Home Features The Case for Kalabagh Dam

The Case for Kalabagh Dam

by Salmaan Taseer
Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Why the reservoir is in Pakistan’s interest.

The late governor of the Punjab had advocated passionately for construction of the Kalabagh dam, an Indus River project in Mianwali, Punjab, that could have contained some of the devastation wrought by the 2010 floods, Pakistan’s worst. In 1960, the World Bank recommended it be built, but Kalabagh became a victim of ill-informed, nationalist fears. This exclusive piece has been distilled from his paper, 100 Reasons Why Kalabagh Should Be Constructed Immediately. If Kalabagh is not built, argues the author, Pakistan’s economic future and the prospects for its stability will dim even further.

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]akistan’s population is expected to reach 335 million by 2050. By then, our requirement of wheat—the most important staple in our diet—will double from the present-day 22 million tons we need. In another 40 years, such volumes of wheat may either not be available or may be prohibitively expensive. And this will feed into the cycle of poverty, deprivation, angst, and violence. To prevent such a situation from arising, Pakistan has no choice but to produce the food volumes its growing population requires. This is manageable. It will require better seeds, better fertilizer, better agricultural practices, and, most importantly, better water availability.

We are a water-stressed country. By 2025, our water storage capacity per capita is projected to dip to 700 cubic meters from the current 1,038 cubic meters. When this happens, Pakistan will rank as a water-scarce country. (The U.S. and Australia have over 5,000 cubic meters of storage capacity per capita, China 2,200 cubic meters.) Pakistan has very little capacity to store rain and glacial waters, which account for 75 percent of our total water availability, and is losing whatever capacity remains as dams continue to silt up. In another five to seven years, at the current rate of dam siltation, we will not have enough water for our crops and will suffer major food shortages. This then is all the time we have, five to seven years, to secure our future.

Most of Pakistan—specifically southern Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan—has underneath its surface saline water unfit for agrarian purposes. The majority of Pakistan’s usable water supplies are generated from June through September, when the rivers provide some 500,000 cubic feet per second (or cusecs) of water. The rest of the year, river supplies drop drastically, by 88 percent to about 60,000 cusecs. This is absolutely insufficient for our needs. Before the canal system was introduced in the 19th century, this was all arid land. The people were generally livestock herders, and nomadic, moving from waterhole to waterhole. The system of canals the British left us changed this. It stores rain and glacial waters, and regulates and channels them to 50 million acres of cultivated land across the country throughout the year.

The average annual flows in our river systems in the last years have totaled around 135 million acre-feet. The present dams and canal system stores and conveys 103 million acre-feet of water to lands in all provinces. However, the same recording systems show 38 million acre-feet of water simply flowing to sea each year, lost for agriculture and food production. Storing this water in new dams is critical for Pakistan. Some quarters contend that there is no spare water in our river systems, and so there is no need for new dams. However, last year’s super floods have shown the bankruptcy of this argument. The floods generated 50 million acre-feet of water which ravaged towns and villages as it cut a devastating path to sea. If Pakistan had the capacity to store this floodwater, it would have sufficed our needs for seven years.

At the current rate of dam siltation, water is going to start running out in January, hastening a decline in crop yield. The wheat crop, for example, requires watering thrice after planting—in December, February and March. In February 2009, there was no water in the dams and wheat targets fell short. If the surfeit of seasonal water is not stored, it will run off into the sea, leaving agricultural lands thirsting during winter and early summer. Wheat production is likely to drop by at least 30 percent within seven years if the water storage issue remains unresolved. To regulate supplies evenly across the year, summer flows need to be dammed and distributed efficiently and equitably via the canal system. To avert inflation, starvation, poverty and consequent instability, we must construct Kalabagh dam without wasting any more time.

Kalabagh will also produce cheaper electricity and improve our overall power mix, which will work to the advantage both of the domestic consumer and industry. The availability of affordable power will result in Pakistani goods becoming more competitive in international markets. Industries and commercial enterprises which are either closed or struggling shall start to prosper, generating employment. Sixty percent of our population resides in rural areas and is involved in agriculture or agriculture-related activity. The textile industry, one of our major exporters and a growth driver, depends on raw materials from agriculture. Without sustained water supplies to cotton farmers, this industry will collapse. With dams making water available throughout the year, the rural population will enjoy irrigated agriculture all year round and become well off instead of being seen as a liability to the government.

The future does not look bright. The water table, which has already dropped by 30 feet in sweet-water zones, will drop even further and a complete collapse of the sweet-water aquifer could occur. In saline-water zones, since canal water will not be available in the desired volumes in the absence of new dams, and tube wells cannot be installed, rain-supported agriculture will have to be practiced. Water is the most important issue for us. Since water projects have a long gestation period, urgent decisions are required to be made. We have only five to seven years to construct replacement reservoirs and expand storage capacity through new dams, like the ready-to-go Kalabagh, before Pakistan starts seeing unbearable wheat shortages.

