Reassessing Climate Justice and Energy Security Between India and Pakistan: The Curious Case of the Kalabagh Dam (Part 2)

By Nadia Ahmad*

In South Asia, deployment of sustainable energy is less a matter of technology and more about easing regional tensions between Pakistan and India. As a result of the nations’ contentious history, it is difficult to foresee any future agreements. The disparity between the economies of Pakistan and India is related, in part, to energy infrastructure and policy. While India has forged ahead with renewable energy, corruption, bureaucracy, and poor energy policy have soured Pakistan’s attempt at entering the renewable energy revolution.
In Climate Justice: Case Studies in Global and Regional Governance Challenges, Mushtaq ur Rasool Bilal and I looked at how hydropower was crucial for energy security and Pakistan. These water scarcity problems that occurred over decades are difficult to resolve overnight. The World Bank proposed that Pakistan build a dam on the Indus River at Kalabagh, near Mianwali, to meet its future energy requirements in 1984. The dam was supposed to be completed by the year 1989. However, the project was never undertaken because of interprovincial distrust and political manipulation by successive governments. After the 2010 floods, which resulted in huge losses to the country’s economy—$49 million in communication infrastructure, $2.5 billion in the water and energy sector, a loss of over five million jobs, and twenty million internally displaced people—the then- Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani conceded that the damage could have been averted if there had been a Kalabagh dam.

The Kalabagh dam’s development has been impeded by a number of factors, including project finance, regional tensions, and center-province disputes. In addition, ethno-regional politics has hurt communication and diminished trust among stakeholders in hydropower development projects. Usman Muhammad argues for a need to reactivate the Council of Common Interests and improve the functioning of the Indus River System Authority to manage the hydropower conflict in the country. It is important to recognize the way disputes over water resources are settled. Pakistan’s provincial governments share authority for water resource management with the federal government in their bid for political autonomy. Center-province and interprovincial disputes involving water resources can be resolved through the Council of Common Interests (CCI) and through the Indus River System Authority (IRSA). Following the severe drought in southern Pakistan in the latter half of the 1990s, development proponents have been eyeing the construction of the Kalabagh Dam as “a surrogate for a litany of Sindhi grievances against the Punjabi-dominated political, military, and bureaucratic system in Pakistan. The work to heighten water withdrawals and more fully regulate the Indus river system overcorrected the problem, which led to the massive flooding in 2010. The drought in the 1990’s followed by the extreme flooding point to the need to reevaluate the push for more dams for a more comprehensive water-management system.

These calls for large dams in Pakistan overlooked the greenhouse gas emissions associated with hydroelectricity. A blind insistence on large dams ignored greater climate change risks and the harm to marginalized communities and fragile ecosystems. In terms of direct greenhouse gas emissions, Greenpeace reported, “forest areas flooded by reservoirs emit methane in the anaerobic decomposition of trees, vegetation and biomass submerged by the dam during its operation.” It is also important to note that poor and rural areas as well as vulnerable and marginalized communities are more disproportionately impacted by large dams and their climate change impacts.

*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.