Kalabagh Dam, An Acute Contradictory Issue of Pakistan – 1

Kalabagh Dam, An Acute Contradictory Issue of Pakistan - 1

Historical Overview of Kalabagh Dam issue


The controversy issue of Kalabagh Dam (KBD) has raged between the four provinces of Pakistan since 1984 when its project report left the drawing boards of WAPDA and was circulated among the provinces. Since then much has been said and written on the subject by many knowledgeable people from different walks of life covering economic, technical and environmental aspects of the project. Politicians have also jumped into the fray using strong words for and against the dam.

When one looks at the arguments, and the people who have advanced them, it immediately becomes evident that every politician, technocrat and common man from Punjab favors the dam while almost all people from the other three provinces oppose it. It is as if the sharp line of division between the pro and anti dam lobbies has also become a fault line between Punjab on the one hand and the remaining provinces of Pakistan, on the other.

Very strong words have been used by both sides. In the not so distant past, Ghulam Mustafa Khar, the then federal minister for Water and Power had repeatedly thundered that the Kalabagh Dam would be constructed “at all costs”. He clearly meant to say that the Kalabagh Dam will be constructed whether other provinces objected (and suffered) or not. Most technocrats and former of public opinion from Punjab also kept expressing their unqualified view that the Kalabagh dam was the “life and death of the country”. Equally strong words have been issued by prominent people opposing the project. The NWFP leader Begum Naseem Wali Khan has gone so far as to call the Dam a “threat to the sovereignty” of the country. This, besides the fact that the provincial Assembly of NWFP has passed resolutions no less than four times against the construction of Kalabagh Dam. Sindh, which contends that there is not enough water left in River Indus to tap from, and which as lower riparian, will suffer the most from the till effects fo damming the river and from further loss of water that is proposed to be taken KBD, has also protested the most. The provincial Assembly which is the highest forum of expression of the political will of the province, has twice passed a resolution against the dam. The government of Sindh, through the experts of its Irrigation and Planning & Development departments and through D.O letters from its Chief Ministers, has also constantly, and vehemently, opposed the project due to this detrimental effects on Sindh. The details of relevant correspondence is given elsewhere in the book.And as far as the people’s will is concerned, one would be hard pressed to find even one person in the length and breadth of Sindh who has a kinds word for the project and is not opposed to the dam in the strongest possible sense. Political parties that are a manifestation of public opinion, have come out clearly and unequivocally against construction of kalabagh dam. Following are the names of those parties and groups that have declared their opposition and resentment against the Kalabagh project.

  • Peoples Party (Passed a Resolution against Kalabagh Dam issue in the Sindh Provincial Assembly).
  • Sindh Democratic Party
  • Sindh National Front Led by Mr. Mumtaz Bhutto
  • Awami Tehrik Led by Rasool Bux Palijo
  • Sindh Tarqi Pasand Party Led by Dr Qadir Magsi
  • Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz Led by Mr Abdul Wahid Areesar
  • Jeay Sindh Mahaz Led by Mr A.Khaliq Junejo
  • Sindh Sagar Party
  • Jamiat Ulmai Sindh
  • Jamiat Ulmai Pakistan (Sindh Branch)


