IN AN ATTEMPT TO PRE-EMPT possible Supreme Court adjudication of the proposed but contentious 2400MW Kalabagh multipurpose project some 200km downstream of Tarbela on the Indus river, Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf decided on 2 June 2002 to form a working group to build consensus for it.

Pakistan’s Constitution gives the Supreme Court original jurisdiction in any dispute between two or more provincial governments. Kalabagh has pitted all four against each other. Since water sharing between provinces is at the heart of Kalabagh’s difficulties and affects many other major irrigation and power projects as well, the court’s scrutiny of Kalabagh would have profound implications for Pakistan’s ambitious Vision 2025 water resources development plan.

The working group will initially consist of representatives from downstream Sindh province (opposed) and the Punjab (in favour) but will later be expanded to include the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) on whose border with Punjab the dam would be built and Baluchistan. Full national consensus may thus be achieved.

The controversial US$5.7B scheme has been postponed many times since its original conception in 1953. It was even cancelled by Musharraf in August 2000. His latest move follows its May 2001 revival when prospective developers, the national Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), were given 15 days to create a consensus for it.

Musharraf’s move also has deep political significance. If he can achieve consensus for Kalabagh he will have taken an important step towards neutralising the country’s various political factions. Their diversion of national resources to their own provinces, when in power as the national government, has long thwarted the country’s development as well as threatening its cohesion. Consen-sus would also unlock about US$3B in World Bank and Asian Development Bank funding for the scheme.

On the face of it, the rationale for Kalabagh could be considered simplicity itself. As a 1997 government position paper points out, ‘irrigated agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy’. This fact plus rapid population growth means that additional supplies of water for irrigation are essential.

But no major water resource development project has been initiated since Tarbela was commissioned in 1976. In the meantime, the Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma reservoirs are silting up. WAPDA estimates they will have lost 7.3B m3 – 34% of their active storage capacity – by 2010, meaning progressive diminution of water supplies.

A revised Kalabagh, with a maximum water level of +279m MSL would have a live storage capacity of 7.5B m3, which according to the government paper, would make up for the capacity loss in the other reservoirs. Furthermore, in addition to badly needed flood control, the paper says that ‘it would add a large amount of cheap hydro power to the national grid through its 2400MW (ultimately 3600MW) installed capacity’.

The dam’s 12 x 300MW Francis type turbines would use a 52m head developed by a 79.2m high clay core zoned fill embankment dam with an 3353m crest. The first design had envisioned 282m MSL but the extra 3m would have required a dyke to protect Nowshera town in NWFP upstream of the dam from flooding.

NWFP and the Punjab therefore both face resettlement issues – 34,500 and 48,500 people respectively with NWFP seeing little but flooded land for its sacrifice. But the chief opposition to Kalabagh has come from the downstream Sindh province that fears the Punjab, the projects main beneficiary, will starve it of water. Its traditional agriculture relies on seasonal floods in the Indus delta.

The government’s position paper seeks to allay such fears by pointing to better year-round water flows in Sindh and citing an inter-provincial 1991 Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) that would govern distribution of the 32B m3 of water captured by Kalabagh from the 47B m3 released from Tarbela.

But it’s an open secret that much illegal water use occurs once irrigation infrastructure becomes available. Such fears were aggravated in June 1998 when then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, himself from the Punjab, decided unilaterally in the face of strong bi-partisan opposition from the other three provincial governments to implement the stalled scheme. And when Musharraf tried to carry through the decree in mid-2000, riots broke out. The only option then was to cancel it.