By Alauddin Masood, Weekly Pulse, August 19, 2013
Against more than 400 hydropower projects planned by India, Nepal and Bhutan in the mountain region of Himalayas, Pakistan is mulling plans to build only nine hydropower projects. Taken together, the Himalayan dams would provide over 160,000MW of electricity – three times more than the UK currently uses.
In addition, China has plans for around 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from major rivers rising in Tibet. The country has plans to a further construction of 60 or more dams from Mekong River, which also rises in Tibet and flows south through south-west Asia, according to new academic research published in the leading British newspaper ‘The Guardian.’
Most of the Himalayan Rivers have been relatively untouched by dams near their sources. Now, both India and China are rushing to harness them as they cut through some of the world’s deepest valleys. Resultantly, over the next 20 years, “could be that the Himalayas become the most dammed region in the world. India aims to construct 292 dams…doubling current hydropower capacity and contributing 6% to projected national energy needs. If all dams are constructed, as proposed, in 28 of 32 river valleys, the Indian Himalayas would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world, with one dam for every 32km of river channel. Every neighbor of India with underdeveloped hydropower sites is building or planning to build multiple dams, totaling at minimum 129 projects,” said Ed Grumbine, visiting international scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming.
Bangladesh is fearful of India’s plans for water diversion and hydropower. Bangladesh government scientists say that even a 10% reduction in the water flow by India would dry out great areas of farmland for much of the year.
Pakistan has similar fears due to India’s tempering, on a massive scale, with Pakistani rivers originating from IHK, since 1980s. In fact, India had started creating problems for Pakistan as early as April 1, 1948. Following rising of tensions between the two countries, the World Bank brokered Indus Basin Treaty between Pakistan and India in 1960. Under the Indus Water Treaty, India has rights to waters of rivers Sutlej, Ravi and Beas (Eastern rivers) while Pakistan to the water of rivers Indus, Chenab and Jhelum (Western rivers) as a lower riparian.
Pakistan had accepted the treaty at the stake of its very survival and assurances from India that it would not interfere with the waters of Western rivers, but India never honored its promises. New Delhi started tempering with Pakistani rivers, at a massive scale, beginning 1980s. Now, New Delhi is engaged in building hundreds of hydropower projects. These projects would not only considerably reduce the flow of Pakistani rivers; they would also provide India with the potential to stop the flow of river waters at will.
The availability of fresh water is essential for mankind’s sustenance, progress and prosperity. But, this vital and life-sustaining resource is becoming a scarce commodity, raising apprehensions of friction, tension and conflict amongst communities. Although the surface of earth is largely covered with water, only 3% is freshwater, which is available to the global community for meeting its entire needs – household, industrial, irrigation for food production, etc. How unfortunate, even the UN environmental agency (UNEP)’s warning about ‘a looming water crisis in South Asia’ have not been able to create consensus in Pakistan about building reservoirs of crucial importance, like Kalabagh dam.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s thirst for water, which is a vital resource for people’s health, livelihood and economic development, has been constantly rising due to population growth, increase in industrial activity, over-population, climate change and failure of successive governments to augment water resources by building more reservoirs. From a water abundant country in 1947 that possessed 5,600 cubic meters of water per person, Pakistan has already become a water scarce country possessing below 1,000 cubic meters of water. According to international standards, countries having water reservoirs below 1,100 cubic meter water per person are considered among the chronic water shortage states.
The scarcity of water and electricity has impeded the sustained growth of the country’s agriculture and industry. But, unfortunately, some quarters in the country spare no effort in making even technically feasible mega-water conservation projects controversial, on one count or the other. Instead of considering such vital issues on merit and building consensus to tackle them, some leaders and political parties remain engaged in settling scores; while successive governments have been compromising on projects of national importance for petty political gains.
Despite the scarcity of water resource, even the available freshwater supply is under stress due to the drying-up of river basins, burgeoning human population, increased urbanization, climatic change and detrimental policy choices. While Pakistan has been able to utilize only 13% of its hydel resources during the last 66 years, some countries make optimum use of these resources. For example, USA has developed 497% storage capacity of the annual flow of river Colorado, Egypt 281% on river Nile and India 35% on Satluj and Bias Basin. Meanwhile, fearing scarcity of water, many nations remain engaged in building mega water reservoirs. China is building 95 major dams with a height of 200 feet or more, Turkey 51, Iran 48 and Japan 40.
Naturally, Pakistan’s inability to harness its water resources surprised many a visiting dignitaries. During a visit to Pakistan in 1998, President Suleman Demirel of Turkey was flown over river Indus to show him the Karakoram mountain range. In his book “Glimpses into the corridors of power,” the then Minister for Water and Power, Mr. Gohar Ayub Khan writes: En-route Demirel asked one of his ministers to look out of the window and tell him what he could see. The minister replied: ‘I see vast barren mountains.’ The President asked him to have a better look, but the Minister gave him the same answer. The President looked out and said, ‘Look at river Indus, it is untapped power for Pakistan.’
For want of concerted efforts for building more mega hydropower projects after Mangla and Tarbela, water scarcity has emerged as one of the main hurdles to increasing food production. Experts feel that if more water reservoirs are not built, the shortage of water would increase to 150 MAF by 2025, turning the country into a water scarce nation. The water scenario becomes more critical, especially when the storage capacity of the existing water reservoirs has depleted by some 30% due to silt and slush.
Presently, Pakistan uses about 50% of the 140 MAF of its available run-off water, i.e. water that falls on the country and is collected in rivers, lakes and streams, in a normal year. It draws about 70 MAF from underground springs and natural reservoirs. Of the 210 MAF water, some 100 MAF is consumed for irrigating 40 million acres of land, while some 40 MAF reach the Indus delta. Out of the water that escapes to the sea more than 36 MAF of water can be controlled and utilized for irrigation and generation of pollution free hydropower. However, this can happen only when the leaders succeed in building a national consensus on the issue of water conservation and building hydropower projects.