Water-stressed Pakistan looks for billions in donations to build dams

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As Pakistan faces worsening water scarcity - and trouble sourcing international cash for hydropower dams it says it needs - it has turned to an unlikely source of cash: A fundraising campaign backed by the country’s top court judges.

Last year Mian Saqib Nisar - then the country’s chief supreme court judge - donated a million Pakistani rupees ($7,400) of his own money to start the drive, calling water shortages a major national threat.

The drive aims to raise as much as a staggering $14 billion toward the cost of installing water reservoirs and other equipment for two major dams.

Nisar retired in January from the court, but the current panel of top judges have taken over the push.

Some politicians from government opposition parties have dismissed the effort, calling it inappropriate and doomed to fail.

“Building dams is not the responsibility of the court,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party.

But efforts to solicit donations from as far away as the United States and Britain, largely from expatriate Pakistanis, have raised $70 million as of mid-February toward the “Chief Justice Dam Fund”, according to the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s website.

The country’s green-leaning Prime Minister Imran Khan backs the effort.

“Water (scarcity) has been Pakistan’s number one issue and the country may face shortages by 2025 if dams are not built,” Khan warned in a state television address last September.

He has urged Pakistanis living overseas to donate generously to the effort, comparing the battle to combat water scarcity to a holy war.

“Pakistanis, do take part in this jihad,” the prime minister urged.

Nisar has said he took up Pakistan’s water worries as a personal campaign after Syed Mehar Ali, commissioner of the country’s Indus water treaty, testified in a court hearing last July about worsening water scarcity risks in the country.

Ali told the court that the country’s three western rivers - the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab - carry nearly 140 million acre-feet (MAF) of water but the country has water storage capacity for less than 14 MAF.

Much of the water flowing down the river ends up in irrigation channels, but at least 29 MAF simply flows to the sea, he said.

Pakistan needs to store 25 MAF of water each year to help shore up water security, the commissioner said - and that would require a series of new large dams, he said.

But building them has proved difficult. An effort to construct a large-scale hydropower dam in Gilgit Baltistan, a Kashmir border region disputed with India, for instance, has had trouble attracting multinational funding.

The proposed Diamer Basha also has proved controversial within the country, facing opposition from some environmental and farmer groups.

Development experts, as well, say charity won’t be enough to build the volume of dams Pakistan needs.

Sardar Riaz Ahmed Khan, a former development secretary in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, said donations can give citizens a sense of ownership in solving the water crisis, but “it’s useless to say that dams will be built by contribution”.

Muzammal Hussain, chairman of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), however, has said work on the Daimer Basha dam, which could store more than 9 MAF of water and generate clean electricity, will begin in May.

Initial work on a second, less controversial dam - the Mohmand, on the Swat River near Peshawar - started last month.

Pakistan’s government has provided funding for the acquisition of land for both projects.

Dozens of farmers from Sindh province marched to Karachi last October to protest construction of the Diamer Basha dam on the Indus River. A leading organization of fishermen also has objected to the dam, saying it will hurt their business.

Salman Shah, a former Pakistani finance minister, said in a televised interview that completing the Diamer Basha dam could take more than 12 years as the dam site is mountainous and falls in an earthquake risk zone, necessitating strong and extra stable construction.

But he believes that if the water storage dam can be built, international investors will come in to provide the infrastructure for power generation from the dam.

“Energy generation is a good profit-earning source in Pakistan,” he said in the October interview.

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