan and the politicians have been routinely humiliated. Political process has been repeatedly interrupted resulting in production of a crop of semi cooked politicians, unable to deliver consensus of this magnitude. This sort of an issue might be more likely to be solved in the political arena rather than by the symbols of national unity like the office of the President or the Chief of Army Staff. Both manned by General Musharraf. Pakistan might be better served by strengthening of these symbols of national unity instead of making them controversial.

Dam sites are a gift of God and Pakistan has plenty of them. To those who advocate that survival of Pakistan is dependant on building of Kalabagh dam an opponent may ask if it is only this site that has made it viable. What if this sight did not exist? Would Pakistan be unviable then? Let us face the truth that our biggest asset does not lie in our material resources, but our people who are talented, hardworking and patriotic. We might be able to survive a few material losses but cannot afford to lose an iota of internal cohesion. We cannot afford to sow any more discords between our provinces. United, 150 million Pakistanis can work wonders but the effects of internal rift are too scary even to predict. Let us not take decisions with haste and accommodate our smaller provinces no matter how unreasonable we find their attitudes. The author is very much in favor of this dam but not at the cost of national cohesion. This is too much of a price. Teachers have taught us that it is important to know what to do, but more important to know what not to do. Any thing that jeopardizes the national cohesion and unity should not be done. We cannot risk our internal cohesion for 6 MAF or water Kalabagh dam may be saving. It might still not be worth if it was oil instead of water.

Dr. Umar Khan heads a prominent Lahore based think tank.

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