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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
Pakistan's dam of sorrow?
The BBC's M Ilyas Khan reports on a controversy over whether a local dam contributed to the recent flooding in Pakistan's Balochistan province.

Floods in Pakistan
Over 2 million people have been affected
The floods in Turbat, the headquarters of Kech district in the coastal region of Balochistan, have intensified a controversy over a dam located 43km west of the town.

The government says that Mirani dam is needed for the development of agriculture in the area and has a safe design. It denies that it caused the floods in Turbat.

"There are other regions in the province where there is no dam but large areas have come under water," argued federal minister Zubeda Jalal, a native of the district, in a meeting with relief agencies in Turbat on Sunday.

But a district health official, Dr Mohammad Saleem, disagrees.

"Without the dam, we would not have had devastation at this scale," he observed in the same meeting.

People in Turbat generally believe that while floods in the valley are not a new phenomenon, last week's devastation was largely caused by the back-flow of water from the reservoir of the dam.

"We had huge floods in 1998, and many areas along the river were inundated," says Mohammad Akram Baloch, ex-provincial minister and former speaker of Balochistan Assembly.

Low priority

"But those floods did not wipe out our houses and orchards, or turn the land below into a chaotic sandy flood plane," he says.

People of Kech valley, an arid zone with annual rainfall seldom exceeding four inches, have long felt the need for sustainable water reservoirs to help their agriculture.

Without the dam, we would not have had devastation at this scale
Dr Mohammad Saleem
Health official

In early 20th Century, the British rulers of India carried out a survey of the two rivers in the region, Kech Kaur and Nihing, and proposed four small dams.

After independence, the Pakistani authorities briefly toyed with the idea of a large dam in the region in 1950s.

But given its remoteness, an inhospitable terrain and a small population, Balochistan remained a low priority area with the country's economic planners.

The project was revived in 2001, just around the time when the government of President Pervez Musharraf decided to build a deep sea port at Gwadar, a fishing town of 100,000 people some 200km south west of Turbat.

Political circles widely believe the dam was built to ensure drinking water supply to Gwadar, whose population is expected to reach five million as port-related activities pick up over the next decade.

And there have been some indications to that effect.

"The provincial irrigation department issued tenders for a water pipeline project from the dam to Gwadar town in 2003," says Nizamuddin, a lawyer from Turbat who is based in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province.

Mirani dam
The dam is at the centre of a controversy
"But the matter was hushed up later, probably due to a growing nationalist insurgency in the province at the time," he says.

The insurgents, who are known to have bases in Kech district, have been conducting a violent campaign against mega projects in the province which they believe are meant to benefit non-Balochi people.

The Mirani dam project became controversial in 2005 when the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) announced a resettlement assistance plan for those expected to be dislocated by the reservoir.

"When the Wapda officials started marking the areas for compensation, people realised that these were the same areas that were flooded in 1998, much before the dam was built," says an ex-provincial minister from the area, Dr Abdul Malik.

"It was only commonsense that a much larger area would be affected if similar floods created violent backflows from the reservoir," he says.

Agitation

While construction work on the dam continued, the issues of compensation and resettlement were stalled due to disputes over the likely extent of displacement.

In the later half of 2006, Wapda agreed to offer full compensation for houses, orchards, land and irrigation works in areas up to 264 feet above sea level (asl) - or more than 18,000 acres, and transfer money to the provincial government.

But the provincial finance ministry decided to hold back the funds in the belief that areas above 244 feet asl - the level of the dam's spillway - qualified for only partial compensation.

The people refused to vacate their villages until they were paid in full.

Flood devastation in Turbat district
Possessions have been swept away
Last month was marked by marches and protests in Turbat city. The agitation ended when the provincial finance minister promised to make payments by 1 July.

But it was a day too far.

The Kech Kaur river flows westward past Turbat and joins Nihing river, flowing eastward from Iran, at a point some 30km west of the town. The two rivers then turn south and flow into the Mirani dam reservoir.

On June 26, a freak weather system formed in the wake of Cyclone Yemyin caused both rivers to swell. Hill torrents from the northern hills also ran down with fury, breaking through small check-dams.

"The reservoir rose to 271 feet asl, and we called in the explosives experts just in case the level went up a further three or four feet and threatened the entire dam structure," says Shamsuddin Abbasi, project director of the dam.

The backflow created waves large enough to hit areas up to an elevation of 271.44 feet asl, devastating more than 40 villages over 36,000 acres of land and rendering nearly 70,000 people homeless.

"The government paid $850m to build the dam, but it delayed paying $30m in compensation to the people to clear them out from the area in good time," says Akram Baloch.

"And then they complain that the Baloch are fighting the government."

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SEE ALSO
Aid pleas after Pakistan cyclone
29 Jun 07 |  South Asia
Cyclone adds to Pakistan misery
26 Jun 07 |  South Asia
Flood devastation in South Asia
26 Jun 07 |  South Asia
Storms in Karachi kill 200 people
24 Jun 07 |  South Asia

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