This may sound ironic, but floods killed hundreds of people in a semi-arid, drought-prone district of Sindh and Balochistan this year. A replete dam usually brings a smile to farmers who begin cultivating paddy because canals provide ample water for their fields. However, the unexpected influx of water, combined with heavy rainfall, and water downstream in river Indus drowned the unprepared district.
As a matter of fact, the areas of South Punjab, Upper Sindh and Lower Balochistan are under feet of water due to abnormal downpours. The downstream haven’t reached the areas yet. Which, of course is going to prove more disaster in already flood hit regions. Talk of the town every year after monsoon season is over is how dams and mainly Kalabagh dam can save us from drowning downstream areas. Primarily ANP and other political parties rejected the idea of Kalabagh dam because Nowshera will be under water if downstream trend of river Indus is displaced.
Rift between two approaches to control flooding
The concept of preventing and attempting to control floods by evolving biological ecosystems is out of date. According to the world’s leading water experts, the "change-fight-control" approach must progressively and methodically transform into a "adheres strictly" framework.
Dams are an outmoded and ineffective method of flood management. They create an illusion of protection. Instead, they leave an extensive trail of devastation in their wake. We cannot control the flow of water by just canalizing all the rivers for a permanent solution to floods. Rivers are not canals, they need space. River Sutlej in India is flooding because the Bhakra dam is mismanaged. Similarly, River Indus in Pakistan is flooding because the Tarbela and Mangla dam are mismanaged. Adding chaos is canalization of river with barrages which further divert the water course from its natural path. For the governments, rivers are just a water carrier but contrary to this, rivers are in fact, an ecosystem. Constraining its channel will increase the intensity of floods.
How does dams operate?
Dams appear to make immediate sense for Pakistan, where a water-intensive agricultural sector utilizes well almost half of the workforce. With reports claiming that the country may run dry by 2025, increasing storage space should, in theory, boost freshwater availability during dry spells.
By the end of the summer, a dam is completely dry. As soon as the monsoon arrives, dams are supposed to be filled up. When dams store water in them, it reduce the risk of low and mid-level flooding’s. It result in less activeness of disaster management institutions. But when more rains happened and more waters comes in from upstream towards downstream, it became a problem. After all, dams have a certain capacity. This is why a situation arises where water must be ejected suddenly in large quantities when another round of intense rainfall arrives.
When water is artificially stored and ecosystem and strata of riverbed is destroyed, river shrunk resulting in people encroaching the land. But once, dams open their spillways rive gain its land. Swat River running down from Kalam and falling into Kabul River is a classic example of how river can claim its riverbed anytime. Right now, water is running in between Bahrain bazaar.
Another proportionality in this regard is people having point of view that if we had built dams on downstream then intensity can be made low and it were less chances of flooding. But, for the sake of a happy, prosperous, and flood-proof Pakistan, should we dam our rivers even more?
They built our modern civilization around the flowing waters, rather than the other way around. They attempted to mellow the mighty rivers with the Tarbela and Mangla dams, as well as to make landscapes sprout with deflection salvos, flood prevention dykes, and link waterways, among other things. They finally attempted to domesticate the Indus, which had raged for the previous 40 million years or so. However, this has not stopped the flooding.
Pakistan's two largest dams, Tarbela and Mangla, are seasonal regulators. They are packed during the monsoon season and depleted for crop yields during the dry winter months. This implies that, while Diamer-Bhasha may boost seasonal storage capacity in the Indus Basin, it will not create a permanent stockpile of water to pull on during dry years.
Are rivers only what we saw from naked eye?
Surge in support for reservoirs, ingrained in militaristic connotations of advancement and self-determination is limiting Pakistan's water challenges to a subject of scarce while concealing what professionals see as the more obvious issue of poor management especially in the agricultural segment, which collectively account for 90 percent of water usages.
The Indus Basin, for example, rests on a gigantic subsurface that is speedily depleting. This is due to an increase in shallow aquifers in Pakistan since the 1960s. According to a World Bank report from 2021, the number of reported tube-wells increased from approximately 98,000 in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2017. With underground water deposits accounting for up to 80% of agricultural production, the report estimates that groundwater is being psyched faster than it can be restocked naturally through downpours or surface runoff.
Perhaps borrowed money and technology gave us more authority than our inadequate research could properly carry. We ruined our streams and rivers without even realizing it. We forgot that a desert is a desert because natural forces are constantly working to eject water from that region, and a river is a river because natural forces are constantly pushing water into this path.
On the one hand, misery afflicts poor communities now stranded in deserts when proved challenging failed to provide them with adequate water. On the other hand, 'floods' are now engulfing people living in empty river beds, dried wetlands, and active flood plains, while the usual monsoon waters are just passing by.
What’s the way forward?
Rivers as Economic Engines, a report by American Rivers, explains how putting money in water connectivity and river regeneration creates jobs and boosts the economy. According to a University of North Carolina study, the re vegetation sector directly employs approximately 126,000 people nationwide and indirectly supports another 100,000 jobs, contributing a total of $25 billion to the economy each year. Since 1912, 1,797 dams have been removed in the United States. In 2020, the states with the most dam removals were Ohio (11), Massachusetts (6), and New York (1).
Local partners, engineers, and construction crews worked diligently to complete these projects, which provided numerous benefits to their rivers and communities. For example, removing a water diversion dam and installing a new water intake on the Middle Fork Nooksack River near Bellingham, Washington, opened 16 miles of salmon habitat, restored cultural resources, and ensured a sustainable supply of clean water for the city.
Similarly, India has 5,745 dams, 293 of which are over 100 years old. 25% of the dams are between the ages of 50 and 100 years. And the situation will deteriorate by 2025, when 301 dams will be 75 years old. A total of 496 large dams would be older than 50 years. Same is the case with Pakistan, two main; Tarbela and Mangla dams are over aged, getting filled with sand and soil. Cleaning dams is very technical and expensive exercise. Due to which, dam walls were lifted further up. But for how long? Not too long is the right answer.
Chashma barrage have aged enough that recent passage of water was thought of a risk where barrage might not be able to handle it. Thank God, it did. But for how long will the barrage stand safely fulfilling the standards of safety? Not too long is the right answer.
Similar is the case with China’s three Gorges dam. As China counts the costs of its worst flood season in more than three decades, the role of the massive and contentious three Gorges Dam, built to help control the Yangtze River, has come under renewed scrutiny. A humongous infrastructure which actually slowed down the rotation of earth was built to manage the flow of water. One of the major justifications for the Three Gorges Dam was flood control, but less than 20 years after its completion we have the highest floodwater in recorded history.
We are currently slurping our waterways dry by misdirecting all available water to agriculture, despite the fact that agriculture requires more water. However, in order to restore our wetlands, marshes, forests, and other ecosystems, we must return the water to the river. The conundrum is how to do so without jeopardizing the country's food security and agricultural economy.