The Overlooked Threat to CPEC in Gwadar
Water shortages and the resulting local desperation could scuttle the ambitious geopolitical plan.
By: Shah Meer
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has attracted attention all over the world. Politicians and analysts say CPEC will reshape the geopolitics of the region and bring unprecedented economic development to Pakistan. For China, CPEC is a vital part of its much larger One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, a game-changing project which aims to connect three continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa). It is envisioned that the corridor will bring much-needed jobs to Balochistan in Pakistan and Xinjiang in China, the provinces at either end of the corridor, which have both been rattled by a wave of insurgencies. In short, it is said to be a win-win proposition.
Located on the southwestern coast of the Arabian Sea in Balochistan province, the city and district of Gwadar is the heart of the project, and logistically the main arterial link connecting the maritime silk route through the Arabian Sea to rail and road links to western China. It is the largest coastal district of Pakistan, with 600 kilometers of coastline, which makes up 55 percent of the entire coastline of the country. Under CPEC, China and Pakistan have agreed to construct a route to connect Gwadar Port in Pakistan with Kashgar in China. The Chinese government helped build the deep-water port at Gwadar and is also developing airport, infrastructure, energy, and transportation projects along the route. The hope is that this development will alleviate some of the problems in what is considered the most backward of Pakistan’s provinces – Balochistan. It would also open a treasure trove by allowing access to the province’s rich mineral resources.
But there are some problems which have been overlooked and, if not addressed, could jeopardize the whole project – such as the water crisis in Gwadar. Locals don’t have water to drink. If ordinary residents who have lived there for decades do not have clean drinking water — a scarce commodity in that part of the country because of the failure of successive regimes to address this problem — then any mega construction project is going to face a huge water-shortage problem.
It is unthinkable that CPEC would just ignore an issue that links the future development and success of this entire endeavor to the fate of a once sleepy fishing harbor. It needs to incorporate the critical issue of water supply into the detailed plan for Gwadar.
It seems the only viable option for dealing with the water crisis for the moment is to harness the water from the Arabian Sea through desalination plants which, although expensive, will be indispensable in supporting any credible development enterprise. The one desalination plant that exists in Gwardar, Kurwat, was intended to provide 2 million gallons of drinking water per day but it was only providing 0.3 million gallons per day during the 2015-2016 drought because of the high cost of operating the plant. Instead, people had to try to bring water tanks in at a cost of 15,000-18,000 rupees ($150-180) per tank — something most of the locals could ill afford.
“I have no water to drink,” Mir Iqbal Saka, a well-known landlord in Gwadar, told me. “Though I am ready to pay $160 for a water tanker, because of the scarcity of water I am unable to get it.”
Building dams on a fast track could cater to future increased water demand. At the moment, the Ankara Dam is the only source of supply, but this dam has already reached its end and may run dry in a few years. The dam capacity at the time construction was completed in September 1995 was 17,000 acres — 11,000 acres of live storage and 6,000 acres of dead storage (storage at the bottom, below the minimum level that can be drained by gravity through a dam’s outlet, and which therefore must be pumped out). The depth of the dam’s reservoir was 50 feet, but after 21 years it has been reduced to only 20 feet because of silt accumulation. One logical solution for this dam would be de-silting by dredging the existing reservoir.
Ignoring the water crisis that Gwadar is facing, Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s planning minister, announced that two new dams — the Diamer-Bhasha Dam (in Gilgit Baltistan) and the Dasu Dam (in Khyber Pathunkwa) — would be built under the CPEC project. Briefing a meeting of the special committee on CPEC, the minister said that the dams would be built at a total cost of $26 billion.
Balochistan continues to suffer from insurgency and political unrest; there are serious concerns about the lack of support for the project from the local people, who have always demanded that they be given rights to their own local resources. Recently, Sardar Akthar Mengal, a Baloch Nationalist Leader and former chief minister, convened an all-parties conference in Islamabad and discussed Baloch concerns over CPEC. The water crisis in Gwadar was at the top of the list. In his statement, Mengal said that the Baloch people are not against development and progress, but they are not ready to support progress that allows their children to die from a lack of potable water.
Mariyam Suleman, a social activist and author, told me, “We faced the same issue in 2012 and now we are again going through this crisis. With hardly any support from the provincial and federal government, many people migrated to nearby places – Turbat, Uthal, and Karachi – but still I see no serious steps being taken to cope with the issue. We are on our own. I see on local news channels politicians, analysts, and other stakeholders say that CPEC will change the life standards of people. But I wonder how and when. At the moment, more than anything else, we just need the basic necessities of life.”
Given the recent and unfolding isolation of Pakistan, CPEC is the country’s only option. A growing U.S.-India partnership and the emergence of an Indian-Iranian-Afghan nexus leave Pakistan with no choice but to fast track this vital project. It is therefore a priority that the authorities get their act together and address the key issues that would benefit everyone. Pakistan has few choices left, but also has one consolation: Its friendship with China over the decades is finally beginning to bear fruit.
Shah Meer is a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. He graduated from NUML in International Relations and researches South Asian politics, Balochistan issues and Human Rights. He is from Pasni, District Gwadar, Balochistan.