Aspiration and Reality
The Kalabagh Dam has become a victim of political controversy and the project has languished in the files of WAPDA for more than thirty years. The water crisis in Pakistan continues to increase but no solutions are in sight to increase the nation’s water
The lack of political consensus in constructing the Kalabagh Dam has made it Pakistan’s most significant, long-running water controversy. The project has been reduced to an emotive appeal as part of a figment of an imagined provincialism to exploit people’s sentiments. Despite the complete backing and support of the government for over thirty years, the dam remains unbuilt. This begs the question: where are Pakistan’s institutions that are tasked with overseeing projects such as Kalabagh dam?
To answer this question, one must begin at the very beginning. In British India, water management was in the domain of provinces, not the centre. The provinces had autonomy in how they were to use the canal irrigation system that the British had built. However, the colonial system changed immediately after independence, as both Pakistan and India came into conflict over their share of water in the Indus system. This led to the formation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).
During the negotiations of the IWT, the government substantially heightened the central state’s claim to overarching technical authority to handle what was projected as
a national crisis. The imperative for remaking the Indus basin an interconnected system was done in the name of “national” survival. As the negotiations played out, it became increasingly clear that Pakistan would need foreign technical and financial aid under the framework of the treaty to carry out projects. Accordingly, the government’s negotiating strategy shifted from the justice of Pakistan’s claims against India’s to maximizing Pakistan’s compensation for the waters it would lose. The World Bank recognized that large-scale compensation would be necessary to make good on Pakistan’s water losses. In the last years before the treaty, this had become the central approach to Ayub’s handling of the negotiations. In 1960, the treaty was finalized. The three western rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — would be given to Pakistan whereas the three eastern rivers — Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas — would go to India. Furthermore, the Indus Basin Project (IBP) would involve the construction of multiple dams (including Mangla and Tarbela) and barrages with foreign funding.
However, it became clear that as a young country, Pakistan lacked the adequate institutional infrastructure that spanned provincial boundaries and would be able to manage the inflow of international funds, assistance and expertise. This was a significant shift from the pre-partition era when provincial irrigation departments had controlled virtually all irrigation affairs. WAPDA was created to help the young country build what would be the “largest single irrigation project in history.” In this regard, WAPDA was nothing short of a behemoth. Not only was it a national organization with the ability to cut across provincial borders but, crucially, it was an entity with the ability to fund its ambitious plans. It was tasked with managing and developing both irrigation and hydropower, making it a formidable institution in Pakistan.
However, questions about interprovincial water distribution remained in the face of the transformation brought by the IBP and gained new prominence in the 1960s, continuing till the late 1980s. Efforts by a series of commissions over the next two decades to develop a formula for interprovincial water distribution have been underway. The West Pakistan Water Allocation and Rates Committee (also known as the Akhtar Hussain Committee) in the late 1960s, the Fazl-e-Akbar Commission in 1983, the Anwarul-Haq Commission in 1981 and the Haleem Commission in 1983 all sought to find technical and apolitical formulas for interprovincial water allocation. No commission or committee was successful and there existed a vacuum of interprovincial water management until the hallmark Water Accord of 1991.
Pakistan’s 1991 Water Accord is the chief instrument governing provincial water shares in the country’s portion of the Indus Basin. It apportions these shares as amounts of water in million acre-feet (MAF). It also established the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) to regulate and monitor the distribution of water under the Accord.
However, controversy remains over the method in which IRSA has implemented the Water Accord in letter and spirit. They have devised allocation methods that keep the Accord operational at face value but contradict its text, mechanism and intent. These measures include (1) a three-tier allocation formula that protects historical uses of water (read: Punjab) and (2) an exemption from shortage-sharing for smaller provinces.
Dr. Erum Sattar, an SJD candidate at the Harvard Law School, explains one example of the Accord’s unstable operation: “WAPDA is supposed to operate under the IRSA’s authority when it comes to the Accord’s implementation — i.e., IRSA tells WAPDA to release water from reservoirs as part of IRSA’s authority to apportion water among the provinces. The Accord prioritizes irrigation over all other uses such as hydropower production. Although the latter is non-consumptive, it has potentially significant impacts on flow timing, which is a critical issue in irrigation that may affect the Accord’s operation during any ten-day period of warandandi (time allocation for farmers). Illustrating the tension between hydropower and irrigation vis-à-vis the Accord, in the context of power shortages/blackouts (colloquially, “load-shedding”) that may run eighteen hours a day at summer’s peak, IRSA comes under immense political pressure from the federal Ministry of Water and Power to ’authorize‘ WAPDA to release more water for hydropower production despite the Accord’s irrigation priority.”
In light of this example and others, there are calls to update the Accord, including to allow water-sharing between provincial boundaries, which the government has not heeded. With climate change stirring uncertainty on water flow timings in the rivers due to unreliable glacier melt, it is clear that the government must move away from fixed allocations of water to provinces as per the Accord to a more flexible system across interprovincial boundaries.
With this backdrop, it is not surprising that there has been little or no headway in the Kalabagh project for over thirty years. With such fragility, it seems improbable that Pakistan’s institutions are robust enough to oversee the equitable water sharing arrangements should the Kalabagh Dam be completed. This is under the assumption that a political consensus can be reached, which, given over thirty years of friction and drag, make that prospect difficult to entertain.
In this way, the Kalabagh project is not the cause of provincial and federal water disputes, but merely the effect of it. This project, and many others like it, will be nothing more than a dream if the Accord is not updated and the institutions that oversee it strengthened and given clarity over their role and jurisdiction.
This rings the words of the Accord itself: “21st March 1991, will go down in the history of Pakistan as a pivotal breakthrough in its leap towards the 21st century and turning point in its march towards national consolidation. On that day was unraveled a dispute that had been festering in this part of the subcontinent for the past seventy years.”
More than a quarter-century later, this aspiration remains just that— aspirational.
Despite the complete backing and support of the government for over thirty years, the Kalabagh dam remains unbuilt.