Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The dying Delta

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Ali Mohammad Shah sells candy, cigarettes and some dry fruit out of a tiny wooden shack a short way from the houses that go by the name of Goth Ali Mohammad Shah after him. The village is part of the precinct of Deh Bumbto of Thatta district and sits in the delta of the Sindhu River. In the hour or so we spend together Shah attracts no more than a couple of customers for this is a very poor country.

Salman Rashid

‘Why did I have to be so unfortunate that Nature deprived me of the sweet water that was my wealth and my life and blighted my land with bitter water instead?’ he says with genuine anguish when I press him to tell me of the days gone by.

Until the late 1970s, when Shah was in his twenties, he lived in the village of Keti Bandar where, so he says, his family had lived for several generations. Sitting between two branches of the Sindhu River with the sea to the south and east, Keti Bandar was virtually an island. Fertilised by the nutrient-rich silt brought down by the river, this was a country of fertile farmland lying smack on the seaboard where men knew either farming or fishing. They who lived by the rich land and the richer sea were prosperous.

Ali Mohammad Shah’s father owned three hundred acres of this prime land. That made him a well-off landowner whose property was worked by twenty-five mazaras (labourers) to produce, among other crops, no fewer than nine different varieties of rice, including the famed Basmati. Because of the plentiful pasturage, he also maintained twelve pairs of the finest breed of milch cattle that Sindh could boast of and there was ample milk to drink and turn into ghee.

As a young man Ali Mohammad had heard his father fret over the ever decreasing flow in the river. He had heard the man worry about the shrinking pastures and the falling yield of the once flourishing land. By the late 1970s the inflow of the river was almost negligible: save for the rare summer when heavy rains in the upper reach brought some water down to the delta, there were years when the several branches of the river that flow around Keti Bandar remained dry. That was the first time the young Shah saw mesquite encroaching into the sandy bed of the Sindhu where once silt-laden waters flowed.

As the Ochto and Hajamro branches of the river that skirt Keti Bandar began to dry up, Shah and the others noticed the sea intruding up these creeks. This intrusion was particularly noticeable during the summer monsoon months when the sea churns with comparatively higher waves. Over time, the drinking water of the hand pumps turned bitter and the land barren.

In 1979 or the year after Shah watched the graves of his ancestors overtaken by the sea. That was when he abandoned his home and led his extended family inland to establish the village that now goes by his name. The man who had known reasonable prosperity is today reduced to poverty because the rich farmland that he knew as a young man is now submerged under the intruding sea. That he has at all been able to keep body and soul together, he says, is because of his sons who work as sea-going fishermen.

But even the sea is turning against them, says Shah. Though there is only a slight decrease in fish, the shrimp and prawn catch has fallen drastically. He may once have been clueless, but now because of greater interaction with NGOs working on the environment as well as Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum that seeks to protect the rights of the country’s fishing communities, Shah has some idea of the setback. The decline in the crustacean harvest as well as that of some fish species, he knows, is because of the dwindling mangrove forests where these creatures breed.

Years ago he may have assigned a divine cause to the thinning out of the mangroves and the resultant decrease in shrimps, but now he knows that the mangroves are dying for the same reason that the sea is advancing. Now he understands that mangroves thrive in the delta when it is regularly flushed with the alluvium rich waters of the river. They are dying because now the Sindhu hardly ever reaches the delta to bring it the required dose of fresh water. In turn, the death of the mangroves is killing the species that breed in them. This resultant scarcity will eventually squeeze the life out of the fishing communities that live on the seaboard.

Ali Mohammad Shah is not a solitary case. He is one of the hundreds that have been ruined by sea intrusion and the resultant salination of perfectly productive land. We know that the fishing villages of Rehri, Ibrahim Hyderi and those along Sandspit and Hawke’s Bay in Karachi are now home to dozens of families that lived in the delta as little as forty years ago. That these families were forced to migrate has something to say about the deteriorating health of the Sindhu delta. The big question then is why is the delta dying?

Decreased flow of fresh water in the Sindhu River downstream of Kotri Barrage is killing the delta. Point. Over the past sixty years, we have built barrages and dams in the upper reach of our river system together with a network of canals taking off from them to slake our ever thirsty farmland. Consequently freshwater that once reached the seaboard is now used up to provide the people of Pakistan food and clothing.

With population growth rampant in the face of severe opposition to birth control by the religious lobby which looks upon every new birth as a possible addition to the legions of holy warriors, the country needs more and more land to be brought under the plough. In turn this means ever less water flowing down the river to the delta. First the Thal Desert was reclaimed and now it is Cholistan where new watercourses are changing the landscape.

