A China Funded Dam in PoK- A Flawed Project

The government of Pakistan has recently signed a Rs442 billion contract with a joint venture of China. The Diamer-Bhasha dam will probably be the world’s highest concertized dam, as Pakistan claims. The Chinese state-run firm holds 70 percent and the FWO, a commercial arm of the Armed Forces of Pakistan, 30 percent share in the consortium. They say the project would increase the gross storage capacity and power generation capacity to cope with the increasing water and electricity requirements of the country. But all of this effort of developing a dam at what cost? The total financial outlay of such a gigantic project includes land acquisition and resettlement, confidence-building measures for social uplift of the local people of Gilgit-Baltistan, construction of dam and powerhouses. But is this the right time for Pakistan to be getting into such a heavy deal? And Pakistan is boasting of it like a jewel on its dilapidated crown, not realizing that in times to come it will only prove to be their biggest mistake, especially keeping in mind the economic meltdown their country is facing.

The project is designed to serve as the main storage dam of the country, besides Mangla and Tarbela dams, and its storage would be helpful for alleviating flood losses. It is claimed that Pakistan is going to set another record (after Tarbela Dam — 485 feet high) in hydropower engineering by building the world’s highest roller-compacted concrete Bhasha dam. Surprisingly it is forgotten that the Tarbela Dam (1976) was later termed as “perhaps the world’s most problem-stricken major dam” in technical terms. The same report suggests that the Bhasha site being located in the highly unstable seismic zone in a narrow valley of the upper Indus could be vulnerable to some extraordinary safety hazards.

In one of his letters by General Butt, the original designer of the dam, he wrote, “I shudder at the thought of earthquake effects on Bhasha. Dam-burst would wipe out Tarbela and all barrages on Indus; which would take us back to the stone-age.”
In a September 2018 letter addressed to the then chief justice of Pakistan, one of the US’s foremost design and infrastructure firms, AECOM, cautioned against the proposed Diamer-Basha dam. The letter said, “If Wapda decides to proceed with this concept, the cost would be exorbitant and construction time would exceed ten years. The project risk associated with an RCC dam is extremely high due to the transportation issue and seismic profile found at the location of the project. In summation, for practical and economic reasons the RCC dam should not be recommended for the DBD project.

Devastation caused by Dams

The Tarbela and Mangla dams have destroyed a large number of families living in the reservoir areas. They lost their homes, lands, and livelihood. Thousands are still in search of permanent settlements. It destroyed animal habitats and forests, wetlands and other habitats were flooded. Fish population declined. Below the dams, there were huge changes in the lives of downstream people; the fishermen community and delta area people.

Looking at the history of the construction of Tarbela and Mangla dams, the following impacts are going to emerge if Bhasha dam is constructed. Imposition of a reservoir in place of the river valley (loss of habitats); changes in downstream water quality, effects on river temperature, nutrient load, turbidity, dissolved gasses, the concentration of heavy metals and minerals; changes in downstream morphology of river bed, delta coastline due to altered sediment load, increase in sea erosion and reduction of biodiversity due to blocking of movement of the organism.

The 200-sq km reservoir of the dam could flood 100 kms of the Karakoram highway, and the villages and farms of over 35,000 people could disappear. Bhasha dam is being opposed by downstream Sindh and simultaneously people in Gilgit as they fear it would affect the social, economic, and ecological balance in the region and would inundate 32 villages of the Diamer district in Northern Areas, rendering thousands of people homeless. The displaced people of Tarbela, Mangla, LBOD, RBOD, and other projects are still not resettled properly and they have become poorer. The construction of the dam would submerge about 50 villages uprooting a large chunk of the population.

It has also come to light that this Chinese funded dam will submerge the rich Buddhist treasure of ancient rock engravings and this has also triggered a controversy in the area with people demanding preservation of these artefacts that have great tourism potential.

It was reported that over a thousand rare stone carvings, sculptures and statues of Buddha have been found at the construction site of the dam. The protection of heritage and culture is another area of great concern as Pakistan is a signatory to some of the international bindings of protection of culture, history, and archaeology. Many Muslim residents of the area have on the social media joined the debate against the destruction of the rich heritage that the dam would cause in the area.

Isn’t it important to be sympathetic and compassionate to all cultures and their history? Irrespective of religion we should preserve this ancient heritage. Alas, that is a concept not known to Pakistan.

The project will destroy a number of petroglyphs that are the talking rocks of the region. Such engraved rocks are of great heritage importance and the Buddhist spiritual and temporal leader Dalai Lama during a recent visit to Leh had called for preserving these ancient rocks scattered along the Indus River and other places in the Ladakh union territory (UT).

Viewpoint

While the project promises to have trickledown effects on all sectors of the economy by creating job opportunities, the role of China in the construction of the Dam will definitely allow Beijing to expand its presence in the area. The question of how many of the downtrodden Pakistanis will be able to benefit from it is a matter of greater concern. Since the project is being completed by a Chinese firm, most of the manpower will be brought from China and would eventually go on to settle down there. The natives of the place will eventually get displaced and will have nowhere to go. Officials from the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) of Pakistan have revealed that China will most likely fund the bulk of project costs, as well as provide 17,000 workers from the Three Gorges Dam Project. It is also likely that a Chinese company will be in charge of the construction of the dam.

Another point to mull over is that the dam is being built on the waters of Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK), which is a disputed territory. India had objected to the construction of the dam repeatedly as it falls into the Indian Territory. And if constructed the Dam can cause water shortage in Ladakh. Why is Pakistan so hell-bent on going ahead with this project knowing very well all of its follies? Is there a more sinister game that Pakistan and China are planning? With china building pressure on India on the Ladakh axis, they don’t want to leave any stone unturned to corner India from all sides. It seems like China’s efforts to corner India can be better accomplished with their advent into Pakistan through this project. India, however, cannot afford to be complacent. Just because the Chinese economy has suffered a setback with the COVID 19 situation does not mean that it won’t act even if it finds circumstances propitious for action.

New Delhi cannot overlook the fact that China has been systematically mobilising domestic and international support for a possible war with India, which it has painted as the aggressor while claiming to be the aggrieved party.

As the standoff between the two countries drags on, China continues its saber-rattling against India, even if it is at the cost of trampling through the lands of its dumb yet dedicated friend Pakistan.

28 May 20/Thursday                                                                                     Written By: Saima Ibrahim