As Imran Khan’s government settles in, with a President elected and Ministers taking to their office, one expects some growing pains. Time – always of the essence – seems all the more pressing now, when the new Prime Minister has publicly asked twice for patience. And with good reason: we’re in greater debt than ever (government debt was recorded at over 67 percent of the GDP in 2017), there are allegations flying from every corner of the opposition, according to experts water will run out in mere decades and the energy crisis is well and truly established.
Imran Khan has promised transparency and a holistic approach in his government’s problem solving. His Green Growth Agenda is unique in its attention to real problems this country faces – including the need for clean, renewable energy and the inclusion of environmentally sound and responsible policies in the consideration of and development of all economic decisions.
For the Prime Minister to achieve this through his Green Growth Agenda, it’s going to require a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. That is not a far flung dream – it has the potential to become a reality. But it’s going to take time. The best bet, experts agree, is Hydro-electricity – accepted across the board as the cleanest source of energy for Pakistan – but also one that’s going to take decades to see to fruition. Even 10 years is generous – 20 is more likely how long it will take to see these projects reach their goals.
In the meantime though, Pakistan needs power. Coal mining is not without its costs — pollution and the harm to heritage sites being the least of them. Twin mines collapsed in Marwar earlier this year, killing twenty three people according to Al Jazeera. In Sindh, residents of the Tharparkar desert protested coal mining operations in the area, citing displacement of entire communities and significant pollution of and damage to ancestral lands.
For the Prime Minister to achieve this through his Green Growth Agenda, it’s going to require a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. That is not a far flung dream – it has the potential to become a reality. But it’s going to take time.
Gas too, is a natural resource that is scarce – and though the Prime Minister’s government has announced in early September plans for dividing responsibilities for its management under every province, even that, combined with Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan pipeline, is a long way from reality.
And yet, these are the projects we must rely on to power our industries and generate the capital needed not only to eliminate our growing debt, but to run the country and fund the very same clean energy programs activists are leaning towards. And the most viable of those is hydro power.
For over three decades now, Pakistan has been unable to create the dams experts pointed out as absolutely vital for the countries survival (compared to our 2, India has built an estimated 2000). Public grievances against Kalabagh Dam from both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, for instance, delayed and finally brought the project to a screeching halt. It has often been stated that these delays and the concerns raised to support them are the result of politics, not facts. The project was proposed to replace the lost storage caused by silting in Mangla and Tarbela Dams. And yet the problem persists.
Allegations about the project’s feasibility reports being tailored were rife, especially when WAPDA’s claims about its extensive study for the project was refuted no less than 26 times by experts – including the project’s consultants.
People in Sindh for instance, feared that a technically infeasible and flawed dam project would cause not only submergence but also waterlogging and the disappearance of areas such as Thatta and Badin from the map. The people also fear relocation – displacement caused by the Consensus, they’ve rightly pointed out, can not be achieved for an infeasible project – regardless of the methods used. Suggestions by consultants for the creation of barrages instead have been ignored, with no room given by WAPDA in its ToRs for the creation of a dam at the exact location with the exact storage capacity.
The fears of the people are not unfounded. But the fact remains that these have also been preyed upon by political stakeholders. The fears as stated could and should have been addressed by re-evaluating the existing project studies and the resulting designs and plans.
The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also have a valid grievance: that while the dam itself is slated to be built in KP, the turbines that generate the resulting electricity lie in Punjab – approximately 500 meters inside the latter province. As a result, KP is denied the royalties that would result from this generation. And in Pakistan’s economic climate, that’s not a concern that can be called unfounded – that’s legitimate. As are concerns that entire districts could be submerged as a result (there have been concerns in particular about water levels rising to completely cover Nowshera). And in the absence of stable transitions of governments and the trust in their credibility that only transparency and quantifiable results can produce, it is no wonder non-state actors – including foreign governments and media – have been quick to highlight these concerns time and again.
Allegations about the project’s feasibility reports being tailored were rife, especially when WAPDA’s claims about its extensive study for the project was refuted no less than 26 times by experts – including the project’s own consultants.
On that note, it must be pointed out that the Dam is not without its supporters. Dr Shamsul Mulk served as Chairman WAPDA and 3rd Chairperson of Board of Governors of Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He is still a widely respected technocrat who has – repeatedly – argued that the worst floods in Nowshera history in 1929 and 2010 flooded Nowshera, which he states denies the propagated fears (particularly by parties like the ANP) of Nowshera being flooded on construction of Kalabagh Dam, which he calls vital for the nation.
Pakistan’s successive governments have been criticised for their shortsightedness on this among other issues. The dam in question was once thought to cost well over 10 billion dollars to create (that’s the amount being estimated for the Diamer Basha Dam the Chief Justice of Pakistan is currently asking donations for- we’ll get to that in a minute). Those are finances that aren’t easy to organise – even massive loans need repayment, and Pakistan’s new government is well aware of how its people feel about the existing (and growing) debt crisis.
And speaking of governments, let’s look at one reason why political stakeholders (and non-state actors alike) have managed to maintain a foothold with the fears of the general public as far as Kalabagh Dam is concerned. As late as 2003, many families and communities who were supposed to be compensated for their losses and were supposed to receive help in resettlement after the creation of Tarbela Dam, were still waiting. And unrelated to hydro-electricity but necessary to understand in the context is another example: according to locals, “Sui”, the village where Pakistan’s “Sui Gas” originates from, received its first supply of its own gas in 2011.
I mentioned in a previous article that environmentalists often find their work to establish dialogue with stakeholders hindered by the depiction of stakeholders in media (Captain Planet, a popular children’s show is one example). But the truth is, stories like the ones mentioned above hardly work in the politicians and stakeholders’ benefit either. The resulting lack of trust causes people to remain wary of any changes government’s may suggest – even those that seem economically sound. It is this image problem that past governments have failed to learn from, choosing instead to announce projects to gain political points – before gaining the public support and awareness of the people.
