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THE LARGE DAM CONTROVERSY

THE LARGE DAM CONTROVERSY

The Case of Kalabagh Dam

Introduction

Water is indispensable for the sustainment of life on earth. It is a lifeline for all the earthly activity and is a driving force of the nature. Although this most-needed natural resource is found in abundance on the earth, its distribution is quite uneven. It covers around 70 percent of earth’s surface, out of which only a paltry 3 percent is believed to be the freshwater that is fit for human consumption while the remaining 97 percent water is highly-saline, thus, unsuitable for crop production or human use. Nonetheless, this precious resource is fast shrinking on account of a multitude of factors, such as swelling population ending up in the awkward quagmire of increasing demand and decreasing supply, expansion of irrigation, silting of water reservoirs, overexploitation of groundwater, use of western rivers’ waters by India, industrialization, urbanization, wasteful use and climatic changes.

Essentially an agrarian economy, Pakistan’s survival hinges largely on agriculture that requires huge amount of water. The agriculture sector accounts for about 24 percent of the GDP, while supporting 70 percent of the country’s rural population. Besides, it employs 48.4 percent of the country’s total workforce.

There are three principal sources of water: (1) rivers; (2) rainfall; and (3) the underground water. Given its scarcity, the distribution of water has been a bone of some messy contentions sub-nationally, and internationally as well. Pakistan has the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. The Indus River System (IRS), along with its tributaries, constitutes the major source of water flow to Pakistan.

The Water Stress Index by Malin Falkenmark suggests that Pakistan, already a water-stressed country, will soon fall in the category of countries having acute shortage of water. Given that, the voices for highlighting the urgent need to conserve water by augmenting the country’s water-storage capacity are raised from all quarters. That is suggested to be carried out by storing in reservoirs the discharges – estimated to be 33-36 MAF – that drop unused down to the sea. The existing dams have lost their storage capacity up to 3 MAF due to increasing silting. The US has the storage capacity of 900 days of average flow, and India 120 to 220 days whereas Pakistan can store river flow only up to 30 days.

Discourse on the issue

Before we delve into the specifications of the proposed large dams, apprehensions of provinces and the rebuttals thereof, it is necessary to briefly overview the assertions put forth by protagonists and antagonists in this regard.

The virulent charge sheet levelled at the large dams is based on the social issue of the submersion of large tracts of agricultural land and the ensuing dislocation of a huge number of people. It is believed that the so-called large dams do more harm than good; and that they are guileful instruments of unabashedly usurping the water and land rights of the poor while benefitting only the rich. In the garb of the ‘national interest’ mantra, lies concealed the furtherance of the interests of the privileged. As maintained by Ernest Gellner, the driving force behind nationalism is the denial of the economic resources by a dominant group to the underprivileged. Arundhati Roy contends that [large] dams put the earth to waste, inducing natural disasters and different epidemics. The contention often dwells on the paradigm of human rights to plead the case against the large dams. It is held that relocating and resettling people against their will and submerge their lands is tantamount to flagrant violation of the fundamental human rights. In addition, the charged buildup of criticism against large dams also centres on the failure of the latter in living up to their promised benefits. To what degree the claim of rehabilitation of the affected on a just basis is actually met is taken with a pinch of salt; in large-scale displacements, the feasibility of the recompense for the land lost and livelihood deprived is doubtful. Social and environmental parameters are pushed forward as the decisive factors behind any project.

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