Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Canal Journey

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Talking of the Upper Jhelum Canal (UJC) friend Suleman Ghani who is currently Secretary Irrigation, Punjab said that that the taking off of the canal at Mangla from the Jhelum River was a truly masterful feat on the part of some angrez engineer. Since the canal branches off at Mangla I had always imagined it was built after the damming of the river at that point and had everything to do with Pakistani engineers not with pre-independence angrez engineers. What a misimpression that was.

Long before Mangla Dam was conceived in the 1950s, indeed even before the very idea of Pakistan was born, great engineering minds were at work to devise an irrigation system for the vast plains of the rivers Sindhu and Ganga. One such scheme formulated as early as 1902 was called the Triple Canal System, Punjab.

It was in May that year that a certain Colonel S. L. Jacob of the corps of Royal Engineers conjured up this plan. One wonders if this man was from the family of that illustrious John Jacob of Jacobabad in Sindh. The earlier Jacob, a great soldier-administrator-engineer, died a bachelor incidentally. But he had not been without brothers who carried the line on. Having retired shortly before from the Punjab Public Works Department, the latter Colonel Jacob wrote a memorandum to suggest the pooling of the waters of the rivers Jhelum, Chenab and Ravi by means of what came to be called link canals. By this system the waters of the Jhelum would have reached as far south and east as the districts of Sahiwal and Multan. Jacob surely was a visionary for, according to a very interesting document, entitled Punjab Canal Gazetteers Volume II, The Triple Canals (1922), he came up with this idea when there were ‘no maps, levels or statistics of volume flow’ to help him.

The Indian Irrigation Commission initiated a thorough investigation and it was seen that the Upper Jhelum Canal (UJC) taking off from the Jhelum could be aligned to skirt the western fringe of the low, ragged range of hills known as Pabbi between the towns of Jhelum and Kharian. Following a south-westerly alignment to the village of Rasul (now famous for its barrage) it was then to swing east to irrigate the flatlands of the Chaj Doab – the belt of land between the Chenab and Jhelum Rivers. This alignment was to take the unutilised water to the Chenab at Khanki. This inflow of waters from the Jhelum into the Chenab would irrigate the northern part of the Rachna Doab (belt between Ravi and Chenab) through the Lower Chenab Canal (LCC) taking off at Khanki.

The LCC was to dump its unutilised waters into the Ravi at Balloki and another waterway, the Lower Bari Doab Canal (LBDC) was to slake the Bari Doab (taking its name from the rivers Beas and Ravi) south of Lahore. It was a colossal plan involving immense expenditure and the digging of three canals hence The Triple Canals. Of these the UJC is the most interesting. Not only for the way it takes off from the Jhelum and the territory it flows through, but also for the most number (eighty-two) of cross-drainage structures straddling it in its 142 km length. Had the minds of its founding father worked only slightly differently, it would have been just any old canal.

The original reconnaissance threw up three different suggestions for alignment of the UJC. One was for the canal to off take from the right bank of the Jhelum, cross the river near Jhelum city by an aqueduct and fall into the alignment it now follows. This initial alignment would have avoided Kashmir territory that, it must be remembered, was then the domain of an independent Maharaja who the British did not entirely trust. The second was to off take just south of Kashmir territory and cross the several Pabbi hill torrents not by level crossings, but by means of tunnels. The third, of course, was the one eventually approved. Along this alignment the canal was to be dug seventy metres wide and three metres deep to convey a peak flow of eight thousand five hundred cubic feet per seconds (cusecs).

My journey along the Upper Jhelum Canal began at Mangla in the graceful old stone rest house of the Irrigation Department with its crest reading ‘Mangla 1912 UJC.’ Mahmood ul Hassan Shah, the Executive Engineer, said no journey along the UJC would be complete without first checking out the old headworks. The abandoned headworks stood under the shadow of the towering wall of the dam right next to the power station, serving now only as a bridge across the ditch, once the head of the UJC, but now choked with underbrush. Here the Jhelum River, having skirted the low hill crowned by Mangla Fort, makes a loop to the east. At the very apex of this loop, as it again swung to the south, the river had gouged out its deep channel that was never free of water – not even during the dry season when the river ran at its lowest.

