Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sulemanki Headworks, Bloom the Desert

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The Sutlej River enters Pakistan at Sulemanki village, 80 kilometres east of Sahiwal. The area downstream of this point, now lush green and fertile, was once sand desert. In the early 18th century, the Abbasi family wrested this country from the desert Rajputs. How many canals were built by the Rajputs is not clear. What is known, though, is that the Abbasis were master canal builders and excavated a number of them in their newly acquired domain, turning a part of the desert green.

 Fordwah, foreground, and Sadiqia East in the back taking off from the left bank of the Sutlej. The river here carries waters from the Chenab and Jhelum reaching it from Balloki headworks on the Ravi by the Balloki Sulemanki Link Canal

When the first British political agent was seconded to Bahawalpur State in 1866, his officers found not one or two but no fewer than 26 major canals out of the Sutlej in the regions that now comprise Bahawalnagar and Bahawalpur districts. Additionally, there were a number of smaller canals as well as dozens of “cuts” that went only a short way off the river. All these works were, understandably, inundation canals, most of them in good fettle, flowing with every rise in the Sutlej.

All the same, work was undertaken to upgrade the existing canals. In 1889, the Sadiqia East Canal taking off a few kilometres upstream of Sulemanki was improved and extended to a length of 40 kilometres. In 1898, its tail was extended another 22 kilometres. Then in the mid-1870s, the Fordwah Canal, named after the first political agent of Bahawalpur State, was excavated. The inundation heads of both canals that were to irrigate a hitherto arid sand desert lay on the left bank in the vicinity of Sulemanki.

The left bank regulators for Fordwah and Sadiqia East canals. The two signs (right of picture) note the highest floods every to pass the headworks: 570,800 cusecs on 30 September 1947 and 572,500 cusecs on 9 October 1955

As far back as 1854, so the age-yellowed pages of old documents suggest, Raj authorities had a rough outline of what they called the Sutlej Valley Project that proposed using the combined waters of the Beas and Sutlej to irrigate the country below the Lahore-Firozpur line all the way to Bahawalpur and Bikaner in the great desert. Besides, the project foresaw the greening of the desert region of Rahim Yar Khan.

Memorial plaque on left bank near
 off take for Sadiqia and 
Fordwah canals
For one reason or the other, no progress was made until 1906, when the first surveys kicked off. Still, it was not before 1919 when the project came into its final shape and funds became available. The idea of the Sutlej Valley Project was to build four barrages on the river from Firozpur downstream to its junction with the Indus at Panjnad. Besides the one at Firozpur, properly known as Husainiwala Headworks, the other three were Sulemanki, Islam and Panjnad. It was envisioned that 12 canals would draw off these four barrages, carrying an aggregate of a little over 48,000 cusecs of water.

Husainiwala Headworks was completed in 1924. About this time, the site of the second headworks was moot. British engineers suggested an area about 34 kilometres downstream of Sulemanki. However, as this was the country of Nawab Sadiq Abbasi V, his say mattered. And he wished for the headworks to be sited the same distance upstream of Sulemanki in order to bring the northern part of his territory under perennial irrigation.

In the end, Sulemanki was the compromise. Only 50 years earlier, two inundation canals, Sadiqia East and Fordwah, were remodelled and dug anew in this reach of the river. The fickle Sutlej was somewhat more stable here with a 1.5 kilometre-wide bed. This was a major concern because the river was known in history as Satadru, meaning hundred channels, as it had a very wide floodplain, leading it to abandon one or the other of its channels. Moreover, canal engineers well remembered the 1893 change in course that abandoned the head of the Sadiqia East warranting a new head to be excavated.

Fordwah, foreground, and Sadiqia East in the back taking off from the left bank of the Sutlej. The river here carries waters from the Chenab and Jhelum reaching it from Balloki headworks on the Ravi by the Balloki Sulemanki Link Canal

Work began in 1924 and the barrage was opened in April 1926. The two canals on the left bank, Sadiqia East and Fordwah, began to change the face of the sand desert between Fort Abbas and Hasilpur up to 160 kilometres downstream of the headworks. On the right bank, Pakpattan Canal snaked away on a south-westerly bearing to turn the tamarisk and acacia forests of Burewala and Vihari into prime farmland. Together, the three canals today irrigate 2.8 million acres.

The 1940s rolled around and things hotted up for an independent and divided subcontinent. Plucked from his native England, Cyril Radcliffe came to draw the boundary between India and Pakistan with practically no knowledge of ground realities. His scrawl cut across villages and rivers. In the context of the Sutlej Valley Project, Radcliffe’s ignorance played a most curious trick: Husainiwala Headworks fell on the Indian side and Sulemanki became a part of Pakistan.

If Ransomes and Rapier of Ipswich were the major suppliers of gearboxes and allied machinery for the barrages in the subcontinent, Jessop and Company of Jamshedpur produced most of the steel used in the  uperstructures. This plate adorns the main headworks

However, even though the headworks went to one country, the training works – that is, the marginal embankments and spurs along its bank – went to the other. At Husainiwala, the right bank training works fell within Pakistani territory. And at Sulemanki, the same quirk was replicated with the left bank sitting in India while the rest of the barrage and its canals were in Pakistan. Old time irrigation engineers relate how in the early years after Partition, Pakistani and Indian irrigation officials needed permission from the other country to carry out repairs on their works across the border.

The problem was eventually resolved in 1960 by a border adjustment. India ceded a slice of territory at Sulemanki in exchange for an equal piece at Husainiwala. Today, both headworks sit within two kilometres of the international border, the only major river headworks in either country so close to a volatile frontier.

The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 resulted in the division of the rivers between Pakistan and India. The Ravi, Sutlej and Beas went to India with full rights to use their waters without regard for Pakistan. And the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus were parcelled to Pakistan. This virtually killed the Sutlej, which now flowed only in case of heavy flooding when India released unwanted water. For a time it seemed that Sadiqia East, Fordwah and Pakpattan canals were doomed to extinction.

The two canals taking off from the left bank at Sulemanki. The Sutlej here carries waters from the Chenab and Jhelum reaching it from Balloki headworks on the Ravi by the Balloki Sulemanki Link Canal

Fortunately, good minds worked and the old British principle of pooling waters was brought into play. If the Ravi could flow with the waters of the Chenab and Jhelum, so too could the Sutlej. It was just as well that the Balloki Headworks on the Ravi was already commissioned since the second decade of the century to permit a new canal, Balloki-Sulemanki Link, to keep the three Sulemanki canals alive.

Immortalising those who worked to make Sulemanki Headworks possible within the space of two years

Today, the legendary fertility of the districts of Pakpattan, Bahawalnagar, Vihari and Mailsi owes everything to the Sulemanki canals. Here is a curious thought: what if Nawab Sadiq Abbasi had prevailed and the headworks were built not at Sulemanki but at Lalu Gudar, 30 kilometres upstream? With the headworks falling squarely in Indian territory, keeping the three canals running would have been a more complex, if not impossible, task.

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 WonderUpper Swat Canal, Defying MountainsSukkur Barrage, Fife DreamKhirthar Canal, A touch of picturesque, Bambanwala-Ravi-Bedian Link Canal, Raiya Branch to the Rescue [BRB Canal]

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:00 AM,

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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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