Once again the Diamer-Bhasha dam, 40 kilometers downstream of Chilas, is on the agenda for development. It would be a catastrophe for the region, which could include the loss of 30,000 historic petroglyphs on 5,000 stones and 22 villages in the area. More than 170 kilometers from Islamabad as the crow flies, over some of the most mountainous regions on earth, it is also of no conceivable use as a water source, nor as an easily sustainable hydro-electric hub.
The loss of water for the Gilgit-Baltistan region has sadly taken place this century. The river that enters Pakistan above Skardu cannot lay proper claim to the name of Indus – or Senge (lion) in Tibetan – because in 2002 the Indus was stopped by a massive hydro-electric dam built by the Chinese in Tibet at Senge Ali. Today the river that enters Pakistan is in fact the tributaries that joined the Indus in Ladakh and Kashmir: the Gar, the Zanskar, the Khyok and the Shigar.
In Tibet, the Indus, Sutlej, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween and Yangste emerge to start epic journeys through the subcontinent, southeast Asia and China
In 2002, Alice Albinia travelled from Pakistan into Ladakh and Tibet to follow the course of the Indus. At Senge-Ali in Tibet she found a newly constructed dam that “is huge, pristine”. “Its massive concrete curve looms up from the riverbed like a vast wave frozen in mid-air …. The structure itself is complete, but the hydroelectric elements on the riverbed are still being installed. There are pools of water this side of the dam, but no flow. The Indus has been stopped…On the other side of the dam the road ends, submerged beneath the water. The river lake is huge; opaque and green, it fills the mountain valley and I want to cry out at the unkindness: at the demands imposed by other people’s needs, somewhere far away in China.”
In Tibet, the Indus, Sutlej, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween and Yangste emerge to start epic journeys through the subcontinent, southeast Asia and China. Little more than deep-running mountain torrents, they catch the seasonal glacial melt and drop through immense heights – the vital pressure for momentum to drive them off the Himalayas and into the plains below – picking up thousands of small tributaries as they go.
Dams wreck the environment, destroy natural habitats, displace people and ruin eco-systems. In a highly mountainous terrain, the cost of converting their hydroelectric functions over hundreds of kilometers to electricity, let alone water supplies, often reduce them to expensive and redundant white elephants. However, what they do provide in the development stages is big business and big money opportunities.
In Pakistan, under Field Marshall General Ayub’s administration, two massive dams came under construction in the 1960s, in response to the Indus Waters Treaty with India. The Tarbela dam was funded by contributions from a number of countries, administered by the World Bank and led by the Italian firm Impreglio, who headed a European consortium. It was designed to store 14 million cubic metres of water and generate 2.1 million kw of electricity. Even by the mid-1990s the dam was not complete and there has been a continuing build-up of silt in the lake, which has reduced its storage capacity.
The Mangla dam, on the Jhelum river, was completed in 1968 as part of the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty to compensate for the diversion of tributaries to India, after 1947. In terms of volume it was the world’s tenth largest dam. It had a gross storage capacity of 5.55 MAF (million acre feet) and a hydroelectric capacity of 1170 mw. However, fifty villages were destroyed. Many Mirpuris migrated to England in the 1960s – Mirpuris make up more than half of Britain’s Pakistani population.
Both the Tarbela and Mangla dams were sound investments for Pakistan. Both were located near and served the highly populated urban centres of Islamabad and Lahore, and all places in between. Yet it is madness to destroy the environment and ecology of the area between Shatial and the Bhasho river, where it enters the Indus, high up in the mountains of Baltistan, because the powers-that-be in Rawalpindi-Islamabad see an opportunity for a grand money-making scheme that will restore national prestige and reinforce a notion of a ‘naya’ (new) Pakistan.
Why have they chosen Shatial? It is at Shatial, going north, that a signpost reads: “Petroglyphs for the next 70 kilometres.” Ancient rock art is found along the 40km to Chilas, along the Karakorum highway, but its greatest concentration is found around Shatial. It is an area of outstanding historic importance and should be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Why has this specific region been targeted?
For 45 million years, the Indus has made its epic journey from its Himalayan mountain homeland down through the plains and out into the Arabian ocean. In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia concludes her long and weary journey at the source of the Indus in Tibet. She says she feels sad for the river: “for this wild and magnificent, modern, historic, prehistoric river; for this river which was flowing for millions of years before humans ever saw it; for the river which has nurtured the earth since land rose from the oceans.”
Water conservation is the key in Pakistan – maintenance and expansion of existing structures – rather than remote hydroelectric dams that damage every possible form of life around them, including the life of the past. We know that big money is involved in reckless, destructive but prestigious dam schemes for naya Pakistan, although I do not think Imran Khan is a man who would like to go down in history as the prime minister who destroyed a crucial heritage site of the Indus.
The manipulation of water for money has been done before. Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in his Histories: “There is a plain in Asia which is shut in on all sides by a mountain range …The Great King blocked up all the passages between the hills with dykes and flood-gates and so prevented water from flowing out…From that time the five nations which were wont formerly to have use of the stream…have been in great distress…the king never gives the order to open the gates till the suppliants have paid him a large sum of money over and above the tribute.”