It must be understood by those who favour the dam, that the people of sindh have a very special relationship with river Indus. In Sindh river Indus is omnipresent. It has life. It loves and hates scattered across the plains of Sindh there are remains of innumerable settlements, (including no less than 19 large cities that were at one time or the other capitals of Sindh) that have turned into mounts. Much like Moen-jo-Daro, indicating at once, the benefaction and the destruction caused by the great river which first gave life to these settlements and then took it away by changing its course to either drown or parch the cities to extinction.The overwhelming presence of the river is evident in the day to day life of sindh. One hears about “Sindhu Nadi” or “Daryah” in casual conversation, one continuously reads or hears about it in the prose or petry of Sindhi literature, once can’t travel by rail or road much before encountering the river. Above all else so many business houses and innumerable children are named after the river (e.g. Indus, Sindhu, Mehran, Darya etc.) showing the extent to which the lives of Sindhi people are intertwined with the great river.Further, it must be understood that the awe and the affections in which Sindhi people hold river Indus is not due to sentimentality alone but because of the tremendous economic significance of the great river that directly or indirectly touches almost every soul on the soil of Sindh. It must be remembered that river Indus is the only source of water, either for drinking or for irrigation, available to the people of Sindh. Unlike Punjab which gets a sizeable rain in the monsoon, Sindh is a parched land getting less than an average of five inches of rain (127mm) per year. Again, unlike Punjab that has a large reservoir of sweet water under its soil from which 350,000 tube wells draw as much as 40 MAF water every year, the subsoil water of most of Sindh is as saltish as sea water. This makes river Indus the only source of life in Sindh. Remove Indus, or dry it out. And the difference between existence and extinction starts narrowing fast.It is precisely for this reason that the forlorn and helpless form of the great river in the shape of a dry bed of swirling sand give rise to so much antipathy against yet another project of damming the river, this time at kalabagh, from which as much as 12.78 MAF water will be syphoned off.All assurances advanced by the Government of Pakistan and WAPDA that Sindh will be given the required water for irrigation as well as for releasing below Kotri (into the sea), do not find credibility in Sindh because of a number of disturbing indicators.

The statements from responsible official of the federal government, the Punjab government and WAPDA, at first declared Kalabagh Dam as only a storage dam to offset the loss of storage of Tarbela and Mangla, due to siltation. Next came the statements that due to rise in fuel costs and consequent cost of thermal electric generation, cheap hydel power was essential. Much later was learnt that there were plans for a left and right bank canal for irrigation also.Combined with above, the secretive and surreptitious moves to make Sindh government somehow agree to Kalabagh Dam (mostly through its weak and pliable Chief Ministers), raise grave doubts in the minds of the people of Sindh. Chashma-Jhelum link canal is another indicator of doubtful intentions. The 21,000 causes canal linking Chasma Barrage with Jehlum river supposed to open only when there was surplus water in Indus and that too with the express permission of the Chief minister of Sindh. Now the Chashma-Jhelum link is open all the time even when there is shortage in River Indus, as in the case of kharif 1997.The World Bank had agreed in 1992 to grant US $ 800,000 for a comprehensive stud of the effects of the reduced water flow down stream of kotri, on the estuaries of Indus. It would have helped compute the advantages of Kalabagh Dam to Punjab against the social, economic and environmental cost to Sindh, in case the quantum of water released below Kotri was reduced. This study was shelved because the officials of Punjab did not agree to the Terns of Reference (TOR) of the study.

With such examples in front of them the people of sindh are extremely, and rightly, suspicious off all the moves to construct Kalabagh Dam. Above all else, the constant refusal of Punjab and WAPDA to consider initiation and construction of the much superior Basha Dam raises the fears of Sind to alarming proportions relevant details appear elsewhere in the book. Explained in short, basha dam is also situated on river Indus, has almost equal capacity (5.7 MAF against KBD’s 6.1 MAF) and can generate far more hydel power than KBD. What makes Basha superior is that it can truly be a carry over dam that can store water in the years of plenty for subsequent use of more than one year and, in any case, keep Tarbela Dam Filled for 2 to 4 months more than at present.Despite Sindh’s severe objections to damming any of the rivers of Indus River System, it can still be persuaded to the construction of Basha Dam if it is agreed that the dam will be filled only in the super flood years and in the lean years it will be allowed to operate as a run of the river hydel power generating dam like Ghazi Barotha.But such an arrangement will not be acceptable to Punjab (and therefore WAPDA), because it is physically impossible to dteal water from Basha reservoir to irrigate lands in Punjab. Or so the people of Sindh suspect.Keeping the above facts in perspective and sensing the mood of the people of Sindh, its government and its parliament, sindh democratic party took it upon itself to delve into and research the subject of Kalabagh Dam (or any other mega storage dam on River Indus) and to present the point of view of the lower riparian.

