Dam-Racing in South Asia: The Environmental Disasters Waiting to Happen (Part 3)

By Nadia Ahmad*

These concerns about the environment and climate change management impact choices investors and international financing institutions make regarding hydroelectricity projects. The Report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) altered perspective of the effect of large dams on the relationship between human development, environmental protection, and human rights. In Climate Justice: Case Studies in Global and Regional Governance Challenges, Mushtaq ur Rasool Bilal and I point out that the report highlights how large dams disrupt ecological equilibrium, harm biodiversity irreversibly, and force riparian communities to relocate permanently. Moreover, the construction of large dams is a process that often involves large-scale financial corruption (of which the Kalabagh dam project in Pakistan remains a quintessential example), violations of human rights, and huge cultural losses. However, it would be wrong to assume that the WCD Report opposes large dams per se. The WCD Report recognizes that “governments face very real dilemmas in trying simultaneously to satisfy urgent needs and advance the realisation of fundamental rights, even if the goal of fulfilling all people’s needs and entitlements is not questioned.” The Commission points out that “fulfilling development needs requires respect for fundamental rights, and not a trade-off between them” and “that an equitable and sustainable approach to development requires that a decision to build a dam or any other options must not, at the outset, sacrifice the rights of any citizen or group of affected people.”

Asserting the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty dispute resolution provision, Pakistan has sought international adjudication in recent years on account of two of India’s hydroelectric projects that sought to alleviate electricity shortages in Kashmir. Article IX of the Indus Water Treaty states: “Any question which arises between the Parties concerning the interpretation or application of this Treaty or the existence of any fact which, if established, might constitute a breach of this Treaty shall first be examined by the Commission, which will endeavor to resolve the question by agreement.” If the internal dispute resolution mechanism fails, the Treaty indicates, “A court of Arbitration shall be established to resolve the dispute.” Pakistani officials objected to India’s diversion of the Chenab River from construction of hydropower projects, including the 690-megawatt Ratli Dam, 1,000-megawatt Pikkal Dam, 1,190-megawatt Karthai Dam and 600-megawatt Kero Dam, arguing that construction of these projects constituted a violation of the Indus River Treaty.

Brahma Chellaney noted: “While railing against modestly sized run-of-the-river Indian dams, Pakistan has stirred local grassroots protests at home by embarking on much larger, storage-type dams such as the 4,500-megawatt Basha Dam…and the 7,000-megawatt Bunji Dam. While storage-type hydropower plants impound large volumes of water, run-of-the-river projects are located so as to use a river’s natural flow energy and elevation drop to generate electricity without the aid of a large reservoir and dam.”

Chellaney underscores the smaller size of India’s dam projects, but what is more significant is that most of the Himalayan rivers have been relatively untouched by dams near their sources. A recent study points out that these “water grab” dams would be an environmental disaster. The future dam projects create the highest dams in the world and generate energy capacity of more than 4,000MW, the equivalent of the Hoover dam.

An important aspect of climate justice is to recognize the ecological and climate debt owed to the people’s in the global South by the societies of the global North. Instead of transmitting ecologically sustainable small-scale hydroelectricity projects, the global South has inherited a callous disregard for the environment from the global North in the name of development. The need for energy access has translated into the production of mega dams. The beneficiaries of the dam construction projects are the people who benefit from reliable electricity, but also the development banks and private lending institutions and construction firms that handle and provide the finance and construction of the dams. The global South is subordinated by the technological advancements of the global North and increases its detrimental reliance on the global North. And we are still fighting over these resources for our former colonial masters.

*Nadia B. Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Law at Barry University School of Law. Professor Ahmad’s research explores the intersections of energy siting, the environment, and sustainable development and draws on international investment law and corporate social responsibility.