A year ago, a visit to Gilgit Baltistan resulted in a chance meeting with a local politician and a lawyer from the region. It was an opportunity to gain insight in the people who CPEC has put in a rare geo-strategic position – and yet, who feel all the poorer for it. Among other themes there was one that stood out (the narrative that builds – and is supported by and used by detractors and opponents): that it was the government then in power that was benefitting, at the cost of its own people. Regardless of which party is in power, locals argue, the result is going to be the same: the poor will become poorer, and social orders and established norms that are valued as a part of their culture (including the respect of private property and the respect for women) will deteriorate. The persisting fear was that the result will be a Gilgit-Baltistan – and a Pakistan – left all the poorer for the experience. After the trip, research and further conversations gave some of their concerns legitimacy.
Bunji (pronounced Baunji) is a village in Gilgit Baltistan, that was reportedly included in surveys conducted by the Chinese as a part of studies into potential energy projects (prior to CPEC). It was pitched as a hydroelectric power generation system that would have easily generated upwards of 15000 MW of power – without wasting the water that would have ended up back in the rivers. Why was it never developed? According to the locals: because the solid rock the Chinese developers would have to drill through was not owned by any influential individual – definitely no one in that government. As one individual put it: there weren’t any “kickbacks” – so the government said it wasn’t a priority. Instead, they said, the government prioritised water storage as an immediate concern.
As late as 2003, many families and communities who were supposed to be compensated for their losses and were supposed to receive help in resettlement after the creation of Tarbela Dam, were still waiting. And unrelated to hydro-electricity but necessary to understand in the context is another example: according to locals, “Sui”, the village where Pakistan’s “Sui Gas” originates from, received its first supply of its own gas in 2011.
On that note: let’s look at the Diamer Basha Dam. The dam itself is being built in Gilgit-Baltistan. The turbines for its generation are in KP. As a result, when the project was first announced, when it was known simply as the Basha Dam, there was an uproar in Gilgit Baltistan – because the royalties gained from the federal government for the energy production would go to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa instead of to the people of Gilgit Baltistan. Later on, the name was changed – to Diamer Basha, and GB offered a share in royalties. It must be noted that as far as fears of submersion and displacement are concerned, the completion of this dam will result in the submersion of territories – many populated – in Gilgit Baltistan – not in KP.
Even on a map, the site is marked in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Zoom out a little, and the majority of surrounding localities are in Gilgit Baltistan. The area that has been touted for its construction is surrounded by mountains whose rock formations, according to locals, is loosely connected. The area is also very near to a famous tourist site: Taattawai, or as it is now called Taattapani – a naturally occuring hot water spring near Chillas. The waters there remain at high temperatures even in the GB winters – because the entire area is on volcanic rock. Even if the storage of water is a priority, locals are concerned that the kind of rock formations that the Dam’s proposed site will be established on will only deteriorate as over time accumulated water seeps into the ground. Allegedly, proper research has not been conducted in order to account for the kind of safety measures if any are present in the case of a natural disaster – such as an earthquake like the one in 2005.
Another earthquake of that size, locals argue, could and will cause more damage after the Dam’s creation – and it will be GB that is affected. And with concerns riding high, it doesn’t help that examples like those of the affectees of Tarbela Dam and the Sui village exist, for use of political actors and stakeholders. There is also the strange matter of land reallocation and allegations of lack of compensation in Gilgit Baltistan. Some officials I spoke to said that even after adequate compensation as well as allotment of new land, people had returned to their previously owned properties, refusing to evacuate them. But the people I spoke to in Gilgit city said locals hadn’t received any compensation, or that what had been offered was peanuts. The root of this issue it seemed, lay under the complicated, archaic Dogra rules that were supposed to see reform years ago – when Gilgit Baltistan first acceded to Pakistan in 1947. With the people’s trust in governments’ transparency running low from previous experiences, accounts like these don’t help.
It also doesn’t help that the lack of transparency in CPEC is the leading source of its criticism – and that’s where Imran Khan’s government needs to play its part.
A great flaw of previous governments has been the sudden announcements of projects without consulting potential local affectees and communities. We’ve seen the results with Kalabagh Dam and again with CPEC and Diamer Basha. A very real problem when it comes to hydro-electric power is that the dams required can result in water wastage and irreversible damage to wildlife and the ecosystem if the plans are not technically sound and feasible. Again: banning or cancelling these projects achieves nothing. Re-evaluating them however, with attention paid to providing transparency and giving a platform to representatives from each region potentially affected will result in far better chances of reaching a mutually beneficial consensus.
And that is what Imran Khan’s government needs to do: re-evaluate existing policies. Dr Shireen Mazari, the Human Rights Minister has already spent her first few weeks in office laying to rest concerns in the international community regarding Pakistan’s stance on human rights violations both at home and abroad. The lauded Economic Advisory Council – while lacking female voices – has been established. Foreign officials are landing for diplomatic visits. Before the first 100 days are over, Khan’s government needs to make good on at least a few promises: holistic resolutions, accountability, and transparency. And the open re-evaluation of existing and previous projects and policies is the first step. Archaic land revenue laws that are affecting compensation in GB, division of resources and allocation of royalties for energy generation are just a few issues that need immediate attention.
It is said that every government achieves one great thing in its term – the hallmark it is remembered for. This government’s adaptation of a holistic approach which pays attention to the voices of the people, carries out extensive research and learns from the hastily made decisions and mistakes of its predecessors will go a long way in ensuring that the transition to an environmentally conscious, economically stable Pakistan is what it will be remembered for.