Let’s not forget that it was only because of Tarbela and Mangla dams being constructed that agriculture prospered and created some food security for Pakistan. The World Bank-midwifed Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 between Pakistan and India gave three rivers (Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi), which provided water to southern Punjab, to India. In lieu, Pakistan was provided two dams—Tarbela on the Indus River in Haripur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and Mangla on the Jhelum River in Mirpur in Pakistan-administered Kashmir—and a system of link canals to convey water from these dams to Punjab’s southern plains.

Bert Kaufmann

Bert Kaufmann

Eventually all dams die. Tarbela and Mangla had a combined live storage capacity of 15.02 million acre-feet of water, and have been silting up at the rate of 1 percent per year. Tarbela took six years to complete and started out with a storage capacity of 9.68 million acre-feet of water in 1974; its present capacity has reduced 30 percent to 6.78 million acre-feet. Mangla, which was completed in five years in 1967 and could store 5.34 million acre-feet, can now only store 4.46 million acre-feet—a 16 percent drop. (Mangla has been improved by adding 30 feet to its embankment and 2.88 million acre-feet to its gross storage capacity. But this new storage will fill only four out of five years.) Warsak on the Kabul River in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, completed in 1960 with a capacity of 2 million acre-feet, has totally silted up and is now only a hydroelectricity dam. Chashma, with 0.7 million acre-feet of storage, was completed on the Indus in Punjab’s Mianwali in 1970 and has residual capacity of only 0.26 million acre-feet left.

By 1974, when Tarbela, Mangla, Warsak, and Chashma were all online, their combined live storage capacities totaled about 17.7 million acre-feet of water. This has dropped now to 11.5 million acre-feet—a loss of 35 percent—causing water, and food, shortages. There is a dire need to construct more dams to not only replace lost capacity, but to also store surplus waters in the event of floods.

At the time of the Indus Waters Treaty, the World Bank helped Pakistan identify other sites where large dams could be constructed: Basha, Akhori, and Kalabagh. They recommended Kalabagh, but the then government chose Tarbela. Of these sites, the one that has been chosen for construction now is Diamer Basha in Gilgit-Baltistan—even though it is not the solution to Pakistan’s water woes and despite the fact that the most ready-to-construct, least disruptive, and most beneficial dam would be Kalabagh.

What are the pros of building Diamer Basha? None. The site, located 315 kilometers upstream of Tarbela and about 40 kilometers downstream of Chilas, lies in a monsoon shadow; it is remote and in a highly seismic zone. Materiel will have to be transported at great cost over the Karakoram Highway, which is prone to landslides that will result in construction delays. According to the environment impact assessment report, a dam failure at Basha, with its 892-feet height, would affect some 30,000 people; submerge at least 100 kilometers of the Karakoram Highway (so 140 kilometers of it is being relocated to higher ground as a precautionary measure); wipe out an estimated 33,000 prehistoric rock carvings (some of these are also being relocated); and destroy Tarbela and downstream infrastructure and population hubs. Basha will also require new transmission lines to be laid for relaying electricity. When completed, in nine to 12 years, it will be able to hold 6.4 million acre-feet of water, and potentially produce 4,500 megawatts of power.

Akhori is still a better project than Basha. The proposed site in Attock, Punjab, is central and accessible. The source of water for this dam will be the overflow from Tarbela, which is presently wasted to sea through a 50-kilometer canal taking off from the Ghazi Barotha barrage. The stored water will be regulated into the Indus River through existing barrages and canals. Like Tarbela and Mangla, this is an earth-filled dam. It is not a complex project to undertake. The siltation rate of the dam will be low as silt will be trapped upstream at Tarbela. But because the Akhori site is not on the main Indus, it will not be able to store monsoon flows like Kalabagh would. However, its storage utilization will be better than Diamer Basha’s, which misses the Kohistan and Kaghan flows. Akhori can be constructed within five to seven years to hold 6 million acre-feet of water, and produce between 600 and 750 megawatts of power.

Kalabagh. With its feasibility and impact studies carried out, detailed design and engineering work done, and project costs estimated, Kalabagh is a shovel-ready project. The site in Mianwali, Punjab, borders Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and is accessible for construction purposes and to the national power grid. The site collects not only snowmelt, but also monsoon flows. It is the only site where surplus monsoon flows can be sorted, and it lies in a deep gorge where water speeds are high, which means silting will be limited. Kalabagh can be constructed in a short four to five years—which is less time than either Diamer Basha or Akhori—to store 7 million acre-feet of water and produce 3,600 megawatts of quick and affordable power.

Kalabagh will provide regulated water supplies to farmers in all provinces; it can make another 20 million acres of land cultivable. It is estimated that Kalabagh will allow Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to irrigate an additional 800,000 acres of land and become self-sufficient in wheat. Clearly, the first priority should be to build the Kalabagh dam followed by Akhori. But Kalabagh has strident opposition, which is why no government has been able to see it through despite its merits. Among the noisiest are lower-riparian Sindhis who suspect Kalabagh will lead to less water for their purposes; and upper-riparian Pakhtuns who fear the opposite, flooding.

