Let it be a Bhasha Dam Day!
Hopefully, today the foundation stone of the US$11.7 billion Diamer Bhasha Dam would be laid, if nothing goes wrong in this uncertain country. Significance of such a mega-development project cannot be over-looked in a society which is over-consumed by politics. This is the biggest ever public sector project undertaken by Pakistan. The last huge project was of course Tarbela Dam which was made operational some 35 years ago. Tarbela is the world 3rd largest dam in terms of water reservoir volume.
Bhasha Dam, which on completion is going to be bigger than Tarbela, was approved by the Council of Common Interest (CCI) in July 2010 after trying its level best to build the consensus among the provinces on the controversial Kalabagh Dam. The ground-breaking of this Dam was done by President General Musharraf. Though some nationalist Sindhi leaders still have their reservation on building any dam on the up-streams of Indus, the plus point of this project is that the opposition to it is very subdued in Sindh and the environmental concerns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regarding Kalabagh Dam have been assuaged as the site of the dam was shifted.
On completion in about 11 years Bhasha Dam would add 4500 MW to the country’s present of 6500 MW of which 4347 MW hydro power electricity is contributed by the present Tarbela and Mangla dams. In a country where a new term ‘electricity riots’ has originated a question is often asked that why we do not harness our hydro-power resources? This has been explained by the experts many times in the media, but these explanations do not sink in and still questions are raised even by the media. First we have to understand that the installed 6500 MW is never available. There are a number of reasons: the installed generators at most of the big and small dams are old and cannot generate their name-plate capacity; the water storage capacity of both Tarbela and Mangla has declined by 19 per cent because of sedimentation; the hydro-power is seasonal as there is less water in winters its capacity to generates goes down; and that water can only be released from the dams to generate electricity if all the members of ISRA agree because water stored in these dams has to supplement the existing river water at the time of Kharif and Rabi crop.
The much-maligned government has raised the height of Mangla dam to make up for the loss of capacity owing to sedimentation. The experts say that both the dams have lost over 5 MAF water storage capacities. Tarbela’s 4th extension project has also been completed. In this backdrop Bhasha Dam’s construction is all the more essential for Pakistan agriculture as it would add a gross 8 MAF to Pakistan’s water reservoir capacity. WAPDA’s estimate is that weighted annual average benefit from this water would be over Rs50 billion. Together with the annual savings from flood losses and gains from Rs106 billion electricity generation, the cost of Bhasha Dam is expected to be recovered in six to seven years. Not a bad deal provided the project is completed on time and with no cost over-runs. Now that I think is a tough call keeping in view of our public sector projects track record and the fact that at least three governments might change during the gestation period of this 11 years project, if they complete their terms.
Before some skeptic colleagues in the media and cynic experts ask where we are going to find eleven billion dollars, let me tackle this question. Upfront $11 billion looks like a big amount, but if we average it out on the 11 year construction period it is just $1 billion a year – Rs88 billion at the present exchange rate – now this is not a big amount even if the country has to meet it through its own resources. Consider this: the government is subsidising the terminally sick public sector companies to the tune of Rs250 billion per annum. PEPCO alone is making Rs240 billion losses every month.
When I posed the question regarding financing this project WAPDA Chairman Shakil Durrani was confident that given the negotiations with various lending agencies the money for Bhasha Dam will not be a problem. “ADB is expected to lead the consortium which would be backed by Islamic Development Bank, USAID and Japan International Cooperation Agency,” he added exuberantly on the basis of his on-going negotiations with them.
Many social activists are usually upset about the building of big dams as it displaces people and inundates the neighbouring areas. As this dam is being made in the thinly populated Gilgit-Baltistan and its outfall would be in the adjoining KPK it is displacing 4228 households only. These displaced people, according to WAPDA, have agreed to shift to the model villages being made for them at Thak Das and Harpan Das. The affected people are being provided with 500 Sq meters houses and agriculture land, WAPDA claims.
The last moment hitch was that 5 percent affected people on KPK side demanded that they should be compensated at the same rate as that of GB affected. The KPK affected people were given Rs92 million but now their demand to match the compensation has been accepted. WAPDA and local administration says that protesting affected people have been promised payment of additional compensation of Rs 242 million in a week’s time.
But the biggest challenge for the Bhasha Dam project managers would be to re-locate almost 100 Km of Karakoram Highway at higher altitude as it would be submerged when the dam is made.
Unlike the general impression that hydro power is being completely neglected a visit to Gilgit-Baltistan, FATA and Chitral shows that a number of small run-of-the-river power plants are already operating successfully and meeting the demand of the local villages. One enterprising Chitral businessman is not only generating one MW but also distributing electricity to the people of Ayun valley directly. “His rates are much lower than WAPDA rates of electricity,” a local resident of Ayun told me.
WAPDA says it has various small and medium Hydro power projects on the pipeline which when completed can add 30,000 MW. Most of these projects are up in the North – GB, KPK and Azad Kashmir. But a cursory look at these 22 projects shows that most of them have not taken off the drawing board, barring a few big like Neelum-Jhelum project.
As we live in difficult times where there is no dearth of bad news being shot at us by electronic and print media, good news that something substantial is being done by the government for securing our future needs to be highlighted. So let this be a Bhasha Dam Day! (firstname.lastname@example.org)