India and China are two most active countries in the world in terms of the number of dams in operation, under-construction and planned. The primary objectives of dam-building include irrigation, flood control and hydropower generation. However the principle motivation behind engineering of mega-dam projects in both India and China is the desire for economic development which they equate with large water reservoirs and high level of hydro power development. This is simply following the footsteps of America and Europe where similar level of mega-engineering took place in first part of the 20th Century.
China has the per capita water storage of more than 2,000 cubic meters through dams. India has a per capita storage of only 200 cubic meters per annum and figures for Pakistan are even very less (Figure 1).[i] China and India, both are heavily criticised by the environmentalists and human right defenders within as well as outside the region for ecological losses and large human displacements that the dam construction activity brings forth. China with 22, 000 large dams[ii] is the top dam-building nation in the world whereas India is third in the row with over 4, 000 large dams only after the United States having 6,390 large dams.[iii] According to the National Energy Statistics, China's 230 GW of installed hydropower capacity make it the world's largest hydroelectric power user.[iv] Four countries – China, India, United States and Pakistan account for more than 50% of the world’s total irrigated area (Figure 2).[v] China and India account for the largest number of people displaced due to dam construction.[vi]
Water Storage Per Capita
Source: World Bank, 2006.[vii]
Percentage of irrigated Area from Dams
Source: World Commission on Dams, 2000.[viii]
The construction of water reservoirs especially the large dams became the central source of industrial and agricultural development worldwide in the last century. According to the World Commission Report on Dams, besides domestic and industrial benefits of dams, some 30–40% of irrigated land worldwide now relies on dams and that dams generate 19% of world electricity.[ix] However, higher temperatures and less snowpack are increasingly reducing flows in the world basins. Less available water means declined capacity for irrigation, energy generation and domestic consumption. Climate change is challenging mega dam projects. Scientists have begun questioning the utility of big dams with such weather extremes as one year flood followed by the next year’s drying up. The rate of evaporation of water stored in reservoirs is also predicted to increase with the warming up of global climate. It is not only environment that pays the price for mega water projects. Mass human displacements, loss of ecological habitat, huge investments and riparian conflicts are some of the major costs of dam-building. It has recently become an important consideration in developing countries including India and China to mitigate these costs at least at the national level. Genuine concerns for cross-border or international implications of dam-building have a low priority in both the countries. One of the most important lessons that the two case studies provide to Pakistan is that in order to achieve sustainable water resource development, dam-building should only become a part of an integrated water management policy.
Pakistan has a poor economy. As a single basin country with fast growing population, her water needs for domestic, industrial and irrigation purposes are multiplying every year with huge pressure on limited water resources. The Indus Basin is well-known for its flow dependency on rain and glacial melt water. New scientific investigations have indicated vast differences in glacial change behavior across the Himalayas. While glaciers for many of the Indian and Chinese river basins are retreating fast, contributing rapid seasonal flows, glaciers feeding the Upper Indus Basin are in fact expanding in mass under climate change influence. The dearth of information and research on changing flow trends in Indus Basin warrants a careful planning in proposing and constructing any new storage reservoirs. Dam-building is not only about investment and engineering options, operational issues such as reservoir safety, emergency preparedness and seasonal management call for well-informed decision making.
Regional Studies, Vol. XXXI, No.2, Spring 2013, Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad
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 There are a number of definitions of large dams. The International Commission on Large Dams (ICLOD) uses the criterion of ‘height’ as defining a small, medium or large dam. A dam higher than 15 m is classified as a large dam. Many others refer to the gross storage capacity of a dam and foundation design as a basis for the classification of the dams. The ICLOD definition is used worldwide to define the size of a dam. For a detailed report on the definition of large dams, see Shah and Dinesh Kumar, In the Midst of the Large Dam Controversy: Objectives, Criteria for Assessing Large Water Storages in the Developing World, Water Resource Management, 2008, No. 22, pp. 1799–1824.
[i] World Bank, Better Management of Indus Basin Waters: Strategic Issues and Challenges. South Asia Region, Agriculture and Rural Development Unit, Washington D.C, 2005.
[ii] China is the country with the largest number of reservoirs in the world. However the estimates vary from regional to international organisations. According to Chinese National Committee on Large Dams, China has built 87,000 reservoirs all types by the end of 2006, of which are more than 500 large reservoirs, more than 3,200 medium-sized reservoirs, and small reservoirs of about 83,300. Zhao Chun, Jia Jinsheng, Zheng Cuiying, Xia Lianqiang, Wenpeng, Management System Development of Dangerous Reservoirs in China & Preliminary Statistics Analysis of Distress Causes, Chinese National Committee on Large Dams (CHINCOLD): Beijing. (Accessed on 26 March 2012) The World Commission on Dams Report 2000 estimates the total number of dams in China at 22,000.
[iii] World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision Making, Earthscan Publications Ltd: London, 2000, p. 9.
[v] World Commission on Dams, op cit., ref.8, p. 13.
[vi] Ibid., p.17.
[vii] Better Management of Indus Basin Waters – Strategic Issues and Challenges, World Bank: Islamabad, 2006. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPAKISTAN/Data%20and%20Reference/20805819/Brief-Indus-Basin-Water.pdf (Accessed on 8 March 2013)
[viii] World Commission on Dams, op cit., ref. 8, P. 13.
[ix] Ibid., p. xxix.