OVER A COFFEE: The ‘blasphemy’ of Kalabagh Dam — Dr Haider Shah
Kalabagh dam is a technical issue and the discourse about it should not be based on political beliefs alone
Angry protests over perceived blasphemy are generally believed to be the exclusive domain of Pakistan’s overbearing religious circles. Among the nationalist circles, however, Kalabagh Dam is a topic where the risk of ‘blasphemy’ runs very high. Like a resurrected beast, the controversy has again risen from its grave with the familiar rhetoric making the rounds in the popular media as the Lahore High Court’s verdict seems to have opened old wounds.
A hydroelectric power project, being a mega project, is often accompanied by controversies. Environmentalists point out the detrimental consequences on the local ecosystem while human rights activists raise concerns about the displacement of a large section of the population. Water conservation projects also strain relations with the neighbouring countries in many cases. It is not surprising to find that many large-scale hydropower projects attracted controversies of all sorts. Let us consider a few mega projects for the purpose of illustration.
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity of 22,500 MW, and it was completed in July 2012. Conceived in 1919, the project was completed after almost a century. Beset with many controversies, the dam aims at increasing the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity and reducing the potential for floods downstream. While the Chinese government declares the project as an engineering miracle, the critics of the project kept opposing the proposed plan as they charged the dam with flooding archaeological and cultural sites, displacing more than a million people and causing significant ecological changes.
The Ilisu Dam is being constructed as an embankment dam on the Tigris River in Turkey for hydroelectric power production, flood control and water storage. The idea was first floated in 1954 but it was in 2006 that the construction of the dam commenced and is expected to be completed by 2015. The Turkish government’s resolve of completing the project has not softened despite loss of international funding in 2008 and continued criticism of opponents who accuse the dam of flooding portions of the ancient region and forcing the relocation of people living in the region.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is Africa’s largest water transfer scheme and has been launched in partnership between landlocked Lesotho and South Africa. It comprises a system of several large dams and tunnels throughout Lesotho and South Africa. The project would not only meet all the hydroelectric power needs of Lesotho but is also expected to provide the poor country with a source of income in exchange for the provision of water to the central Gauteng province of South Africa, which is a major centre of industrial and mining activity in that country. The project was originally conceived in the 1950s but finally got underway in 1986 with multiple stages of completion. From its inception, the project has drawn criticism from various quarters ranging from ecological concerns to corruption.
Another megaproject, Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in Brazil, began in 1975 but was soon discontinued due to severe controversy. Addressing the concerns of critics, the dam was redesigned in the 2000s though the controversies proved relentless. As Brazil has a huge demand for energy owing to its rapid economic growth, it has been pursuing the project despite much domestic and international controversies and legal challenges.
The list of controversies-ridden hydropower projects is a long one and one conclusion is common to most of them. Difficult decisions can be delayed but they cannot be permanently postponed.
Pakistan’s current demand is 15,000 megawatts but production is just 9,000 megawatts, resulting in a shortfall of 6,000 megawatts. The situation is simply unsustainable for industrial growth as well as meeting domestic users’ needs. Different experts in the fields of the energy sector and economics make different suggestions to resolve the national energy problems. Some call for turning to coal while others advocate tapping renewable sources of energy. Provisional solutions such as rental power stations have stalled because of allegations of corruption rather than remedying the grave situation. The energy sector is notoriously prone to mythology, which is embraced and promoted by experts and politicians alike. Let us be honest and humble in appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and its solution. No single source of energy can fill the ever-widening gap between demand and supply of energy. Better management and law enforcement can no doubt help in reducing the size of the gap but this should not deter us from investments in mega projects.
When the former governor of Punjab, the late Salmaan Taseer raised the issue of the abuse of blasphemy laws, he was gunned down and silenced. Endorsing this act of lunacy, the religious lobby has declared the blasphemy laws passed by Ziaul Haq a ‘no-go’ area for anyone including members of parliament. Listening to the inflammatory speeches of various leaders of nationalist parties, one feels that religious faith alone is not an area of blasphemy in Pakistan. Kalabagh dam is a technical issue and the discourse about it should not be based on political beliefs alone. Like all major megaprojects, it is also controversies-stricken and needs dispassionate and serious deliberations on the part of all stakeholders. It is suggested that the issue is reconsidered by the CCI and referred to a committee comprising international experts who have never remained associated with the project in the past. If the technical experts find the concerns of critics of the dam genuine then this project must be shelved forever. However, if the committee does not find justification for such concerns then we must go ahead with the project. If our liberal nationalists still oppose its construction then they will hardly be acting differently from their counterparts in radical groups of Pakistan who oppose all rational discourses when it comes to anything related to the laws related to blasphemy.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org