Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Jamrao Canal, The Dragon’s Tail

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East of the Indus River, there flowed a fabled river known as the Hakra or Ghaggar. Some 6000 years ago, this river cradled a civilization as great as that of the Indus Valley. At an unknown time in the past, geological changes near its source in the north caused this river to merge with another stream, drying out its lower reach. As a result, where that civilization once flourished, today roll wind-rippled dunes in every direction as far as the eye can see.

Through this wasteland there meanders an old channel believed to be the bed of the ancient lost river. Mostly dry, the bed filled up only during the worst floods in the Indus. Flowing from the vicinity of Rohri town to empty into the Kori Creek on the seaboard, its winding course earned it the moniker of Nara, the Sindhi cognate of snake or dragon. Along the way, the Nara broke its banks to create picturesque tarns amidst the dunes. Whenever available, its unreliable flow was used to water small plots of vegetables and cereal.

The 1850s, just a decade after the annexation of Sindh, saw the British in a frenzy to green a land they knew had great potential as farmland. This was a time when the pioneering work on the Begari was already redeeming the expenditure incurred on its refurbishment and the British busied themselves exploring abandoned waterways to convert them into irrigation works.

In 1852, Bartle Frere, the energetic commissioner of Sindh to whom the province owes much, ordered a survey of the Nara, only to learn it took off more water even in its natural state than reckoned before. However, the sandy nature of the soil and the banks made for huge water losses, resulting in the innumerable little lakes along its course. If the Nara was connected with the Indus, there was the possibility of perennial water supply across the desert. This was just the potential Raj engineers were looking to tap.

The point man on this job, who envisaged furnishing the old inundation canals with regulator-controlled headworks to control flow, was the young J. G. Fife, lieutenant (later general) of the corps of Royal Engineers. With water losses minimised due to controlled flow, figured Fife, a number of subsidiary canals taking off from the Nara could slake a large desert area.

From the hand-written notes and letters he left behind, Fife considered the project as the crowning glory of his career as evident by his unrelenting desperation to secure funds and start work as early as possible. Except the government’s priority lay elsewhere: another scheme floated by the chief engineer of the province envisaged a canal taking off from the Indus at Rohri to carry water down to Hyderabad through territory west of the desert deemed more fertile than the desert of Nara.

As Fife grit his teeth between sending reports and petitions for funds, work on the Nara remained in abeyance. Persistence paid off, however, and Fife’s dream appeared closer to realization in the summer of 1859 when the 20 kilometre-long Nara Supply Channel connected the abandoned stream with the Indus. The dedicated Fife now began to press for the network that would eventually transform desert into farmland east of Nawabshah and Sanghar.

On Fife’s projected network taking off from the rejuvenated Nara, a letter from 1860 originating from the chief engineer’s office contended “no one can doubt that they will create a most beneficial change in the welfare of the Province, and enable it to pay a very much larger revenue than it does at present.” That said, the reigning viewpoint among the British at the time was to resuscitate and improve abandoned waterways rather than embarking on untried projects demanding a large quantum of excavation, civil works and resultant expenditure. And the estimated cost of only the Jamrao Canal with its stone and steel regulator standing upward of Rs. 700,000 stalled the project yet again.

Even when governmental approval came through 12 years later in 1872, Fife, who was by then promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, learnt that funds were not forthcoming for one reason or the other. Such was the man’s resolve, however, that he continued to pitch his case repeatedly.

Work on the Jamrao Canal eventually began in 1894. About five years later, the headworks let in controlled flow and began greening a part of the Thar Desert inhabited by a sparse population comprising mostly of animal herders. Required here were tillers of land to make the expected “larger revenues” possible. Between 1901 and 1905, farmers from Jalandhar, Gurdaspur and Amritsar as well as military pensioners and Baloch tillers were allotted land around Nawabshah and Sanghar.

Had Fife still been in Sindh, he would be happy to see the government encourage planting of orchards and gardens along the Jamrao even before the canal was commissioned. In 1899, the revenue collected from the Jamrao gardens was a mere Rs. 65. A year later, it catapulted to Rs. 490, growing exponentially thereafter. Though no longer in the subcontinent, Fife’s dream finally became a reality.

Within years of the commissioning of Jamrao, the desert was cut from Nawabshah southward to Mirpurkhas by a large swathe of green. Besides the essential cereal crops, much of this was mango orchards that continue to bring prosperity to growers to this day.

Fully a century after the gates of the headworks were raised to let the first controlled inflow from the Nara into the Jamrao, growing needs warranted an upgrade. In 2010, a new multi-gated headworks constructed with Chinese assistance made it possible to improve the Jamrao’s flow several fold.

Today, as one drives along the alignment of the Jamrao Canal, it is impossible not to recall J. G. Fife and his correspondence with the commissionerate in Karachi, relentlessly seeking permission and funds to begin work on the tail section of the Nara. Or send up a silent prayer as one passes stretches of lofty dunes on one side of the road and swaying green fields on the other. Had it not been for the obsessive Fife, all would have been desert.


Top: The stone and brick arches of the old Jamrao Headworks. Seen above are winches used to operate the headworks’ steel gates. These antique machines were in use since the structure was pressed into service in 1898.

Middle: The road to Jamrao Canal is bordered by a narrow stretch of sand dunes seen in the foreground on one side and swaying green fields on the other. Military engineer and able administrator J. G. Fife would be mightily pleased to see his scheme bringing such prosperity to Sindh.

Bottom: The old bed of the Nara Canal as it approaches the disused Jamrao Headworks.

Previous: Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib Bahadur

Odysseus Lahori two years ago: The Apricot Road to Yarkand [Book review by Maheen Pracha]

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 February 2015 at 22:50, Blogger Unknown said...


At 5 February 2015 at 12:05, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Memoona.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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