The arty entrusted the work to its secretary General, Mr. Abrar Kazi, who has taken great pains to study, research and present “The Sindh Case”.Not unmindful of Pakistan’s need for more agricultural produced to feed the ever increasing population, and the country’s need for cheap hydel power, Sindh Democratic Party has presented viable alternates to both aspects of the dilemma.The dispute over the water of a river flowing through more than one country or more than one province of the same country is not new. In the bygone days of history such disputes never assumed seriousness because water resources available were far greater than the need of the consumers. It is only in recent times, to be more specific, since the beginning of 20th century, that water disptes between states and between provinces became sufficiently acute to warrant serious mediation.For example dispute of sharing waters of the Nile between Uganda and Egypt was adjudicated by the Nile Commission in 1926 while the Permanent Court of International Justice decided the case of sharing of water of the Muese between Belgium and Netherlands on 28th June 1937.Even in the subcontinent there was sufficient disagreement between the provinces to warrant the enactment of Northern Indian Canal and Drainage Act, 1873.Disputes of apportionment of water between different states of the United states of America have been adjudicated upon at very great length by the US supreme court. Some of the celebrated cases are as follows:

  • KANSAS V COLORADO (1927) (206 US 46)
  • WYOMING V COLORADO (1922) (259 US 419)
  • NEW JERSY V NEW YORK (1931) (823 US 336)
  • ARIZONA V CALIFORNIA (1931) (283 US 423)
  • WASHINGTON V OREGON (1936) (297 US 517)

These and many more have left well defined parameters of law, the help of which can be sought by the people of Pakistan to understand the experience of other nations and peoples where water disputes have soured relations. From the experience of others, at least three major principles of international law can be gleaned. The first point of law worth mentioning is derived from the British common law. Also applicable to the sub- subcontinent, the law says that, “ A riparian owner or occupier has an unrestricted right to take and use the water of a stream for ordinary domestic purposes such as drinking, washing, and for wants of his cattle”. Ref: Embrey V Own (1851) 6 EX 353 Swindon Water Work co V. Willts and Berks Canal Navigation Co (1875) LEHC 697 Mc Cartney V Londonderry and Lough Swilly Ry Co (1904) A.C. 301.

The second point to consider is that “As between different appropriations from the same stream, the one first in times is deemed superior in right and a completed appropriation was regarded as effective from the time the purpose to make ti was definitely formed and actual work thereon was begun, provided the work was carried to completion with reasonable diligence’.

The third point to remember emanates from the government of India Act 1935 Section 130 and Section 131(6), that inter-alia recognizes the principle that no province can e given an entirely free hand in respect of a common source of water such as inter-provincial river. The point is further explained in Prof. H.A.Smith’s “Economic Use of International Rivers” (1931) which examines treaties between independent state since 1785 and states that all these treaties proceed upon the principle that works executed in the territory of one state required the consent of another, if they injuriously affect the interests of the latter. Examining the riparian rights, the RAO Commission opines in the “the report of Indus commission” (Para 49, page 33), “Pushed to its logical conclusion, this means that a province in which the head waters of a great river are situated can abstract any quantity of water and make a desert of the provinces or states lower down.

We have already pointed out that this view is against the trend of international law and that in any event, so far as India is concerned, it would conflict with the manifest intention of section 130 and the succeeding sections of the government of India act 1935”. The RAO commission and almost all international treaties suggest “equitable apportionments” based on the consent of riparian. The words “Consent of riparian states” are very important especially so for Pakistan which is a federation of four provinces. If contentious issues, like the waters of a common river, are not resolved through “Consent and consensus”. And a perception develops in one federating unit that other units are taking advantage of it because of its weakness (geographical, numerical or economic) a lasting harm could be caused to the unity of the federation. More so when the emotions run so strong as in the case of Kalabagh Dam.

