Not giving a ‘dam’

It is hoped that overseas Pakistanis do not fall for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s charms. At least when it comes to reaching deep into their pockets to fill the coffers of his crowdfunding kitty for the Daimer-Bhasha dam. In fact, they should let no one convince them that where there is strength in numbers there naturally follows expert logic reason. Even if the all the big boys are on board. Including the Army chief with his more than generous cheque for Rs1 billion.

To be sure, the premier is right when he says that water scarcity is the most urgent issue facing the country. In fact, those in the know have long warned that the global wars of the 21st century will be fought over this natural resource rather than oil. Yet acknowledgment of this does not unfortunately make the new triumvirate of the PM, Chief Justice and COAS masters in the feasibility of dam construction.

Academics and engineers in this field have long warned that the Daimer-Bhasha project is a non-starter on multiple levels. The most critical being that it represents a seismic risk due to its location between the Indian and Eurasian plates. And then there is the matter of how water weight behind high dams can typically trigger massive earthquakes. This is to say nothing of prevailing cost escalations that threaten to double the current price tag to an astounding $28 billion. Or, put another way, around 10 percent of the Pakistani economy.

Thus it is all very well for PM Khan to suggest that this dam’s construction is of such vital importance that he may just personally oversee the entire enterprise himself. Yet before calling upon everyone and his cat to splash their hard-earned cash his way — a new feasibility report should have been commissioned. For it is a misnomer to contend that no international power would be willing to cough up the necessary funds given that the country is already confronting a foreign debt crisis. For both China and the World Bank, as far back as 2010, refused to bankroll the Daimer-Bhasha Dam partly for the reasons mentioned above.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) have long opposed the project. There are, after all, fears that the dam will jeopardise food security in the region even further by potentially submerging valuable agricultural land. While, at the same time, displacing around 80,000 people; with no concrete plans for resettlement or compensation. And when it comes to royalty rights — the locals not unreasonably charge the Centre with trying to hoodwink them out of their potential dues. Especially considering how previous governments determined that part of the dam falls within NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and not in GB. Indeed, this raises questions as to why the state is yet to grant the latter provincial status.

PM Khan’s apparent commitment to making water security a thing of the past is to be welcomed. But he must understand that good intentions alone are not sufficient to translate into solid and viable policy. That is the job of experts. Sadly.  *

Published in Daily Times, September 12th 2018.