VIEW: Small is beautiful —Shaukat Qadir
Small hydro-power stations can be built along canals and handed over to the local nazims to operate and maintain. This may not please those who like to ‘think big’, but I believe this suggestion is economically viable and will not cause the political ripples the mega-projects do
Pakistan is eighth on the list of countries most likely to face water shortage in the near future i.e. within a decade. There is, therefore, little doubt that we need to do something rather urgently to offset the foreseeable emergency. The only question is what?
Despite political opposition the government seems obsessed with the idea of mega projects — Kalabagh Dam or Bhasha Dam. Some of the opposition to the construction of these dams may be unreasonable and motivated but the fact that the issue can become explosive cannot be ignored. My own opposition to mega projects stems from the fact that they are often eco-unfriendly. For me that is sufficient reason to avoid large dams. There are also other reasons which might seem more pragmatic to those indifferent to environmental considerations. The larger the project the larger the cost of construction. The larger the dam, the more difficult it is to maintain; the more easily it silts up; the longer it takes to construct; and finally, the greater the line losses. Imagine the line loss for an electric connection from Tarbela to Mianwali!
Pakistan is also listed among the countries suffering high electric line losses. I have been told that internationally acceptable line losses are less than ten percent and that some Scandinavian countries lose as little as three percent. I gather that our losses are estimated at around thirty eight percent. Out of this only ten percent are attributed to theft. The rest are caused by inefficient wiring and long distances. Ten percent theft (!) is the international upper limit, but it pales to insignificance before the rest of our losses.
May I suggest — without any claim to relevant expertise — that instead of attempting to create large-dam wonders of the world, each of which will take more than a decade leaving us with severe shortages in the interim, we undertake simultaneously the construction several small to medium size dams simultaneously that will give us the same storage capacity. They will cost less and can be built in less than half the time. This will reduce water shortage more expeditiously. Smaller dams are also likely to be more acceptable to the provinces. Sites for the construction of medium sized dams are easier to find and their construction will require little or no foreign expertise.
I also suggest the construction of small ‘spillway dams’ further upstream to prevent floods. No river diversion is involved in case of such dams. When water level rises beyond the control level the gates leading out of the dam close automatically. They have to be opened manually when the water level drops. These are usually very cheap to construct and hold the water for only the duration of the flood. This would also ensure that water is not wasted. Downstream perhaps, the water can flow through a longer channel to impose a delay on its rejoining the mainstream.
A study was commissioned early in the Ayub Khan era to generate electricity at canal falls. Carried out at considerable expense and effort, it was destined to be shelved in the wake of the Indus Basin Water Treaty, when construction of link canals to offset the shortage of river water became the priority. Perhaps, it is time for that study to be dug out again and cheap electricity provided locally to villages along the canal. Ayub Khan, a great proponent of local self-government may have intended these mini hydro-electric stations be handed over to the local bodies.
Today there is a revived interest in local self-governance, although the NRB insists that the set up is unique and has no similarity with Ayub Khan’s experiment. Small hydro-power stations can be built along canals and handed over to the local nazims to operate and maintain. These suggestions may not please those who like to ‘think big’, but I believe they are economically viable, require less time and money to construct, are cheaper to maintain and will not cause the political ripples the mega-projects do.
The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)