A further reason to be careful and more sensitive to the feelings of the people (in this case the people of Sindh) is the long history of water dispute between sindh and Punjab. Till date no less than six commissions have sat to decide the water issue namely: 1. Anderson Committee 19352. Rao Commission 19413. Akhtar Hussain Commmittee 19684. Fazle Akbar Commission 19705. Anwar ul Haq Commission 19816. Haleem Commission 1983 Among all these commissions, recommendations of only the RAO Commission of 1941 were able to find acceptance with both the provincial governments of Punjab and sindh. All other commissions suffered from various shortcomings including severe disagreement between the members of the commissions. Justice Fazle Akber was so exasperated that he recorded the following note:-

 it is regrettable that the members of the committee failed to work out any recommendations for the apportionment of the water of the Indus and its tributaries among the four provinces in West Pakistan. Unfortunately the lack of agreement was not restricted only to the question of apportionment; even on purely technical issues the members had generally failed to agree amongst themselves. I, therefore, had no other alternate but to formulate my own recommendations fro the consideration of the president.

Our law makers had all these experiences before them and they were fully conscious of the need of developing consensus between the federating unites regarding “equitable water apportionment”. They created Indus River System Authority (IRSA) through an Act of Parliament in 1992 to oversee the distribution and monitoring of the common waters of Indus River System. IRSA which has one member from each province and its chairmanship rotates n alphabetic order of the names of the provinces, has in its recent meeting of 30.12.1996 pointed to the deficiencies in the design and site location of kalabagh dam by three of its members, from Sindh, NWFP and balochistan. It should be noted that all decisions of IRSA must be unanimous, otherwise the aggrieved province can take it case to the council of common interests (C.C.I) which has all Chief Ministers of the four federating unit as members. So much is the emphasis on the provinces unanimously agreeing to the formula of equitable apportionment of water that if the C.C.I can not decide a matter with consensus, a sitting of the joint session of parliament will decide the issue. But the matter does not end here.

Any federating unit or even a common man of any province. If, it/he feels that the joint session of the parliament has not done justice and has ram rolled the decision to the detriment of a federating unit, can move higher courts to stop execution of the decision. Seen in this backdrop, and the grave reservations that the provinces of Sindh and NWFP have about Kalabagh dam, the project should not be used so hard by WAPDA and the province of Punjab. If it is considered that a do or die situation has arrived for Pakistan vis-a-vis the dam (which in the presence of alternate dam sites is hard to imagine), then the differing provinces should be so convinced. Sindh Democratic Party, as this research work will indicate, thinks otherwise.

It considers that the benefit of the project does not justify the social, economic, and environmental cost, especially to Sindh, and that the huge outlay of about Rs. 450 billion (US $ 10 billion) should be spent on carryover dams upstream of Tarbela and on water management projects that will save much more water than the 6.1 MAF stored by Kalabagh dam, simultaneously reducing the devastating effects of salinity and water logging now being experienced in the Indus plains. A word of caution for WAPDA. WAPDA is a federal organization that is sustained by funds contributed by all federating units. It should not act in a partisan way advocating the point of view of only one province when all the provinces will pay for its wrong decisions or mistakes. Let the people of all the provinces make the decisions that will affect their lives through the legal and laid down procedures.Same word of caution must be repeated for the international financing agencies that are interested in undertaking financial arrangements of kalabagh dam.

Pakistan is a federation and if a costly project like kalabagh dam is forced down the throats of smaller provinces against international law and justice, the aggrieved provinces have every right to refuse to repay the loans obtained.I would take this opportunity to appeal to all the intellectuals, human rights groups and all agencies interested in the protection of the environment, inside and outside Pakistan, to study the problem of kalabagh dam and , if they agree with the view of Sindh Democratic Party, to forcefully raise their collective voices against constructions of the dam.I will also take this opportunity to appeal to my brothers in the siraiki belt that sindh and sindhis will always favour Sirais, especially in their development of agriculture, of for that matter the development of agriculture in punjab. What sindh demands is that its apprehensions should be understood.

If viable and superior alternatives are available, as amply indicated in this document, then our sirai, and I must say, Punjabi, brothers should help us avert the extremely harmful kalabagh dam.In the end I will also like to express sindh Democratic Party’s deep appreciation and gratitude for all those who have contributed in making “The Sindh Case” possible. Without their help, from contributing in the shape of research material and books, to operating computer keyboard and proof reading, our effort at producing an all-encompassing documents would have fallen way short of expectations.



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