Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Baluchistan Floods: A Man-Made Catastrophe?

Was the recent disastrous flooding in Baluchistan a man-made catastrophe? That's certainly what many of the locals who were effected think, and their views have been reflected by Baluchi nationalist leaders and politicians.

At the centre of the allegations is the much-maligned, newly built Mirani Dam in Turbat district. While proposals for a dam here had been floating around since the time of the British, it was only recently that the federal government initiated the project, and fast-tracked it so that it would be completed in short order.

Mirani Dam under construction (Source: Descon)

The dam was intended to generate electricity and create a fresh-water reservoir that could be used to expand irrigation in the area, as well as provide a fresh water supply to the new port-city of Gawadar. In a previous post I've mentioned how Gawadar and its associated mega-projects are regarded with suspicion at best, and outright hatred as a form of colonisation at worst, by many Balochi nationalists. In fact the dam's construction site came under rocket and small arms fire by Balochi insurgents several times at the height of the Balochi insurgency.

As with all dams, this one entailed the dislocation of numerous villages out of their homes and ancestral lands to clear the catchment area of the dam. While the villagers were assured that they would be compensated and their new lands would receive the benefit of electricity and irrigation water from the dam, many regarded the dam as something designed specifically to steal water for the benefit of Gawadar. As with many other of the nation's mega-projects there was little attempt to consult or effectively communicate with those whose lives would be most effected by the dam's construction.

One particular point of controversy arose over what the expected water level of the dam's catchment area would be, and thus, who would have to move as a result. The optimum water level of the artificial lake created by the dam was given as 244 feet above sea level, with a maximum level of 264 feet. (The height of the dam itself was 274 feet.) Naspak, the eingineering consultants on the project, calculated that with an average annual rainfall of 4 inches in the region, the dam could take up to 200 years to fill up to the optimum level. (7 inches of rainfall fell on one day at the height of the rains in late June.)

To quote from a detailed article from the BBC:

In the later half of 2006, Wapda agreed to offer full compensation for houses, orchards, land and irrigation works in areas up to 264 feet above sea level (asl) - or more than 18,000 acres, and transfer money to the provincial government.

But the provincial finance ministry decided to hold back the funds in the belief that areas above 244 feet asl - the level of the dam's spillway - qualified for only partial compensation.

The people refused to vacate their villages until they were paid in full. Last month was marked by marches and protests in Turbat city. The agitation ended when the provincial finance minister promised to make payments by 1 July.

But it was a day too far.

With the floods and rainfall that came with the cyclone of June 26th, the water in the catchment area rose to 271.4 feet. Dam engineers even called in explosive experts in case the flooding threatened the entire dam structure and a breach had to be made. A massive area of land in and around the catchment area was completely flooded resulting in huge loss of life and several hundreds of thousands rendered homeless in just that area of Baluchistan alone. Many have been quick to blame the dam for the carnage.

But its not clear if the dam itself is entirely to blame. Musharraf was quick to point out that the dam absorbed 450,000 cusecs of water, which if unchecked, would have caused further carnage downstream in the districts of Gwadar, Jiwani and Dasht. A senator from the ruling PML-Q went further in claiming that the floods had vindicated mega-projects like dams and had proposed dams in Sindh and NWFP been built, the effects of the floods would have been less severe there.

Flooding in Turbat (Image source: BBC)

The reality may lie somewhere in the middle of the two views. While the dam helped mitigate the effects of the floods in some areas, it made them significantly worse in others. A subsequent inquiry ordered by Musharraf also seems to have found fault with the dam spillways, which are meant to channel water overflow out of the catchment area and whose design may have to be altered. While Baluchi nationalists are pointing the finger of blame at the federal government and Nespak, the engineering consultants who were involved in the planning of the dam, it would appear that it was the provincial government that held up compensation to people above the 244 feet mark, thereby keeping people in harm's way. The Provincial Chief Minister meanwhile, pointed out that Nespak had estimated that it would take many years (as much as 200) to reach the high water mark and so they had no reason to suspect that the people who lived between the 244 and 264 feet marks were in any danger. Locals claim that their warnings about the levels of previous flooding were ignored by both government officials and the surveyors.

The blame game will doubtless continue for the foreseeable future. All in all the debacle highlights the continued neglect of one of the basic principles of any kind of development project - that of effective public consultation. Effected communities must be genuinely recognised as stakeholders in these projects and their participation and ideas and local knowledge solicited and integrated into the project. The Musharraf government is certainly not the only government culpable for ignoring this principle. There is a cultural attitude towards the poor that is widely shared throughout Pakistani society (and indeed much of the developing world) that is at work here; that Development is something done "to" people and communities, rather than "with" communities. Some lessons need to be learned if similar catastrophes are to be avoided in the future.



The Pakistani Spectator said...

A real eye-opener, you have written here.

Nauman said...

A very informative article. Though I am still unable to comprehend the technical aspects of this flooding and the role that Mirani Dam played. But it’s a fact that all our decisions are made without consultation and participation. There is also a lack of transparency and accountability. For example a UAE company is investing 43 billion USD on the development of Bundal and Buddo islands. But most citizens don’t even know that what would be the profit ratio?