It is interesting that a water accord signed between Punjab and Sindh in 1991 recommends at least 10 million acre feet (MAF) inflow to the delta annually. This contravenes the IUCN stipulation of no less than 27 MAF in order to maintain the delta ecosystem in reasonable health. Coastal communities meanwhile demand as much as 35 MAF. In reality the current release to the delta is negligible.

Tahir Qureshi of IUCN makes an astute observation concerning the proportion between land being brought under the plough in the Cholistan Desert and what we are losing to sea intrusion and salination in the districts of Badin and Thatta in Sindh. According to him four times more land is being lost in the south than is being rehabilitated in Punjab. An estimated 2.2 million acres of farmland in the districts of Thatta and Badin has so far been taken over by the sea.

In terms of human displacement the disparity is frightening: while the Punjab desert lands are being reclaimed mainly for retired soldiers and politicians who will never live on their farms, whole families are being uprooted from the delta. These are our Internally Displaced Persons that have not registered on the monitors of any government agency. As sea intrusion increases – and it will only increase – these IDPs will multiply. Are concerned quarters even aware of this huge tragedy in the making?

If it was simply loss of good acreage, that would be one thing which many, especially those who benefit from the schemes in Cholistan, could justify. But we have not yet started to measure the cost of losing our precious mangrove swamps. The recent tsunami, still fresh in our memories, has shown that countries (like Thailand) where the coast was protected by healthy and dense mangrove stands, suffered less damage than those with denuded seaboards. And experts tell us that our mangroves have fallen by fifty percent in the past forty years.

Because of global warming, the one thing we can safely predict in otherwise unpredictable weather patterns is an increase in tropical storms. The late 1990s saw Badin and Thatta ravaged by storms and tidal waves and we have only Providence to thank for the three storms over the past as many years that fortunately closely skirted Karachi. Our luck may not hold out much longer. And when the next big typhoon makes landfall on our seaboard, there will be precious little mangroves to save coastal habitations.

Pakistan cannot be negligent of its food needs however, but the Agriculture Department could at least have been judicious. Dr Ghulam Akbar of WWF-Pakistan points out that we have given undue importance to irrigation-intensive crops like sugar cane and cotton. He also believes that a broad, well-established and efficient industrial base set up over the past sixty years would have served the country better.

In a recent National Conference on the Indus Delta, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum has put forward a declaration. While all the clauses of this declaration are appropriate, there are a few points that need be recounted here briefly.

A New Water Paradigm calls for better management of all surface and ground water with an eye on the link between water use and environmental and economic considerations. It calls for a moratorium on any further diversions on the rivers in order to ensure adequate water flow to the delta. Most importantly the declaration demands a comprehensive study of the damage suffered by the lives, livelihoods, ecology and biodiversity in the delta of the Sindhu River.

If the government fails to take cognisance of the unfolding disaster in the Sindhu delta now, it may become a catastrophe difficult to manage.

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At 18 June 2015 at 10:40, Blogger Spade said...

This is a very insightful article. Indeed water depletion is one of the main issues in Pakistan and that is not given enough attention. The dying mangrove and the delta are issues that need serious attention. Those who are losing land and sources of livelihood need to be compensated and rehabilitated . A cost benefit analysis of use of water upstream compared to use of water in the delta need to be carried out .
Water depletion has many aspects , starting form global warming, that predicts lessening inflows and the depleting ground water resources in Punjab where we share an Aquifer with Northern India , To Quetta valley where water is depleting at an alarming rate and in the near future it may result of inability of human population to reside in the valley and city . Thar has seen many deaths mainly of children due to depleting water sources although water is not the only culprit in this case .
We need to take up several initiatives : drip irrigation : water conversation ; dams on Ravi and Sutlej using the river bed to store flood water for recharge of aquifer ; rain water harvesting and storage in urban centers and in fragile environments like Quetta and Thar , even Lahore could be helped by rain water harvesting ; special rain water harvesting storages in Thar ; sprinkle irrigation ; water pricing to encourage economic use of water ; more storages but only after mitigating impacts on down stream users ; recycling waste water .
There is a flood control plan under work , kindly prepare a comprehensive plan focused upon water depletion, flood control and recharge of ground water aquifers and accord these projects priority , perhaps we can defer some large urban infrastructure projects and instead concentrate on water issues , the lifeline of our country and the economy .

At 18 June 2015 at 10:46, Blogger Spade said...

For those interested , provides a lot of material related to water depletion in Pakistan . Also a note on water depletion in Thar is also interesting .

At 5 February 2019 at 03:04, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks very nice blog!


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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

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