Bhasha: The Damned Dam

Md. Sadiq

20 May 2006

Pakistan's plan of constructing the Bhasha dam has led to widespread protests in Gilgit. The Bhasha project has led to a major controversy as the dam is currently being debated in Pakistan as a second choice or an alternative to the proposed Kalabagh dam in Sindh province. The Bhasha dam is being opposed by people in Gilgit as they fear that it would affect the social, economic and ecological balance in the region and would inundate 32 villages of Diamer district in Northern Areas, rendering thousands of people homeless.

The Bhasha Dam
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had announced in a televised speech in January 2006 that his administration would construct the Bhasha dam. Though President Musharraf was supposed to inaugurate the project on 15 March 2006, the ceremony was postponed due to bad weather. The Bhasha dam will be located on the Indus, about 200 miles upstream of Tarbela Dam and just downstream of Chilas Town. Its catchment area is beyond the range of monsoons. The average annual flow of Indus there is 50 Million Acre Feet (MAF), that is entirely the snow-melt water. The total storage capacity of the dam is 7.3 MAF and once completed, the dam would produce about 4,500 MW of electricity from 12 units. The proposed earth-rock-filled 660-foot dam will be 3,018 feet long and it will have a reservoir and catchments area of 27,700 acres and 152, 100 square kilometers respectively. If Pakistan opts to continue with the construction of the Bhasha Dam, it would require upgradation of 323-km of Havelian-to-dam site road and relocation of 140-km of Sazin to Rajkot Bridge. The project would also need regradation of 310-km of approach road which would also need substantial widening and improvement before the start of construction on the main dam for transport of heavy-moving, construction and power house machinery. Two circuits of 500-KV transmission lines would also be needed over long and difficult stretches of seismically active hilly region for connectivity with the National Power Grid, the nearest point being Tarbela.

In its Vision 2025 report, Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) has proposed the height of the dam to 660 feet with storage capacity of 5.7 MAF, and installed generation capacity of 3360 MW. In 2025 Vision the WAPDA had estimated Rs 400 billion ($6.60 billion) as its total cost, but the Work Bank and WAPDA' joint Review Panel of Experts, appointed in 1988, estimated its cost beyond $8 billion, keeping in view the price hike and inflation since 1988. The authority also indicated that the implementation of the project could take up to 10 years. However, independent experts say that following the devastating 8 October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the implementation period of the project could take around 12 years. This is because the technical experts involved in the project would have to examine and investigate in a precise manner the high seismic risk of the project, and they would have to prepare its design in such a way that it could withstand an earthquake.

Ignoring Local Sentiments
Once completed, the Bhasha dam will inundate 110 kms of the Karokaram Highway (popularly known as KKH) and every low-lying village in Daimir from Railkot Bridge next to the fairy meadows right below Nanga Parbat. In its report, WAPRA has also observed that there is local resistance to the project as the people feel that the Bhasha dam would affect the economic and ecological balance in the Northern Areas. Those opposing the Bhasha dam give several reasons for their opposition to the project. First, the local population resents the fact that the Pakistani government has taken the decision to construction the dam without taking them into confidence. Given the history of alienation and oppression that people in the Northern Areas have suffered, they feel that the Bhasha dam is yet another indicator of the fact that Islamabad has no regard for their sentiments and concerns. Second, even the nomenclature of the dam is indicative of the Pakistani establishment's outlook as the dam has deliberately been named Bhasha after a village in Kohistan in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) even though the location of the dam is in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Bhasha Village, which will house only one percent of the dam, is shown to be in the NWFP. Therefore, earnings from the dam are likely to go to the NWFP even though the major part of the dam will be situated in the Diamer District of Northern Areas. Third, the local population are demanding a share in the royalty as they fear that Islamabad would pass off all the benefits to the NWFP. Even though the entire land for the proposed Bhasha dam is in Northern Areas, the NWFP has been made the primary beneficiary as it have the online power station to distributed the electricity generated from the dam. Fourth, the dam is to be located in an extremely sensitive seismic zone. Locals fear that the dam may cause widespread destruction if another earthquake like that of 8 October 2005 takes place in that region.

Several protests against the construction of the Bhasha dam have been held in Pakistan. On 15 February 2006, an all party conference criticised Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for not taking the people and political leadership of the Northern Areas into confidence with regard to the construction of the dam. The protest was organised by the Gilgit-Baltistan Alliance and was attended by religious, political and nationalist leaders of the Northern Areas and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). A joint communiqué issued and signed by local leaders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Jamaat-e-Islami, JKANP, Pakistan People’s Party and both Pakistan Muslim Leagues opposed the construction of the dam, saying it would submerge the district of Diamir – the proposed site of the dam.

Despite the local opposition against the Bhasha dam, the Pakistan government has announced that it would go ahead with the construction of the dam. Given the fact that people in the Northern Areas are denied basic fundamental and political rights, mobilising a large movement against the dam is not possible. The so-called Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) elected by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan has no real executive power to protect the interests of the people in Northern Areas as all decisions are taken in Islamabad by the secretary in Pakistan’s Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. For Pakistan, the Bhasha dam appears to the best option among all proposed schemes as it will involve minimum human displacement, land submergence while providing maximum power availability. Analysts say that before proceeding with the construction of the Bhasha dam, Pakistan should first ensure that the territorial boundary and political and constitutional rights of the region are well defined and guaranteed by law. Pakistan should also ensure that the Northern Areas get the full royalty from the electricity generated by the dam and that those displaced by the project are adequately compensated. If Pakistan fails to take into account the local sentiments and concerns over the construction of the Bhasha dam, the issue could lead to widespread protests in a region that has already suffered decades of alienation due to the policies of successive Pakistani governments.