Pakistan’s Indus Cascade – a disaster in the making

In May 2017, Pakistan and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding through which China will fund and build a cascade of five dams on northern Indus, costing $50 billion, for 22,320MW of hydel power (Diamer-Bhasha 4,500MW; Patan 2,400MW; Thakot 4,000MW; Bunji 7,100MW; Dasu 4,320MW). The first of the five proposed dams, Diamer-Bhasha, is to be completed in nine years. The full cascade would take even longer — despite emergent energy needs.

The true cost and completion dates of the cascade, however, are illusive.

A landslide like Attabad crashing in to one of the cascade’s lakes could trigger a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. In the unstable mountains of Karakoram, a moderate seismic tremor could be enough to trigger such a catastrophe.

And then there’s an even bigger threat in this volatile geology — magnitude 8.0 or higher earthquakes. Scientific American in August 2015 had highlighted the risk of an inevitable disaster when a magnitude 8.0 or higher earthquake would hit the region because none of the existing dams, mostly built in India and China, had been designed to withstand it.

The region is lucky not to have had that big an earthquake since the large-dam construction era began, but the possibility of a massive tremor, more powerful than the 2005 earthquake which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, lurks over the horizon. Collapse of cascade under such circumstances would multiply the catastrophe beyond imagination — resulting in the complete annihilation of civilization along the course of the Indus river down to its delta, when the cascade of dams collapses like dominos.

Overtopping or collapsing of the cascade, however, may not be attributed only to natural events. The region has a volatile history of armed conflicts too. By building a cascade of dams — like dangerously positioned dominos — Pakistan would be gifting India a bomb bigger than a nuke in case of heightened tensions.

A few thousand tonnes of trinitrotoluene exploded to cause a glacial burst within Indian controlled Kashmir would be enough to create a deadly wave of water, ice and rocks to overtop the cascading dams and wash half of Pakistan into the Arabian Sea. Even if this scenario is very remote, should Pakistan’s defence planners allow such a strategic advantage to India?

Given the terrible economics, the possible dangers caused by natural disasters, and the security threat due to a possible war with India, it makes little sense that Pakistan is still going ahead with this project.

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