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PAKISTAN: Dam Dispute Stirs Ethnic Cauldron

Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD, Jan 7 2006 (IPS) - Plans by the Pakistan government to push ahead with the controversial six billion dollar Kalabagh Dam project have stirred up ethnic differences between Punjab and the country’s three other provinces, which see disadvantage in impounding the waters of the Indus River.

“Kalabagh Dam will destroy the federation of Pakistan and trigger the world’s first war over water,” warned Said Alam Mehsud, a spokesman for the ethnic Pushtoon, Pukhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Mehsud was reacting to an announcement by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that there could no compromise on building the Kalabagh Dam as it was in the ‘’national interest.” On Tuesday, the army’s top brass, following a briefing by Musharraf, endorsed his plans.

“The issue is not of a dam, but of the deep-rooted distrust that underlines the nature of relationship among the four federating units and the state. Smaller provinces do not trust the state as well as Punjab due to a host of historical and political reasons. In fact, it is even hard at times to differentiate between the interests of Punjab and the (Pakistan) state,” said Sarwar Bari, who heads a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the area of good governance.

Analysts view the confrontational political climate in the country as reflective of a Punjab-dominated state having lost credibility as a neutral umpire over disputes relating to the division of national resources among the four ethnically and linguistically distinct federal units.

Punjab, which has 56 percent of Pakistan’s 140 million people, overwhelms in many respects the NWFP, western Balochistan and southern Sindh provinces as well as the federally-administered territories called the Northern Areas and Azad (free) Jammu and Kashmir.

Kalabagh Dam, capable of generating 3,600 megawatts of electricity, is proposed to be built in the underdeveloped Mianwali district of Punjab, a three-hour drive southwest of Islamabad.

Slated for completion in 2011, the dam has been a source of friction among the four provinces ever since the late military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq first floated the idea in the early 1980s.

The provincial assemblies of Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan have all rejected the dam unanimously during the 1990s, saying no to what is seen as an attempt to increase Punjab’s hegemony over the country and its lifeline, the Indus.

“Kalabagh Dam is a matter of life and death for the people of NWFP. We will stop its construction at any cost,” said an angry Zahid Khan, the information secretary of the Pushtoon nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), one of the strongest opponents of the dam plans.

The ANP mobilised more than 20,000 people in the last week of December for an anti-dam rally in Jehangira, almost two hours drive north of Islamabad, in its effort to show that its opposition is well grounded in people’s opinion. “The Pakistani state is pushing us to take positions that may jeopardise the territorial integrity of the country. We will not allow the dam, no matter what,” said Wali Khan, a student of the University of Peshawar who had come to attend the Jehangira rally.

Experts believe that the Kalabagh Dam could submerge the fertile Peshawar valley which is the backbone of the NWFP’s agricultural and industrial economy.

Fear and anger are even greater in the province of Sindh, where anti-dam protests and public rallies have become routine since the government reopened what it calls “consensus-building effort” over the controversial dam.

“There is a clear political consensus in Sindh that Kalabagh Dam should not be built. We have said it before so many times and we are saying it again that the people of Sindh will resist any effort by Punjab to block the Indus River,” said ageing but hard-hitting Rasul Bakhsh Palijo, who is the head of the Sindhi nationalist Awami Tehreek (People’s Movement).

Palijo’s remarks came against the backdrop of the confrontational position taken by Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a coalition partner in the federal government, which has recently declared that Kalabagh Dam is against the interests of Sindh.

The opposition by the MQM, which represents the Urdu-speaking population that migrated from India at the time of the partition from India in 1947, has come as a serious jolt to the government.

Earlier, Sindh chief minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim took a rather bold stand, rejecting the dam as “technically unviable and politically impossible”.

On the other hand, the mainstream opposition parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party and the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, have taken a cautious approach over the issue and demanded that the government look into politically viable alternatives to Kalabagh.

These parties are supporting the nationalist parties in their anti-dam campaign but take a back seat for fear losing popularity in central Punjab, where pro-dam lobbies are strong.

Facing opposition from nationalist forces and mainstream opposition parties and haunted by divisions within its ranks over the dam plans, the government maintains that big dams are necessary to tackle future water scarcity. ‘’The need for building water reservoirs is urgent as Pakistan’s limited water storage capacity is further decreasing,” an official handout quoted Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz as saying in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s storage capacity, at nine percent of the total annual water inflows, is small compared to neighbouring India’s 33 percent. With increasing population, the per capita water availability has come down from more than 5,000 cubic metres per person in 1947 to 1,200 cubic metres at present. By 2010, it is likely to further reduce to 1,000 cubic metres.

But big dams are not a solution to the looming water scarcity that could turn into a social and environmental catastrophe, according to environmentalists.

“The government needs to first invest in maximizing the capacity of the existing river and canal system before undertaking new projects,” says Mohammad Abdul Saboor, from the NGO Pakistan Network of Rivers, Dams and People.

“The political, social and environmental costs of big dams always outweigh their benefits. In this case, we are talking about complete ruination of mangrove forests which will destroy livelihoods of hundreds of thousand of fishermen, besides creating serious issues of water logging and salinity in parts of NWFP, causing displacement,” he said.

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