Aug 22, 2009

Bhasha Dam

Dawn Editorial
Saturday, 22 Aug, 2009

The dam, termed as the country’s future lifeline, will produce 4,500 megawatts of cheap electricity in addition to storing 6.4MAF of water and irrigating more than 33 million acres of land. It will help slow down the sedimentation of Tarbela, which has derated generation by 276 megawatts to 3,202 megawatts.

One theory that has been attacked by the lobby that is against big dams is that Bhasha must be constructed to save Tarbela that is threatened by silt. Nevertheless, the news must cheer up people in a country that is predicted to become water-scarce in the next two-and-a-half decades, where half the population has no access to electricity and where others are forced to live without it for up to 12 hours a day.

Many see the approval of the project as a realisation on the part of the government that a long-term strategy is crucial if the issue of persistent water and power shortages is to be addressed. The government claims that it has consulted all stakeholders before giving a nod to the project but such reassuring words are never a guarantee for smooth sailing.

The Bhasha water reservoir is to be located in the Northern Areas and power is to be generated in the NWFP. The dam could cause a heated debate between the two regions over hydropower royalties. It is not yet known what steps the government plans to take to guard against such an eventuality. Besides, the water storage is certainly going to reduce the downstream flow of the Indus waters. Such a possibility calls for greater transparency in the inter-provincial water-sharing mechanism under Irsa to prevent any new tug-of-war between the federating units.

Even if these problems are taken care of, the building of the dam presents a number of engineering, environmental and cultural challenges. The project will flood 100km of the Karakoram Highway, drown villages housing an estimated 35,000 people and could wash away prehistoric rock carvings in the Northern Areas in addition to disturbing the ecological balance of the area.

The government needs to consider and openly debate all these questions before undertaking the project. If these issues are not addressed in a transparent manner and well in time, the dam will add to the problems of the federation rather than prove a remedy for them.

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