Here, as the river swept past the rocky left bank, some surveyor of vision had noted that it was possible to take off a canal without the building of the necessary weir across the river. In this bend of the Jhelum a cross-river headworks to raise the level of water in order to take off the canal was simply not necessary. All that was needed was a cutting in the rocky river bank and an arrangement to control the outflow into the canal. And this was what my friend Suleman had said was the truly masterful feat of canal engineering. The man of vision behind this feat was John Benton, the Chief Engineer of Irrigation Works, Punjab. Actual excavation began in 1905 and on the ninth day of December 1915 the Viceroy of India formally opened the Upper Jhelum Canal. When the Capital Account was closed in 1917, it showed that the canal had cost a whopping Rs 43,849,947.

From the day the gates of the headworks were raised to pass a supply of water into the UJC, nothing changed for the canal for the next fifty-two years. But with the Jhelum dammed at Mangla, there was no longer water sluicing down the river at speed to feed the canal by the old headworks. The canal, however, could not be allowed to die and with it tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land in Gujrat district. Consequently water having turned the generators in the powerhouse flows into the new Bong Canal to meet with and fill up the old UJC some eight kilometres downstream from its original take off.

That, said Mahmood ul Hassan with a laugh, was the phoka (empty) water of post-storage-dam Punjab. For years I had heard it said in villages across the province how water with all its electricity extracted from it was no longer what it used to be and had laughed at the imbecility of the notion. Mahmood now pointed out the sense in the wisdom of agrarian Punjabis: damming allowed the fertilising silt to settle thus reducing in downstream areas productiveness that was taken for granted since ages. So far as the average village farmer was concerned the dams had deprived the water of its bijli (electricity) leaving nothing in it to grow the crops. Small wonder then, I had heard old-timers complain, the younger generation was what it was!

The old head of the UJC is now a ditch choked with wild growth and the old headworks is simply a bridge over the road. For a better view we climbed up to the fort of Mangla: to the right was the pebbly sweep of the Jhelum – hardly a river after the damming and in the middle the original cutting in the rocky spur to draw the Jhelum waters into the canal. Beyond the cutting, the headworks could be seen with the dark ribbon of the road over it. To the left of the weir was the abandoned reach of the UJC with a dribble of water and just below us the blue arc of the Bong Canal, which now takes water from the river to the UJC. I couldn’t help wondering if old Benton had conceived his brilliant scheme standing in a turret of this fort.

Among the many features that make the UJC unique certainly in Punjab and perhaps even in the entire country are its four level crossings. These structures enable hill torrents crossing the canal’s alignment to carry their water across the canal. Unlike an aqueduct where the cross-stream passes above in a duct or a siphon where it crosses under, a level crossing, as the name suggests, passes the cross-current through the canal. Mahmood had explained how it worked, but I had been at a total loss to grasp the mechanics of level crossings.

Stopping briefly at the junction of the Bong canal and the UJC proper, we reached the Bong level crossing. Here the canal widens slightly as the reedy bed of the Chungar Nalla joins from the northeast. Now, if the Nalla were to be simply dumped into the canal, a flash flood in it could raise the level of the canal dangerously above the designed capacity of 8500 cusecs. Just below the junction were gated regulators both across the canal and the Nalla. In a flash everything was clear. Under normal conditions the Nalla regulator remains closed or only partially open depending upon the flow in it, while the canal gates maintain the standard flow of 8500 cusecs. But as the flood in the Nalla enters the canal from one side, the Nalla regulator on the far side is thrown open to let water out that way. As water follows the easiest path, it simply washes down the Nalla without building pressure on the canal regulator.

Days have passed since I stood at the reedy junction of the Chungar and the UJC and conjured up in my mind the excitement of a flood in the Nalla, and I still believe that the level crossing is the most extraordinary structure a civil engineer could have thought of. The feeling of gratitude for the man who would have first designed this remarkable yet at the same time simple method of regulating flow has not left me. In Lahore some days later I was to learn that level crossings were first used in the British designed Ganga canal system of Central India. I, however, failed to discover the name of the ingenious designer of this system.

