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Water Projects From River Lai To The Mighty Indus Are Driven By Politics Of Ignorance

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I have recently guest edited a special issue of the journal ‘Water’ on critical geographies of water resources. We received some superb submissions, and I am proud to report that the special issue, in my view will break new grounds in defining the agenda for critical studies in water resources geographies for many years to come. Of the many outstanding contributions we received, I would like to mention one by my colleagues and friends, Abdul Aijaz of Government College, University and Indiana University, and Dr Majed Akhter of King’s College, London. The article is titled, ‘From Building Dams to Fetching Water: Scales of Politicization in the Indus Basin’. It seems to keep screaming in the back of my head, as I open the newspaper on most days and find Pakistani water related stories reported in there. The article undertakes a historical overview of water developments in the Indus Basin from the mid 19th century through to the present. It used the story of Pakistani Supreme Court’s establishment of a dam fund to build Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams, and the charging of Aasia Bibi for blasphemy, because of a conflict over a cup for drinking water to anchor its narrative. The article ably argues that from dam geopolitics to the cultural politics of fetching water, there is not one but many “water worlds that present challenges to state’s efforts at depoliticization” of water debates and projects. I would like to talk about three examples which further illustrate how depoliticised language around water related projects in fact, illustrates fundamentally political motivations and world views of their promoters within the state.

The first story is that of the very local project of Lai Expressway in Rawalpindi-Islamabad. The idea to build a 4 lane expressway along both the banks of the river Lai in the conurbation has been on the agenda for the past two decades. The project concept however, has a much older history in the bazars, streets and taxis of Rawalpindi. During my years of research on the Lai, almost all the men in Pindi believe that the way to mitigate floods in the Lai is to encase it in concrete, and build plazas on top of that. The idea is of course patently absurd from a hydrological, environmental or even economic point of view, but I am yet to meet a Pindi boy who doesn’t like it. The women research subjects in the Lai basin, on the other hand, almost universally call for removal of encroachments in the Lai flood plain, management of liquid and solid waste, and then construction of a park with fruit trees and play grounds along the Lai. I suppose the masculinist vision of the Lai as a concrete lined stream, entombed under plazas, is finding articulation in in the Lai Expressway project.

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There can be many views about Sheikh Rashid, the main proponent of the project. But one thing everyone agrees on, is that he is a friend of Rawalpindi, his constituency. Last time around he had pushed the Lai Expressway and had it approved in 2008, I personally did a presentation to him, to argue why it is a bad idea. He was very chatty at the beginning of the presentation and very quiet at the end. We had argued that a highway along the banks of river like Lai would be destroyed in a very short period of time, by the flood regime of the river. We had proposed a park, a bike path or a mono-rail mass transit corridor for the area. He agreed that we made sense, but said that it was out of his hands. Turns out, that it never got built because there was no money for it. There is no money for it this time around either.

Despite, knowing the futility of the expressway project Sheikh Rashid is pushing it again. There are six components of the project: (1) concrete lining & widening of the river; (2) expressway along both sides of the river; (3) building of 5 interchanges; (4) separation of wastewater from storm water; (5) provision of trunk sewer for sewerage management; and (6) building of a sewerage treatment plant (8 already built in the city are non-functional). Of these components, the first three are absurd, hydrologically, functionally and economically. The remaining 3 components are necessary and urgent, by the same criteria. I have it on good authority that the powers to be want to dispense with the last 3, as no one can really see them. I mean, who wins votes for managing disgusting stuff like sewerage? Besides invisible amenities will save money for the visible expressway, which is supposed to make money from billboards and enhanced property values. Is this an example of an apolitical, gender neutral, technical flood management project? Do we even want to know if this project will mitigate flood risk? Or be economically viable? No.

The second important project is about installation of telemetric system on the Indus River system. The project loan has been cancelled and for the second time, Pakistani water bureaucracy, especially of the Punjab has declared its inability to implement a technology that was standard 50 years ago albeit mechanically driven, in its electronic form—why? The telemetric technology has been known for decades, why can’t it be installed to make the water flows transparent and remove a major irritant between sub-national riparians about flows of water through the system? Again, Majed Akhter has written extensively about it, and documented some of the most bizarre reasons proffered by the, mainly Punjab irrigation bureaucracy for not implementing it. The project simply asks for calibration of flow equations along all the gauging stations in the system. At the moment, believe it or not, the volumetric calculations of the water bureaucracy, by their own admission don’t add up. In other words, they really don’t know how much water is flowing at a given time, because their equations haven’t been updated. When asked why not, they plead that people are corrupt, and that foreigners should come do it. This from a bureaucracy that invented those equations. Not wanting to know how much is flowing in the system, and definitely not wanting anyone else to know it, sounds like very bad technical reasoning. Are there any politics of ignorance at work here?

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And last but not the least is the Diamer Bhasha dam, which has now again been approved for the umpteenth time, for almost half of it what its cost was projected to be only four years ago. It’s probably the most inaugurated and approved project in history. I have argued elsewhere, as have others that it is not feasible. Yet others, have asked for clarification of how one could design the highest dam in a most seismically active zone, by assuming maximum earthquake of only half the magnitude of what has been experienced in the region? The answer from dam builders is that it has been reviewed and approved by international (read) white experts. How does it technically make sense to call on the authority of foreigners, to build a dam, that miraculously now costs almost half of what it was projected to a few years back? The answer is that it doesn’t. Do we want to know the seismic hazard, or the true economic cost of this project? No.

The water projects, from a humble river like the Lai to the mighty Indus are driven by a desire for ignorance. A most non-technical impulse. Or could it be that there are politics at play here? Hydropolitics of ignorance?

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