Farhan Bokhari: Pakistan's water politics create ripples in the smaller provinces

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's warning that Pakistan would face its most acute water shortage in the next decade if it did not build a large new dam could not have been closer to the reality of an increasingly water deficient country.

Special to Gulf News
00:00 August 26, 2004

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's warning that Pakistan would face its most acute water shortage in the next decade if it did not build a large new dam could not have been closer to the reality of an increasingly water deficient country. But his promise to take the lead in undertaking a new project for such a dam neither bears relevance to the complicated state of Pakistan's politics nor demonstrates an adequate appreciation of the country's recent history.

Three of the country's four provinces have found themselves frequently divided on this issue, which has the capacity to become politically explosive. Most Pakistanis have heard provincial politicians repeatedly condemn one irrigation project or another, on the grounds that it would usurp their rights.

The most controversial project remains the plan for building a new dam at Kalabagh, along the River Indus, in central Punjab. The plan involves a proposed dam that would be comparable to Tarbela and Mangla – the world's two largest earth-filled dams built on Pakistan's soil more than 30 years ago.

Musharraf is widely believed to favour launching the Kalabagh project soon, perhaps realising that the resultant economic benefits for the country would be substantial. But, take a step back from a plan like Kalabagh and the complicated state of Pakistan's politics and policy environment returns to haunt the country. Politicians from the North West frontier Province, NWFP, have taken the lead in the past, challenging Kalabagh on the grounds that it would cause flooding upstream in areas of their provincial jurisdiction.

Politicians from the southern province of Sindh have dismissed Kalabagh on the grounds that it would undermine the flow of irrigation water to their province, especially at times when a drought-like condition causes water shortages. Bitten by the harsh criticism from Sindh and NWFP, many politicians from Punjab lament the resistance from the two provinces as nothing more than an attempt to undermine their vital interests.

Political rigour

Like many military men who often just don't have the patience to face political rigor, Musharraf is keen on overcoming the teething problems by only seeking advice on technical aspects of a newly proposed dam and perhaps even ordering its construction. This is a recipe for prospective disaster.

Pakistan is too diverse a country. Here, key decisions, especially those involving the already wide political divisions, have to be undertaken through often painfully achieved consensus. A key misfortune of any military ruler, including Musharraf, must be that their continuing detachment from mainstream politics often leads to the tendency of seeking quick fixes to intricate problems.

But such quick fixes are bound to give yet another common cause to groups of dissenting politicians seeking to block emerging ventures. Politicians from Pakistan's smaller provinces, such as Sindh and NWFP, have complained for long about getting a raw deal in national affairs. Nationalist politicians have often complained about the overwhelming influence of Punjab and the extent to which Pakistan's largest province often usurps the rights of the smaller provinces.

To Musharraf's misfortune, his relations with Pakistan's main political parties remain shrouded by underlying friction and prospective uncertainty. The chances of reducing the divide with such groups have been further diminished with Musharraf's decision to back the creation of a new political party, known as the Pakistan Muslim League "Quaid-e-Azam" group or PML (Q).
Key representative

The PML (Q) is now, indeed, Pakistan's ruling party, but its position as a key representative of mainstream group remains in doubt. The creation of PML (Q) is a powerful reminder of Pakistan's unfortunate historical legacy. Successive military rulers in the past oversaw the creation of a new political party in the hope of not only building a new supportive political force but indeed one which successfully assisted in tackling such difficult and complicated challenges as a national divide on the water issue.

But if Pakistan's history is a guide, such experiments at creating pro-military political parties to confront tough challenges have often failed. Like his predecessors, the day Musharraf is replaced by a new ruler, especially a politician, would also be the day when the measures that he has undertaken would begin to be undone.

The long term solution to the challenge of facing tough battles, like the water issue, lies in moving aggressively towards building a national consensus with dissenting political groups. For Musharraf, the way to beating a reversal of his policies lies in launching a fresh dialogue with politicians whom he has anxiously opposed during his five year rule since the military coup of 1999.

Only the agreement of such dissidents with the continuation of Musharraf's reforms provides him with a long-term and sustainable guarantee that measures such as the construction of a new dam would not be stopped halfway, if indeed Pakistan witnesses an unforeseen change of regime. In the end, the politics of Pakistan's water divide may be a far more overwhelming issue to tackle than the many vital technical matters so eagerly discussed by leading analysts consulted by the government.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters. He can be contacted at