Not far below the Bong level crossing was a major canal civil works in progress: a fall being built under the auspices of the Punjab Irrigation Department. Work that began in May 1998 was nearing completion and it was proudly pointed out that it had been executed in record time. This project was warranted by the reduction of silt in the water which, having a certain silt-carrying capacity, will begin scouring out the bed of the waterway to maintain its quantum of silt. This quantum in the UJC fell after the damming of the Jhelum at Mangla with the consequent scouring action leading to an undermining of the various civil works on the canal. The fall, after it is commissioned in February 1999, will flatten the slope and reduce the speed of flow to cut down on scouring.

Such a major project would have warranted closure that would mean depriving the canal-commanded area of irrigation. So they dug a diversion to allow the canal to roll on uninterrupted. Next came the tedious task of pumping the bed clear of water to a depth of almost fifty metres before the foundations could be put in. And now, barely eight months after having begun, the department can compliment itself on a task well done.

If the Bong level crossing was impressive, the one at Jatlan with the bigger Suketar Nalla is even more so. Designed to pass a maximum of 133,000 cusecs the regulator across the Suketar is imposing with its thirty-three gates. And if I had conjured up images of excitement at the Bong crossing, this one had seen near calamity at the peak of the monsoon season in July 1920 when the Suketar swelled up with 211,042 cusecs. Again during the floods of 1976 it once peaked at 160,000 cusecs – both times thankfully without mishap.

There are procedures to follow in an emergency. These had been meticulously formulated by the British designers of these fascinating contraptions and were displayed at all sites along the canal. Not many years after independence, benighted as we are, we lost sight of reality and condemned knowledge of English as anti-ideology. With superannuation replacing the old guard literate in English with the new English-illiterate staff, the displayed instructions became redundant. And since floods did not occur every day, the procedures were slowly permitted to recede into forgetfulness.

One day Mahmood ul Hassan rang the bell to see if his staff knew what each man was supposed to do in the event of a flood crisis. Only vague memory of actual procedures remained and the men tripped over each other. The good man ordered an Urdu translation of the Standing Operating Procedures to be displayed thence onward. Given the national aversion to the printed word, I wonder how many of the staff care to read that page or so of instructions. Perhaps the next major flood in any one of the cross-torrents will rouse the sleeping giant of the irrigation bureaucracy.

At the village of Rehmanpur the second and lesser Suketar crosses the UJC and we left the territory of Azad Kashmir to enter Punjab. I was reminded yet again that we were travelling down the only Punjab canal that flowed part of the way through Kashmir.

In Lahore Suleman had instructed me to ride the pontoon ferries that have been operating since the canal was first built in the second decade of the 20th century. The first of the three was on the bank opposite to us with no one about to bring it over. This one, Mahmood pointed out, had been established on public demand after independence. Now, when the British established a facility, they provided staff with it. But the Pakistan government, forever starving for cash, had been kind enough only to provide the ferry for people to operate themselves. We waited for thirty minutes with no one turning up on the far bank to bring the pontoon around to our side before eventually giving up.

The second ferry operates below Rehmanpur. But when we arrived there we learnt that reduced flow in the canal (because of falling reservoir level at Mangla it was flowing at 5300 cusecs) had beached the raft so fast that even four men could not lift it free. The third, some kilometres further downstream, had developed a leak in one of the pontoons and had been unserviceable for some months. The raft was to be repaired during the annual three-week closure (due three days after my journey). Until then, the women of a nearby village were using it as an oversized washboard.

We did not pause at the Rehmanpur level crossing but made straight for Juggu, which is also the site of the now crumbling rest house abandoned after the establishment of the canal housing colony in nearby Serai Alamgir. Surrounded by tall trees its isolation must have once made it a right romantic place. But now hay was stacked in the verandas whose arches were cracked and sagging. In the backyard guinea fowls, turkeys and chickens scratched about in the soggy earth and from somewhere a concealed peacock called. A short distance away, in the outhouse that was once the stable, a nice looking grey was tethered. The irrigation department had leased out the establishment to a gentleman who introduced himself as Taqui. He apologised for being unable to offer us hospitality on account of the fast and we politely made some noises about there being another time to avail of his kindness.

Juggu being the fourth and last level crossing on the UJC was also the last place where flow could be regulated. If ever a flood at Juggu caught the crew napping, the flood would pass down the UJC as a possible and serious peril. And that is what happened one day in July 1967. Mahmood ul Hassan Siddiqui, an officer of the old school (now retired) who served in the Jhelum irrigation division over the years in various positions remembers the telephone call in his office at Jhelum to say that the gauge at the Serai Alamgir bridge was reading eleven feet of water as against the stipulated ten, the alarmed caller said. ‘As if I had received an electric shock, I jumped up from my seat, got into my car and sped off even forgetting to take my driver along,’ recalls Siddiqui.

