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Diamer Bhasha Dam: Islamabad’s Gambit with Beijing for Water Security
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By Prof. Adarsh Vijay

Pakistan is on the verge of embracing an energy crisis. With the falling power output and the prolonging energy projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), alternatives to mitigate the energy conundrum appear to be vital. The proposed dam at the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region of the Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) had finally received a nod for financial aid by Islamabad in 2016. The project has become a cynosure as the Government of Pakistan is expecting the inclusion of the dam under the aegis of the CPEC. The move to bring it under the CPEC comes at a time when international funding agencies were also hesitant to take up the project which was estimated at USD $14 billion. Why has the project been frozen so far? Does the dam imply any regional implication? What connotation does the dam hold from a strategic point of view?

The 4500MW project which was scheduled to be completed by 2016 has been delayed owing to lack of funds. The withdrawal of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) from the financial responsibility had thrown another setback to the programme. Their rejection of loan was by basing the reason on the location of the dam in a disputed territory. Apparently, the government’s land acquisition efforts which have spanned over decades still make up to a mark of only 85 percentage of the total requirement. This has in consequence delayed the project further.

The border dispute between Pakistan and India, and the latter’s claim over the PoK postulates another dilemma over the question of Diamer Bhasha dam. New Delhi’s position remains unchanged which was even palpable from its abstinence from the recently held Belt and Road Forum (BRF) Summit in China in May 2017. It sends an unambiguous message that India has reservations on the CPEC which includes the disputed GB within the fold. Hence, there is no room for dubiety that New Delhi’s stance on the Diamer project coincides with CPEC irrespective of the fact whether the dam acquires a slot under the latter. Nevertheless, the dam construction might go ahead as Islamabad retains the control of the region despite the Indian opposition.

Given the strategic dimension of the Diamer project, water security is the key component. Pakistan’s position was clear in the sixth meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee of the CPEC in this direction. The federal government sees the project as a significant step towards enhancing the “water wallet” of the country. Besides, Islamabad has been confronted by the ongoing tribal rivalry with their claims over the land which dims the prospects of the construction of the dam. The proposed dam site falls at the Gandlo Nala region between the Kohistan district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and the Diamer district of GB. The tribal rift in the area represents an outcome of the traditional rights over the region claimed by two groups namely the Harban (belonging to KP) and the Thor (from GB). The blockade of Karakoram Highway (KKH), particularly the Basri checkpost, by the residents has become a regular feature. Their antagonism and the recurring conflicts, which left serious casualties and deaths, particularly in 2014, had invited the interference of Pakistan Rangers, a federal paramilitary force. Gandlo Nala was even brought under the paramilitary control as a response to the volatile template of law and order. Moreover, the land acquisition programme is being carried out with the assistance of the Rangers.

The security of GB is integral as it serves as the point of entrance to the CPEC. Hence, the geostrategic considerations obviously seek to cover the Diamer-Bhasha Dam within its security architecture. In 2016, Pakistan Army had agreed to establish its headquarters at Thak Das in GB. It is expected to complement the military cover for the CPEC constituents in the region. The headquarters shall have implications for the dam, if the project succeeds in getting placed under the CPEC framework. GB is already witnessing a series of protests representing divergent interests.  Groups like Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum (GBTF) and Balawaristan National Front (BNF) agitate against the escalating militarization of the region by Islamabad and Beijing. On the other hand, another group led by Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) franchisee in GB voices that the federal government turns a blind eye towards the region in terms of designing CPEC largely as “Sindh and Punjab-centric.”

Islamabad appears to be in a predicament over the question of GB and the Diamer project. China is on a constant demand to rise the status of GB into a full-fledged province in order to ease their operations. India’s objections do not hold any leverage by virtue of the increasing proximity of the two “all-weather allies” in the PoK. China’s actions pose a direct challenge to the sovereign claims of India. The evolving Chinese presence in GB can have repercussions in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Beijing in the long run.

Adarsh Vijay is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Madras Christian College, Chennai, India. He specializes on International Relations, and Strategic & Security Studies.

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