Water politics and regional strategies

By K.N. Pandita

For three strong reasons India has obstructed Pakistan’s 12 billion US dollar Daimer-Bhasha dam with estimated generation capacity of 4500MW on the Sindh River.

First, the dam is located in Gilgit-Baltistan to the north of Pakistan, the territory which India claims its own but is illegally occupied by Pakistan.

Second, the dam to be built about 40 kilometres from Chilas on the Indus River in Gilgit-Baltistan is a project fraught with serious environmental risk impact. Independent experts believe that Bhasha is not a natural site for a large storage reservoir with a little scope for side-channel storage because it is located in the seismic zone. 

The inability of the dam structure to control devastating floods in the event of an earthquake also raises concerns about damage to the Indus River bed, which may cause huge losses not only to Pakistan but also to India with the danger of massive down flow over the plains.

With a height of 281 meters, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam will be the world’s highest dam, compared to the 196 meter high Itaipu Dam in Brazil/Paraguay and the 185 meter Three Gorges Dam in China.

Third, of late, China has made her substantial presence felt in Gilgit-Baltistan region which raises security concern for India in such close geographical proximity. China has not made secret of her interests in Gilgit-Baltistan, which connects Pakistan to China’s western province of Xinjiang. In July 2010, Islamabad signed memoranda of understanding with the China Three Gorges International Corp (TGIC) for construction of the seven, 100MW Bunji and 1,100MW Kohala hydropower projects in Gilgit-Baltistan. Both of these sites fall within the territory of the original State of Jammu and Kashmir claimed by India but under illegal occupation of Pakistan since 1947.

Pakistan is sour that India wrote to the funding sources not to underwrite the dam because of a raging dispute over the territory where the proposed dam will be located. In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Water and Power chaired by Water and Power Minister Ahmed Mukhtar. Chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) of Pakistan, told that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other multilateral donors backed out of their commitment to finance the project and linked their funding to a no objection certificate (NOC) being signed by India.

In his official communications to the Ministry of Water and Power, WAPDA chief has said that Manila-based ADB had reversed its commitment to finance the project. The communication said that it was of the opinion that the ADB was playing games and veering to the World Bank position on the project, and requested the government to approach China for financing the project.

Observers infer that at the end of the day China may emerge as the country clinching the bid. It is reliably known that Russia, too, is interested in undertaking the construction of the project but on condition that the contract is given to her without any bidding and on negotiated terms.

This is precisely what China, too, seems to be planning to do. There are indications that Pakistan would not push for a no objection certificate from India  but would try to find other means and options to go ahead with the project which its former premier Yusuf Reza Gilani called the “life line” when he as Prime Minister had laid its foundation.

The construction of the dam has been delayed for more than four years for various reasons. At that time cost estimate ran around the figure of 4 billion US dollars which has escalated to nearly 12 billion dollars now.

It has also been noted that the local population of Gilgit-Baltistan has resented the construction of the dam firstly for non-feasibility of the site as it is not recommended by seismic experts. This entire region was the epicentre of a devastating earthquake four years ago that claimed thousands of precious lives and rendered millions homeless.  Any damage to the Daimer-Bhasha dam at the given height on account of a geological commotion would spell total disaster to the entire sub-continental plains.

Secondly, the locals have no guarantee that with the completion of the dam in question, Pakistani government would either pay the royalty accruing to them or compensate them adequately in case of a serious physical threat emanating from collapsed dam. Their fears and apprehensions are based on the discriminatory and oppressive treatment meted out to them by the Islamabad regime. Besides, they know that Islamabad regime never paid a penny by way of royalty to the PoK people on Mangla Dam.

Thirdly, if the construction of the dam actually begins, the contractors will be desired by the Islamabad regime to deploy labourers, engineers and skilled staff mostly from among the Punjabis who have never been friendly to the local population. There is no love lost between them and the Punjabis. That is what the history of the region and it’s predominantly Shia population tells us.

Yet another interesting aspect of Indo-Pak water politics is that Pakistan thinks that only the US could provide 50 per cent of the funds required and the remaining half she could manage to raise through internal resources particularly by preventing the theft of electric power that runs into billions of rupees.

Informed sources believe that the US is not totally averse to committing a good chunk of the estimated cost but at the same time it has desired that in case of its positive reaction, Pakistan shall have to scrap the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which was originally proposed to be extended to India (IPI) but India buckled under American pressure and withdrew.

In final analysis, we do not know whether there is any thinking in the Pakistani think-tank that putting all its eggs in one basket is contrary to astute statesmanship. By bringing China to its bedroom Pakistan is stoking dangerously competitive and rivalling regional strategy. Last year, the TGIC demanded the Pakistani government to remove legal bottlenecks in the award of contracts for mega hydropower projects; Bhasha, Bunji, Kohala and Karot. The Chinese firm is not interested in following the Public Procurement Regulatory Agency (PPRA) rules or participating in international competitive bidding (ICB), preferring to secure the projects on a single-bid basis.

Of late Russia has been trying to mollify Pakistan essentially to checkmate Chinese ambitions in her “southern belly” region. India is seriously concerned about overt and covert moves of China in Gilgit-Baltistan and Skardu region. Whether the Daimer-Bhasha dam will come up in this triangular, or to be precise quadrangular (plus US) tussle in the crucial region is something to be watched very closely..

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