The art of giving a dam

There are many facets to the water crisis in Pakistan, including poor governance and mismanagement, argues Shahid Mehmood

The art of giving a dam
We all know the prediction: by 2025, Pakistan will run out of fresh water. This predict has been around for some time, but no government has done much to address this life-and-death issue. Recently, our very active chief justice (CJ) and the Supreme Court have ordered the construction of two mega dams. This step has received wide acclaim, as have many other initiatives of the CJ, such as his person visits to hospitals to check governance. The Apex Court went a step further by establishing an account to garner donations for these two dams.

However, I would like to humbly submit that there are other matters of serious concern that have not been taken up by the court. You see, it is not simply a matter of building a large dam. Rather, what lies at the heart of this issue is poor governance and an inability to comprehend what a sustainable, long-term solution entails.

The first issue is dams, whose primary purpose is to store water and to produce hydel power. Pakistan already has a few. But even their combined might is not enough to fulfil these purposes. Water availability for various purposes is at best random or patchy, and hydel electricity (even at peak flows of water in summer) reaches only 30 percent of the total electricity production. Transporting electricity from dams to areas of demand require substantial capital investments in lieu of transmission requirements. Where will this investment come from for electricity transmission?
Even if the dams are built and water plus power availability does increase, it is highly unlikely that it would make much of a difference unless governance and policy issues are addressed

Recourse, without a doubt, will have to be taken to contracting further debt (domestic and foreign) to set up transmission lines. For the sake of argument, let us say that this will also be achieved. Building newer dams would increase water storage capacity and hydel electricity production, yet there is no guarantee that water scarcity would be substantially curtailed or that load shedding would become history. That’s because these are problems of a different nature. Pakistan’s electricity (or power) sector’s main problem is poor governance and not the paucity of production capacity. Its transmission and distribution system is out-dated and colonial, losses due to faulty lines and theft are high, receivables are piling up all the time and pricing is done on political considerations rather than market mechanism. The end result, in brief, is that any increase in power production also increases the circular debt. Unless the governance issues are resolved, the added power production from these two dams will surely add to the genie of circular debt. Moreover, as I extensively discussed in an article in these pages, there are better alternatives to be considered.

Onto the issue of water availability and scarcity, and again it is not difficult to realise that merely building dams is not the answer. While it is true that water flows over time have dropped, Pakistan still receives considerable amount of water. The real problem lies in mismanagement, and lack of any policy for efficient use of water and water conservation. Of all the available water, almost 85 percent is used for agriculture while remaining 15 percent is used for other purposes (industry and domestic use). In using up this much water, Pakistan’s crop production is one of the most inefficient and wasteful. This fact has been known for a long time, yet there has been no policy to inhibit this wastage of a most precious resource. Other countries have successfully divested away from such waste by implementing technological applications like drip irrigation, sensors and satellites. Yet in Pakistan, there is hardly any worthwhile government level initiative to apply technology towards efficient water use in agriculture.

Absence of policy and pricing is evident in the non-agricultural sector too. Given that this sector receives only 15 percent of the total available water, it was even more imperative to have a policy for conserving and efficiently using water. But water is either not priced properly or free, and its distribution is unequal. Water metering is absent, and water recycling schemes (if any) only help in converting a small amount of total water consumed back to human consumption. In cities like Karachi and twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, for example, most areas come under severe water stress in peak summers. But at the same time, posh localities in these cities receive uninterrupted supply at least two to three times a day, used to propagate luxuries like expansive, Mughal-style lawns when a single tree or two would do. Just to gain the right perspective on policy, when California was struck with prolonged drought in recent times, its state government banned lawns.

So, even if the dams are built and water plus power availability does increase, it is highly unlikely that it would make much of a difference unless governance and policy issues are addressed. Add to this the fact that Pakistan’s runaway population would be around 225 million (or more) by the time these dams become operational, and we will have a situation where per capita availability of water and power would either be the same or less. Put another way, just like governance and policy is a necessary complement to make dams successful, so is population control. Again, Pakistan has yet to see any effective population control measures.

What was discussed above is by no means the end of the considerations that go hand in hand with building mega structures like dams. There are plenty of other issues that should have come under deliberation. I’ll mention a few, albeit briefly. First, Pakistan’s already existing hydel power sources are badly managed and maintained, and mostly of them were completed way behind schedule. Neelum-Jhelum is a flawless example of this. At least two decades behind schedule and costing many more billions than originally planned (extracted from taxpayers), the newly installed turbines stopped working even before they could produce a single watt. Who is responsible, and what is the guarantee that the two dams won’t meet the same fate? I have yet to see this question addressed. Second, had the honourable judges ever parsed through the details of why Daimer-Bhasha’s cost had escalated to $12 billion, they would have encountered the strange anomaly that the even in the aftermath of the global recession, when the cost of raw materials, petrol and wages, etc., took a mighty tumble for many years, the cost of this dam kept increasing. If their honourable lordships had pressed for details, they would have come across dubious methods of ‘escalating’ costs and some shady ‘formulae’ used for these cost escalations. It would have turned out that the costs of projects like dams sky rocket due to questionable tactics, and there might have been a good chance of cost revision towards the lower side. Moreover, governments of the future would have been warned to desist from such practices, thus saving precious financial resources in the long run. Of course, none of these were discussed or pondered.

I’ll now conclude the article by suggesting that no Pakistani doubts the sincerity of the honourable judges in ameliorating the ills that afflict Pakistan. Pakistan needs dams, and the SC’s initiative is welcome. But in striving to ameliorate these shortcomings, our lordships are making the same mistake as various governments committed. Solutions to pressing problems have to be sustainable and innovative. The SC’s directive of building dams, unfortunately, does not address these criterion.

The writer is an economist. He tweets at @ShahidMohmand79