If we could sit down with India and reach a settlement in the form of the Indus Waters Treaty, can’t we do the same among ourselves?

Sindhi nationalists fear the province will not get its due share of water if Kalabagh happens. Before Tarbela, Sindh’s annual water withdrawals averaged 35.6 million acre-feet from 1960 to 1967. After Tarbela, this went up to 44.2 million acre-feet. With Kalabagh, Sindh will receive at least another 2.25 million acre-feet of water.

Critics also appear to ignore the existence of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), set up in 1992 to distribute water among the provinces as per their shares delineated in the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991. The federal agency has representation from all provinces. In fact, Sindh has two members on the IRSA board, which is itself an injustice since the other provinces only have one vote each. The agency estimates water availability ahead of the spring and autumn harvests, and calculates each province’s withdrawals at the end of every quarter. Provinces are also allowed to post their staff at barrages in other provinces to monitor withdrawals. Sindh maintains staff at facilities in the Punjab. The mechanism is working. There has never been a situation where one province has usurped the rights of another, and Sindh has never registered an objection alleging violation of IRSA orders by the Punjab.

Sindhis also fear that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Punjab could construct smaller reservoirs to tap Kalabagh waters to the detriment of Sindh. Such outlets and canals are necessary for struggling agrarian towns and villages like Karak, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, and Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and for northern Punjab. Both provinces would be well within their rights to construct this ancillary infrastructure. The 1991 Accord provides that provinces may do this at any time and at any location as long as they keep to their allocated water allowances.

Yet others believe that if Kalabagh is built, the sea will come into Sindh. This is a superstitious and preposterous belief lacking any scientific basis. The Indus is not keeping seawaters from claiming Sindh. The Indus Delta is about 50-kilometer wide, and the Sindh coastline is 200-kilometer long. The Indus couldn’t stop a high-tide deluge even if it were in flood.

Except for a sweet-water belt on either side of the Indus, Sindh has saline groundwater unusable for agriculture. If the present dams continue silting and no new ones are made, Sindh’s farmers must get ready to return to ancient agricultural practices. Everyone will be praying for rain.

Upstream, Pakhtuns fear the Kalabagh dam lake could flood towns like Nowshera. Kalabagh’s location has lately been fixed at 915 feet above sea level. Nowshera is situated 25 feet above that. So there is no validity to the contention that the lake could block Kabul River flows and inundate Nowshera. Kalabagh would in fact serve to reduce flood volumes through incidental use of its storage. Similarly, the dam lake cannot also in any way waterlog Mardan or Charsadda, since their drainage outlets are at a distance from the proposed site.

Those who criticize Kalabagh should consider that had it been a problematic site with adverse effects on any province, the World Bank would never have recommended it.

Unfortunately, there is a sense of complacency prevailing in Pakistan—both in government and in the public—as if there is no problem. With this attitude neither the government nor the people of Pakistan can make the hard decisions that are required to be made to plan ahead. The Pakistan Peoples Party unites the federation. It can bring every province to agree on the issue of Kalabagh. We need to present this issue to the people. It will take political daring and awareness efforts to highlight the true facts and to change the very rigid, entrenched positions of Sindhi nationalists and the Awami National Party. If we could sit down with India and reach a settlement in the form of the Indus Waters Treaty, can we not do the same among ourselves?

A no-new-dam situation, especially a no-Kalabagh situation, is what Pakistan’s enemies are fervently praying for. Without any effort on their part except for a little investment in promoting opposition propaganda, they are planting the seeds of our economic collapse, large-scale law and order breakdown, and disunity and distrust among our provinces. If Pakistan has any priorities, its No. 1 priority should be to build Kalabagh. If we aren’t going to build this dam, who will?

From our Sept. 2 & 9, 2011, issue.

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Amna Seher January 7, 2014 - 11:59 pm

We are in a dire need of Dams. But consensus of all provinces is also very important. If Sindhis have fears and are not in the favour of Kalabagh, we should not force them. We can think upon other options like “Akhori” . We should seek other ways out as soon as possible lest we should left with nothing at the hands of time.

Hassaan June 3, 2016 - 2:34 am

Compelling article. However, its been 5 years since it was penned and since then Kalabagh has been shelved altogether. No one talks about it anymore, while agriculture shrunk by -0.16% in 2015-16. Has the end begun? Are the complacent nationalists witnessing their agenda’s ramification?

Manzoor Ali Gillani June 5, 2018 - 10:14 pm

We have to build

Muhammad Ashraf June 6, 2018 - 7:00 am

This is only political issue which has been created by those politicians who are on the pay roll of CIA, Raw, Mousad and MI6 etc. Enemies of Islam and Pakistan don’t want to see Kalabagh dam completed at any cost so the are funding on this. Political govt should be finished/kicked out from Pakistan, no mpa mna, 95% politicians are not sincere with motherland they want only money from any source even they can offer their mothers, sisters and daughters to get money


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