As Pakistan experiences its worst flooding in years, the spotlight has turned to the country’s overwhelmed dams. At the centre of the controversy today is the proposed Diamer-Bhasha Dam on the Indus River. The “mega dam” that was supposed to serve as the country’s future lifeline has been caught in a scandal after it was revealed that Rs 9 billion (or $40 million) was raised from the public for its construction - but much more was spent advertising it.
According to Pakistan’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC), Rs 14 billion or $63 million has been spent on advertising the dam, which is nowhere close to being completed.
Now for some context: In July 2018, Saqib Nisar, who was then the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, made it his mission to work on the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam on the Indus River. The dam had been proposed in the 1980s, but several issues prevented its construction.
In 2018, Nisar came up with a plan to raise funds from public donations that would go towards the construction of the dam. At first, several influential Pakistanis donated generously, reports Vice. The military gave up a portion of soldiers’ salaries to donate Rs 1 billion, while the country’s cricket team also contributed to the fund.
Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan assumed joint leadership of the fund, making it a joint venture to tackle the country’s water scarcity problem.
The criticism and the controversy
Saqib Nisar’s plan to crowdfund the construction of a dam was widely panned. Even as ordinary citizens of Pakistan donated their money, several high-profile personalities raised their voices to criticise it.
Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, termed the public fundraising campaign as “ludicrous,” according to Vice. He noted that there was no precedent for a sitting chief justice to start a public crowdfunding initiative.
But things came to a head when it became clear by February 2019 that there was still a gap of $6.3 billion between the amount raised and the amount needed to construct the dam.
A now-retired Nisar then stunned the public by announcing that the fundraising was not done to construct the dam, but rather to raise awareness. “We never thought this money would be sufficient to complete the project. We wanted to create awareness and make people understand how important it is,” he said, sparking widespread backlash from a stunned public.
After that, several Pakistanis opened up about how they regretted donating for the dam.
So why is the dam in the news today?
A day before Nisar’s shocking statement, Iqbal Ahsan, a member of the national assembly, had claimed that more money had been spent on advertising the dam than on its construction.
These claims now appear to have the backing of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the National Assembly.
The PAC on Tuesday invited Nisar to brief the committee on the Diamer-Bhasha Dam Fund, reports Dawn.Several members of the parliament have also called for an investigation into how the funds were spent.