Monstrous monsoon rains tapered two weeks ago in climate-catastrophe–hit Pakistan, but floodwater from melting glaciers and earlier rains continue to break through canals, barrages and dams, wreaking havoc in the country. Last week, 35 people including 15 children died from such floodwater breaches, pushing the calamity’s total death toll to exceed 1,400.
As Pakistan’s overwhelmed dams are making gut-wrenching headlines, the heavily advertised crowdsourced campaign, launched by a Supreme Court judge and endorsed by former prime minister Imran Khan, for a “mega dam” that was supposed to solve Pakistan’s future flooding and power problems, is caught in a scandal.
According to Pakistan’s Parliamentary Affairs Committee (PAC), Rs 9 billion or $40 million was raised for the construction of the dam, but Rs 14 billion or $63 million was spent on advertising it. Pakistan’s government has summoned the now-retired judge to parliament after he claimed that advertising for a proposed crowd-funded dam far exceeded the amount raised for it.
The Diamer-Bhasha Dam on the Indus River, was originally proposed in the early 1980s, but a host of factors, including its location, environmental impact and costs, had stymied efforts to build it. In July of 2018, Saqib Nisar, the newly appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, made the construction of the dam, which would cost a whopping $14 billion, a central focus of his judicial activism efforts. He set up a fund for collecting donations and claimed that ordinary Pakistanis would provide the billions of dollars needed for its construction.
At first, a large swathe of influential Pakistanis signed up. The army gave up a portion of soldiers’ salaries to provide Rs 1 billion, and other state employees also had contributions deducted from their salaries. The country’s cricket team and top musicians also contributed, and then Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed joint leadership of the fund. Emboldened by the response, the fund also began to influence other rulings by Nisar, who at one point hinted that he would try critics of the dam fund for treason.
Nisar’s entire campaign was a shock to the political system. Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, noted that there was no precedent for a sitting chief justice to embark on a public fundraising campaign as “ludicrous” as the dam fund. Khurram Husain, an economics journalist and editor of Profit magazine, said that “Nisar was able to make the dam fund into an influential exercise mainly by linking other cases he was hearing to it.” He recounted how, when a government appointment was challenged in courts, the defendant told a bench including Nisar that his “client has donated all his salary to the dam fund, which pleased his Lordship much”, and that appointment was upheld by the court.
However, by February 2019, there was still a shortfall of Rs 1.5 trillion or $6.3 billion between the amount raised and amount needed. Stunningly, a now retired Saqib Nisar announced that the purpose of the fundraising was not to actually build the dams, but to raise awareness. Speaking at a literary festival, he said, “We never thought this money would be sufficient to complete the project. We wanted to create awareness and make people understand how important it is.”
Remarkably, only a day earlier, a member of the national assembly, Ahsan Iqbal, claimed that more money had been spent on advertising for the dam fund than was raised for it. These claims are now being made by the PAC, which has summoned Nisar to explain himself. Soon after these events, many erstwhile supporters of the dam fund expressed their regrets online after it became clear that the dam was nowhere near being built.
Despite having one of the largest irrigation systems in the world, a 2021 report warned that Pakistan would reach “absolute water scarcity” by 2025. As an agrarian economy with a massive population that faces chronic power failures along with water shortages, dams have long been seen as a panacea by Pakistan’s policy makers. Husain said that “dams captured the Pakistani imagination back in the '60s when the first mega dam was built with American support.
“To this day (policymakers’) imagination does not extend beyond mega dams in any water-related conversation in Pakistan, including if the conversation should be about climate change and floodings.” Alam pointed out that the “water discourse in Pakistan has been hijacked by… retired (officials).” He added that despite the environmental and social damages caused by dams, their popularity amongst policymakers was “like a fetish – this idea that a dam will cure everything.”
Although there was backlash against Nisar over the fund, Husain said it has not dampened the general Pakistani obsession with dams. Pakistan has a cumulative dam capacity of 27.8 cubic kilometres – that’s the equivalent of 10 million Olympic-sized swimming pools – and there are 73 dams and reservoirs that are considered “large dams” by the International Commission on Large Dams. The Tarbela Dam on the river Indus is the largest earth-filled dam in the world and is the second-largest by structural volume, which is 106 million cubic metres.
The penchant for building dams and the complex politics and corruption that often surround it is a global phenomenon. In the early ‘90s, the British government was accused of ignoring its own laws when it seemed to link aid for the Pergau dam in Malaysia with the sale of arms to the Malaysian military. The case led to an overhaul of British bribery laws, but no individual was prosecuted in either country. More recently, in 2019, senior officials in the Kenyan government, including the treasury secretary, were charged with corruption over loans for the Kimwarer and Arror dams. The officials were alleged to have taken kickbacks from irregular loan payments to an Italian insurer. The government would go on to cancel the tender for the Kimwarer dam, noting that it was “neither technically nor financially viable.”
Despite the controversy and scandal surrounding Saqib Nisar’s dam fund, it is unlikely that Pakistan’s “fetish” for dams would go away soon. The country is in the midst of devastating floods caused by climate change, with millions left homeless and damage to homes and livelihoods amounting to tens of billions of dollars. Alam said that dams “are offered up as a solution to all our problems. And so as long as damned fools persist in our midst, we will continue to hear (support for dams).”
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