By the time he arrived, the UJC was washing over the rails of the railway bridge. He was downstream of the last level crossing; the only way to reduce flow was to let the canal drain into any of the fifteen minor channels that take off direct from the UJC between Serai Alamgir and its outfall into the Chenab at Khanki. He opened the gates of the nearer ones and telephoned his sub-divisional officer at Rasul to drive up the canal undoing the ones on his way. Next Siddiqui drove upstream to the Juggu level crossing only to discover that all was in order. The crew was all present, the gauge was steady at just below the designated level, and everything looked fine.

Cloudbursts and flash floods in the Pabbi hills are not an unknown phenomenon. Siddiqui concluded that a sudden and massive fall of rain somewhere in the hills had brought down a swift flood that had passed into the level crossing and finding the gates of the Nalla side closed, drained down the canal. So rapid and short-lived was this passage of the flood that the gauge, which is simply a stepped masonry well with a foot ruler painted on one wall, simply could not register the rise. However, swift action on the part of Mahmood ul Hassan Siddiqui had saved the day.

Within sight of Serai Alamgir we paused at the Aurangabad siphon. This one was completely washed out in a violent flood in August 1960 and had to be re-built. Seeing the slimy trickle passing through it, it was difficult to imagine that there could be so great a flood in this rivulet that it could wash out a structure as sturdy as the siphon. But it has happened and had the department not undertaken the building of the fall between Bong and Jatlan, the reconstruction of this siphon would have been the greatest civil work undertaken on the UJC since commissioning.

The exciting part of the canal was behind us. All that remained to be seen was the power station at Rasul that is run by water from the UJC. Sunday is a quiet day for such places, but it was quieter yet for it was not generating because of reduced flow. I was reminded that it being a ‘secret installation’ I should keep my camera away. The man in charge was hyperactive and garrulous. He wanted me to descend into the cavern below to see the turbines. I was interested in the generation machinery, the gauges and the two huge black chutes down which 3600 cusecs of water wash to drive the two generators to produce twenty-two megawatts. A display showed several things about the power station. Among others, it said it had cost just over two million rupees to build.

We were offered overnight accommodation at the lovely Rasul rest house so that on the morrow we may follow the canal to its tail at Khanki. But I had expended all my film and it was dull and looked like rain. Moreover, from Rasul onwards there were no exciting structures to see, no emergencies to imagine and feel the surge of adrenaline. We declined. It was time to go home.

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At 7 October 2013 at 08:44, Anonymous Rai Saleh Azam said...

The Upper Jhelum Canal (UJC) was originally constructed by the British in 1905-10 primarily as a feeder canal to pass surplus water from Jhelum River to Chenab River. After construction of Mangla Dam and Mangla Powerhouse, a greater feat of engineering called Bong Canal with a designed capacity of 49,000 cusec, was constructed by Pakistan parallel to the alignment of UJC because UJC simply didn't have the capacity to carry Mangla's discharge. The Bong Canal now carries the water discharged through the Mangla Powerhouse to feed the irrigation requirements of UJC and the downstream water requirements at Rasul Barrage.

At 8 October 2013 at 15:08, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

This well-researched and painstakingly written piece should have been the talk-of-the town by now. Strange that it isn't yet. Or so it seems. As a civil engineer with some knowledge of hydraulic structures' construction methodology, I can say that indeed the Angrez did a marvelous job by spreading a network of canal system in the subcontinent. The blazing trail left by them continued to be followed by their first-generation ( and to some extent the second-generation too) successors who were well trained by their masters. But after them, the decline set in as with all other govt departments and hence the deluge that we witness every monsoon. At heart is is the power of desi ghee--our cherished pride. Now water is without power, so we came up with the ingenious plan of a water-kit. See the power of desi ghee? Perhaps the topic of your next piece, if you please, sir!

At 9 October 2013 at 10:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq, Desi ghee and calcium di kummi should be the next piece!

At 11 February 2018 at 22:45, Blogger IBN E ADAM said...



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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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