Pakistan’s biggest dam stymied by land dispute

A small area at the centre of the dispute between two tribes and two provinces is critically delaying the Diamer Bhasha dam and the China-Pakistan economic corridor.

The construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam being built on the Indus River, and slated to be one of the highest dams in the world, is blocked due to conflicts over a tiny patch of land.

There is an eight kilometre stretch of land in the Gandlo Nala area of northern Pakistan claimed by competing tribes. Moreover this stretch of land is at the border between Kohistan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, and Diamer, in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). While the land belongs to the tribes that live there, the governments of KP and G-B back rival tribes, adding fuel to the fire.

According to officials, the compensation for the patch of land would be more than PKR 1 billion (USD 10 million). This is part of a massive land acquisition effort that the Pakistan government has been trying for years, costing up to PKR 54 billion (USD 540 million). Without this land, the dam cannot be built, and the 4,500 megawatt dam is seen as crucial for solving Pakistan’s mounting power shortages and providing water storage for irrigation.

The problem is that both the Harban tribe of Kohistan and the Thor tribe of Diamer claim the land. As the price of the land has escalated, the land dispute has sharpened. It spilled over into direct conflict in 2014 when a bloody clash ended up with a number of tribesmen dead, further deepening the ill feeling.

After the clash, the federal government’s paramilitary forces took control of the Gandlo Nala area, with the consensus of the KP and G-B governments, as well as the local tribes. The government also constituted a commission to decide the fate of the area, but the report has not yet been made public.

“This is a sensitive issue and the government does not want to gain the resentment of any tribe, so efforts are being made to settle the issue with mutual understanding of the tribes. We have been trying to host a jirga (tribal meeting) to settle the issue, but unfortunately these efforts have not yet been successful,” a senior official from the federal government involved in the construction of the dam told on condition of anonymity.

Without resolving the issue in our favour, the dam can only be constructed over our dead bodies.

Maulvi Abdur Rehman, elder, Harban tribe

He said that the last time a jirga was held to deal with the issue – in May of this year – it failed because neither tribe was ready to retreat on their claims. The issue is deadlocked. Elders of both tribes are blaming each other for not trying to settle the issue and refusing to compromise.

Asadullah, the leader of the Harban tribe and chairman of the Diamer Bhasha dam action committee said, “At the jirga it was decided that the Thor tribe would withdraw its ownership claims and the Harban tribe would receive full compensation. In return we would pardon them for the murder of our tribesmen, but the Thor tribe did not fulfil their promise. Therefore we are not giving to give them a single inch of land, not even [to the government] for the construction of the dam”.

“Without resolving the issue in our favour, the dam can only be constructed over our dead bodies. Historically the Gandlo Nala area belongs to the Harban tribe, and we proved it in front of the commission,” said Maulvi Abdur Rehman an elder of the Harban tribe.

On the other hand, the Thor tribe of Diamer blame the Harban tribe of not honouring their promises. Mohammad Bashir, the nambardar, or official community leader of the Thor tribe to the federal government, strongly denied the claims of the Harban tribal elders. He said, “At the jirga we negotiated with the Harban tribe and it was decided that both the  tribes would receive equal compensation, but now the Harban tribe is going back on their word , so no settlement is possible between us.”

Karakoram highway suspended

Not only is the dam in danger, but the construction of the 37 km of the Karakoram Highway has been halted because of the hostility between the two tribes for the last six months. The spokesperson for the Hakas construction company said, “Both tribes are aggressive and they stop the company from constructing the road, and the company is facing heavy losses.”

This is an alternate route for the highway. After the construction of the dam nearly 120 kms of the current Karakoram highway will be submerged.

Faizullah, the spokesperson for the Gilgit-Baltistan government, blamed the federal government. He said that, “For a long time the G-B government has been requesting Islamabad to take notice of this serious matter and resolve it according to the desires of the people, but  our requests have remained unattended and now the tribes have become aggressive and it is hard to convince them on any solution that involves give and take.”

“The Gandlo Nala area belongs to G-B. The disputes and criminal cases from the area are registered in the Diamer Tehsil Chilas courts and police station. The question is not about the ownership of the area; the question is how the government will give the people of Diamer their rights.”

He also warned that if the people were not satisfied, the construction of the dam would suffer, and there would be hurdles in the building of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In November of last year the Chinese government had suggested it could help in the construction of the dam as part of CPEC.

This was a boost for the Pakistan government. The cost of the dam had ballooned from an estimated USD 6.7 billion in 2004 to USD 14 billion. Nevertheless Pakistan is loath to give up on the project.

Experts and officials consider the Diamer Bhasha dam as crucial for Pakistan’s future. The project is expected to supply 4,500 MW (repetition) of electricity and will make available 6,400,000 acre feet (7.89 billion cubic metres) of water storage to supplement irrigation during low flow periods.

According to Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) in June 2016, during the scorching summer, the country faced a shortfall of more than 5,000 MW of power. There were more than eight hours of power cuts per day throughout the country, with considerably more in the rural areas. Power demand in Pakistan has reached 21,200 MW while production is still 16,548 MW.

The Institute for Policy Reforms has said that the government must make the construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam its first priority. Its recent report said the country’s agriculture production fell in the 2015-16 fiscal year largely due to water constraints.

The former chairman of WAPDA Tariq Hamed said, “If Pakistan does not construct the Diamer Bhasha dam as soon as possible then in the coming years Pakistan will be a dry country.” And yet before it can do any of that, it desperately needs to resolve the long-running crisis over Gandlo Nala.

Another elder of the Thor tribe, Maulvi Saddiq said, “The Gandlo Nala area belongs to our tribe. We have proof. If anyone attempts to rob us of our rights, then we will fight with all our power.”

This story is published with permission from The Third Pole.

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