In deep water

A proposed dam in the Indus Valley threatens to destroy both lives and ancient sites

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.

These etchings, numbering some of humanity's earliest artworks, are under threat from a mega-dam 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 mega-dam 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. What can we do?"

Initially, the local people did protest. Thanks to a statute dating from colonial times, the government is able to acquire forcibly any land vital to the "national interest", and to deal with dissenters. (Gundal Shah, an activist from Chilas, was jailed for 22 days.) Money for the dam, meanwhile, is coming from China, which has vested interests in developing northern Pakistan as a highway for the goods it is exporting to Gwadar, a new Chinese-built port on Pakistan's southern coast.

As for the carvings, concerned Pakistanis talk of airlifting the boulders to safety, but the German experts who have worked at Chilas for 30 years say this is impossible. Unlike the sandstone temples removed from the path of the Aswan Dam, granite rocks have a brittle surface. "Moving the carvings," says Martin Bemmann of the Heidelberg Academy, "is not an option." Instead, the official line is that three-dimensional laser scans will be made of the carvings; future generations will look at replica versions.

Archaeology is a low priority for the government, but the resource problem is compounded by a pervasive disrespect for pre-Islamic culture. "History for the average Pakistani begins in 1947," Bemmann says. Even people from Chilas regard the rock art on their doorstep as the creation of infidels. Today, if you visit the main site of Buddhist art at Chilas, you will find it defaced, the campaign slogans of local politicians painted in white over the Buddha's face.

In Pakistan, such iconoclasm is common. Two years ago, I came across magnificent stone circles in a valley to the west of Chilas, which were probably the burial mounds of ancient chieftains. Since then, these exquisite structures have been destroyed by vandals. To the south, the last remaining Buddha of Swat, a seven-metre-high carving which for 1,300 years had stood in this mountainous area, untouched, was dynamited in November 2007 after radical Islamists took over the valley. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Hyderabad, the head of archaeology had jihad declared against him for objecting when a mosque was constructed over an archaeological site. Pakistan's pre-Islamic heritage is steadily being destroyed: by a lack of money, by a lack of political will - and by ignorance.

In Islamabad, I went to see the federal minister for water and power. "We are very keen to build Bhasha Dam," he told me, "Kalabagh is too controversial." "But isn't destroying Bhasha's archaeological site also controversial?" I asked. "Archaeological site?" echoed the minister, looking puzzled. Though it seemed hardly credible, he was unaware that 30,000 carvings of global significance were to be submerged. "I need a briefing on this," he admitted, and added: "I will make it a point to see those carvings."

For a moment, I allowed myself to hope. He rang his special adviser, a senior bureaucrat with long experience of how the government works. I watched him as he talked. By the time the conversation ended, his equanimity was restored. "You are right," he said as he ushered me out, "there are carvings at Chilas. But we will manage."

Alice Albinia is author of "Empires of the Indus: the Story of a River" (John Murray, £20)