Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sukkur Barrage, Fife Dream

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When the Begari Canal was first reactivated along “modern” lines in 1847, it was learnt that inundation canals were beset with defects due to their off-take from the river. Water supply remained perpetually erratic due to continual silting at the canal mouth, necessitating frequent maintenance. Moreover, the channel of the Indus – and it had several in the flatlands of Sindh – that fed the canals was fickle in flow and trail.

Sukkur Barrage commissioned on 13 January 1932 as Lloyd Barrage. The sixty-six spans each 18.29 (sixty feet) wide stretch a kilometre and a half across the Indus between the cities of Sukkur and Rohri. It was and still is the largest single system of irrigation canals in Pakistan commanding an area of 8.24 million acres through canals totalling 76,480 kilometres in length

By 1855, the young and energetic Lieutenant J. G. Fife, working with John Jacob of Jacobabad, called for building a scheme of more regular supply for four new canals. Fife wrote several impassioned reports advocating his vision. In five years of studying the irrigation dynamics of existing inundation canals, he observed that paucity of water supply forced Sindhi farmers to sow later in the season, resulting in poor harvests. On the other hand, excess water in the canal frequently led to breaches and flooding. In either event, farmers faced jeopardy.

Under the prevailing circumstances, contended Fife, cultivation became but “a species of lottery.” To obviate this anomaly, he proposed four channels, two each on either bank of the Indus, to be fed ideally by a regulated system, boosting water supply for agriculture.

Coat of Arms of Lloyd Barrage

Fife’s farsighted network of canals was not concentrated in upper Sindh alone. He foresaw two canals taking off at Sukkur, one along either bank. The one on the left bank was to fall into the old Fuleli Canal near Hyderabad while the other on the right bank was to join the Western Nara in what is now district Larkana. Two similar canals were visualized in the vicinity of Jherruck near Thatta. One of these was to slake the country as far as Karachi as well as the city itself. There was yet another canal in Fife’s grand scheme that took off from the Eastern Nara to sweep along the fringe of Thar Desert all the way to the mudflats and marshes of Badin. He foresaw all as perennial waterways.

Commemorative plaque on the right bank of the Indus

That was what the foresighted man envisioned in 1855. On examining his proposal, it would be easy enough to term Fife the father of Lloyd, or Sukkur Barrage, as we know it today. However, for fully 77 years, the plan remained on the backburner for one reason or another.

This was because of the tussle between proponents of inundation canals and visionaries such as Fife, who instead favoured perennial canals. The babus of the Finance Department of the Bombay Presidency, which then controlled Sindh, stood by those who believed in creating less expensive works and continually repairing them. Fife lost out to the bureaucracy even though his famous report of 1855 noted that in just one year revenue to the tune of Rs 3.1 million was lost due to poor harvests.
In 1890, Fife, then a lieutenant general, won some redemption when the Governor of Bombay Lord Reay wrote strongly in support of his 35-year-old report, favouring a perennial over an inundation system. For a moment, it seemed, Fife’s proposed Rohri Canal to Fuleli would become a reality. Except it turned out to be a classic on-again-off-again project: the following year, the Sind [sic] Irrigation Committee in Bombay, comprising bureaucrats and politicians, rejected the plan for being “financially unsound and virtually impracticable.”

In 1894, Fife was still pleading for permission to execute his project, only to be shot down yet again by Sindh’s Superintending Engineer of Canals Thompson. Fife’s scheme, concluded Thompson, was “impracticable on engineering grounds.” At this point, as one reads the story of his frantic efforts, it is impossible to remain unmoved by Fife’s belief and determination.

A decade later, the Indian Irrigation Commission finally issued the edict in favour of the triple project in Sindh that would include a barrage and a canal on either bank. By this time, some major irrigation works drawing off Indus waters were completed in the Punjab. It was now feared that Sindh may suffer irrigation water shortages. An apparently hasty decision of a weir across the Indus at Sukkur to feed two canals was fortunately rejected as inefficient and wasteful.

This went on until 1910, when a report submitted to the Government of Bombay argued that prospective returns on a triple project in Sindh, costing Rs 32.4 million, were incommensurate with the expenditure. This could be altered if Fife’s dream, the Rohri Canal to Hyderabad, was excavated before the barrage was constructed. And so, the next couple of years were spent arguing what comes first.

Ransomes and Rapier gearboxes to work the gates of the barrage

In 1914, another report compiled in London and forwarded to the Government of Bombay was equally misinformed in assuming Rohri Canal was an inundation channel meant to irrigate an area that already had a number of smaller canals. Its failure, the report noted, would be more damaging than that of any minor canals. Oddly enough, it seemed to disregard the need for the projected barrage at Sukkur.

By this time, large swathes of land were turning green in the Punjab largely because of the Triple Canal Project and in a smaller way because of other works. In comparison, Sindh only had one perennial canal: the Jamrao. Had Fife still been in the country, he would surely have asked why Sindhi farmers should continue to suffer the irregularity of inundation canals.

On Dadu Canal in Larkana district

As the years slid past, the bureaucracy continued expending more hot air. Meanwhile, J. G. Fife, at home in his native Scotland, passed away from this life when, at long last, approval came through for Lloyd Barrage and its seven-canal system: four on the left bank and three on the right. Work began on the first day of July 1923, with “the greatest irrigation system in the whole world” becoming operational in January 1932.

Named after Governor of Bombay George Lloyd, this marvellous piece of civil engineering began irrigating 5.5 million acres of land in Sindh and a small swathe of Balochistan. Sukkur Barrage remains operational today, over 83 years since the first rush of water into its seven canals, slaking some 6.25 million acres.

Countryside along one of the minor canals of Dadu Canal that takes off from the right bank at Sukkur

Though much has been added to the irrigation system in the intervening years, Sukkur Barrage still remains Wonder Number One. If anything, it is the crowning glory for Fife, the man who envisioned it as far back as 1855.

Previous: Begari Wah, Salam, Jekum Sahib BahadurJamrao Canal, The Dragon’s TailKhanki Headworks, From Primeval Forest to BreadbasketLower Bari Doab Canal, Boundless MagnanimityUpper Jhelum Canal, No Small Wonder, Upper Swat Canal, Defying Mountains

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