Folly, thy name is Diamer-Bhasha

I  noted with some disbelief the Prime Minister’s pledge to build Diamer-Bhasha dam amongst others, with donations from overseas Pakistanis. According to the World Commission on dams, on average all dam projects suffer about 98 percent cost escalations. Our recent Neelum-Jehlum project has suffered a cost overrun of 500 percent. Meaning it will cost five times more than it was supposed to. On average, dams end up costing about twice as much as they are projected to. At the moment, the projected cost of Diamer-Bhasha Dam is given to be $14 billion. If one is to take conservative projections for cost escalation, the dam will probably end up costing $28 billion. Escalations beyond that level are simply unthinkable, even if one can imagine a $28 billion investment in a dam.

Pakistan’s total official GDP in 2016 was $284 billion. This means that with Diamer-Bhasha dam, we will be roughly committing to a project equivalent to 10 percent of our total GDP. The biggest infrastructure project in Europe today is the Crossrail project in London at $19 billion. But that is being financed by the British economy, which is worth $2.6 trillion. Does anyone see the sheer disproportionate commitment that Pakistani people are being asked to make for this dam? Which — to be clear — may not be necessary in the first place.

It has been known in the inner recesses of the engineering establishment of Pakistan for the past 20 years or so, that the Diamer-Bhasha dam is not technically feasible because of the seismic risk. The dam site lies at the plate boundary between the Indian and Eurasian plates. The site is traversed by multiple fault lines, which are well recognised even by WAPDA’s own feasibility studies. Engineers like Bashir Malik, who is former technical advisor to the World Bank and United Nations and one of the most ardent supporters of dam building in Pakistan, have categorically stated that the risk of earthquake induced failure at the Diamer-Bhasha dam site is too great to carry on with construction.

To build a dam on the Indus River, which has one of the highest silt loads in the world, is perilous in the best of circumstances. On top of that, the engineers are angling for one of the highest concrete filled dam in the world. It is well known that the weight of water behind high dams can typically trigger massive earthquakes. This is a well-documented phenomenon. Knowing all of this, why is the country’s time and money being wasted on a project which even engineers know is not feasible?

To build a dam on the Indus River, which has one of the highest silt loads in the world, is perilous in the best of circumstances

It is no coincidence that despite multiple inaugurations, construction has been unable to move forward. According to mainstream narratives, this is because of problems with financing. Even the Chinese have pulled out-and they love dams and are considered champion dam builders. This is not because of any conspiracy. It is because every financier knows what WAPDA knows, the dam is a high risk proposition and a country wagering 10 percent of its net value on such a project is not a worthwhile investment. I did not have a revelation about this project, nor have I done any personal research on it. It is the government’s own studies that highlight the factors that I speak of.

Frankly, I do not understand why WAPDA would keep pushing for a project which it knows is not safe. I could take a cynical view that they know that it can’t be built, so why not milk the gravy train of consultancy and engineering contracts that have been flowing from it anyway? Besides, keeping focus on the dam can keep people from asking hard questions about the extremely skewed sectoral distribution and mismanagement of water in Pakistan. Also, let’s not forget that WAPDA’s own data tells them that there is not enough water in the system to sustain additional large dams. For example, for 90 percent of the time the flow of Indus below Kotri amounts to less than 5 million acre feet. It is only the flood year pulses that give them the satisfactory number of 35 million acre feet.

I have never written about Diamer-Bhasha because I know that because of the seismic risk, no one is going to finance it. I also know that the Pakistani engineers know that it is not feasible. Furthermore, anyone with elementary math skills can tell that crowd sourcing financing for dams can take hundreds of years. The project will probably get inaugurated a few more dozen times, until life takes us onwards to other distractions.

The writer is a researcher in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography

Published in Daily Times, September 10th 2018.


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