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The Diamer-Bhasha challenge

By Afzal Ali Shigri

The situation is alarming; without adequate water storage, Pakistan will face a serious water emergency by 2025. Dismayed by the nation’s water crisis and inaction by the executive, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) autonomously launched a campaign to collect funds for the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam along the Indus River.

Dams not only store water during periods of rain and snow melt for off-season use, but also help to control frequent floods in the Indus basin. As climate change has made such floods more unpredictable and destructive, storage dams and an efficient irrigation system are vital mechanisms for containing and preventing flood damage. But following the construction of major dams at Tarbela and Mangla, further dam projects have been overlooked.

While Pakistanis have already begun to suffer due to the perpetual shortage of drinking and irrigation water, the only large water storage facility planned at Kalabagh was stalled due to the objections of the political leaders in the three provinces. In this unfortunate squabbling over its location, the key issue of water shortage due to lack of storage was sidelined.

None were ready to propose constructing a water storage dam on other sites to address the needs of a burgeoning population. Lacklustre attempts by successive governments to initiate work on the Diamer-Bhasha dam amounted solely to the acquisition of land for the project. No concrete steps were taken to prioritise its execution in the face of a looming crisis repeatedly identified by the experts. Thus, collectively, our political leadership failed to focus on an issue linked so closely to the survival of Pakistan.

Sadly, even this genuine effort by the judiciary to address an important matter has been subjected to much criticism on flimsy grounds. It is argued that planning a dam of this magnitude and raising funds are to be done by the experts, and that its scale as well as the its technical components require expert input. Unfortunately, the political leadership has failed to deliver in this regard, choosing instead to continually frustrate resource allocation for the project by using the annual development plans for the sake of political mileage or to pacify vested interests.

If the government is genuinely interested in this project, it must take some concrete steps.

When such intricate and technically complex projects are deprioritised, one cannot expect any meaningful results. Diamer-Bhasha is a case where a lack of political will led to a failure to address the common man’s problems. Simply put, our political leadership was unlikely to see much value in constructing a dam that would require ten years to complete, as whichever party was in power at the point of the project’s completion would claim credit for it.

Granted, the capital outlay is so massive that donations alone cannot suffice to fund the dam, but the dam campaign has created awareness among the masses as to the urgent need to launch this project. This, in turn, has forced the present government to join hands with the CJP and own the campaign. Regrettably, despite this apparent interest, no concrete action appears to have ensued. The two vital steps are reaching financial closure, and addressing local political problems that are frustrating the project’s implementation.

CPEC is about transportation and energy. Located on the Karakoram Highway, the artery of this undertaking, the Diamer-Bhasha dam fits neatly into the understanding developed with the Chinese. However, this project does not appear to be prioritised by donors as many donor agencies are reluctant to provide funds due to geopolitical considerations. Even in the much-trumpeted investment by Saudi Arabia, the funds do not seem to have been allocated for the dam. Meanwhile, local political problems have been completely ignored, and the federal government does not even consider it an issue.

Diamer, where the dam’s major infrastructure will be located, is part of Gilgit-Baltistan — a region that is defined as disputed by the government of Pakistan. Even the conditions set by the UN resolution for self-rule have not been fully met in the arrangements for local governance. There is a demand by the people of the region to integrate GB with Pakistan and grant them all its attendant constitutional rights.

The people of GB liberated this area and joined Pakistan unconditionally but, to their dismay, they found that the Kashmiri leadership had bartered their status away without any consultation with the local leadership. If the PTI government is genuinely interested in this project, it must take the following concrete steps. Otherwise, its apparent support for the project equates to a meaningless political statement.

a) This dam should top the list of priority projects in the CPEC package. Saudi Arabia should also be requested to participate in the funding of this project.
b) As it is at present in a state of constitutional and legal limbo, the status of GB should be immediately determined by creating a legal linkage between this region and the state of Pakistan. A vague and uncertain stance imperils the confidence of prospective donors/investors.
c) The last government had established a committee, headed by then foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz, to look into the various aspects of GB’s status. It recommended the conditional merger of GB with Pakistan subject to the final outcome of the plebiscite under the UN. This is a good starting point for integrating GB with Pakistan, and to cement its claim on the region as an undisputed part of Pakistan. Let India opt to call it ‘disputed’. Other ancillary and important issues, such as the rights of the people according to constitutional provisions, land ownership, taxation and a fair guaranteed share in CPEC, must all be addressed.

Only these concrete steps by the present government will establish the authenticity of their commitment. Otherwise, as before, it will simply lead to the exit via the familiar U-turn.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2018

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