In Deep Water: A Proposed Dam in the Indus Valley Threatens to Destroy Both Lives and Ancient Sites

Article excerpt

It is easy to miss Chilas. Driving through the austere valleys of northern Pakistan, a car zips past this quiet mountain town in barely five minutes. Yet it was here that, 30 years ago, archaeologists discovered a huge stash of prehistoric art.

The steep river gorge at Chilas has always been a natural crossing-place, and for thousands of years, from Neolithic times up to the incursions of Islam, travellers carved pictures in the granite. There are etchings of river gods, crude sketches of hunters, intricate carvings of the Buddha, and even 1,500-year-old graffiti of people having sex.

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These etchings, numbering some of humanity's earliest artworks, are under threat from a megadam that the military-backed government led by Pervez Musharraf proposed to construct across the River Indus. If it is built, 95 per cent of the carvings will be submerged.

Pakistan has severe power shortages: every town, including the capital, lives with daily power cuts. Agriculture is essential for survival, and ever more captured water (so it is argued) is needed to grow crops. Dams provide hydroelectricity and irrigation, and the military has consistently put its weight behind large engineering projects to water the Punjab region.

Yet, outside the Punjab, dams are unpopular with Pakistanis. Environmentalists complain that water--and electricity-saving measures would be more efficient. People downstream fear the depletion of their water source. For the past decade, Musharraf's plan for a dam at Kalabagh, in the centre of the country, has met with vociferous protest, both in parliament and on the streets.

As a result, the government has been forced to look elsewhere--to the far north of the country, today called the Northern Areas, which before 1947 was part of the princely state of Kashmir. This is disputed land, a subject of disagreement with India. It is not covered by Pakistan's constitution, and even today--60 years on--the people have no elected representatives in Islamabad, and no rights as Pakistanis. It is a convenient loophole for the government, allowing it to pursue policies here that are impossible elsewhere.

The proposed dam is to be built at Bhasha, on the border of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, in Pakistan proper) and the Northern Areas. Crucially, under Pakistan's constitution, royalties from hydroelectricity generation go to the state where the dam powerhouse is located: in this case, NWFP. The reservoir, however, will submerge land in the Northern Areas, displacing an estimated 25,000 people.

Governments of Pakistan already have an atrocious record on rehabilitation and compensation. In the hills above Tarbela, where a megadam was built in 1974, villagers recount harrowing tales of fleeing the rising waters. Evictees from the Rawal Dam, built in 1962, now subsist in a deprived area of the capital. These experiences contrast with the promises given to entice residents to leave their homes without a struggle. Villagers from Tarbela were wooed with the mirage of green cards and land in Islamabad. Last year, Musharraf flew to Chilas to give a speech outlining the glorious benefits the dam would bring to the people. "It is all fraud," said one resident to whom I spoke. "But the military mind is fixated on dams. …