Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Water in the Wilderness

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‘Owing to our extreme dependence on the Indus water, we must understand and protect all its antecedent sources and tributaries.’ So writes, and writes very truly, one of the three authors of Water in the Wilderness. But one could go a step farther and iterate that Pakistan being a water-scarce region and fast heading for scarcity that will begin to hurt us deeply, every individual needs to be aware of the crisis that looms in the near future.

Written by Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Richard Garstang and Rina Saeed Khan – all of whom have substantial experience in working and reporting upon environmental matters – the book essentially deals with water issues. However, it is more than that. Water in the Wilderness is a tour de force across the cultures of Makran, through the western lakes of Larkana and into Cholistan. Thence it takes the reader to Deosai, Shimshal, Shandur and Chitral. At the same time, this is an excellent eco-tourist guide.

From Jiwani in the extreme southwest corner of Balochistan along the seaboard one travels to Sonmiani just northwest of Karachi. In between, one views the fast-changing landscape of Gwadar and other towns strung along the newly completed Makran Coastal Highway. The threat of damming the Hingol River, though largely dispelled but still quite the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging above Hingol National Park, is brought into view.

With too many powerful individuals salivating over the lure of fortunes to be made from the construction of the dam, there are few aware of the truth: that the reservoir built on the Hingol will not be able serve any large tract of agriculture because of the terrain it flows through. Worse yet, the dam and its reservoir will negatively impact local lifestyles. Yet the government continues to mislead with such sugary lies: ‘...the Hingol Dam Reservoir Project is the lifeline for the people of the area promising sustainable livelihoods for them...’

Meanwhile, on the other side, the government permits foreign trawlers to mop our water clean leaving little for fishermen of the villages of Sonmiani Bay. Because of their intensive fishing, rich contractors are little affected by the dwindling sea harvest. The sufferer is only the small fisherman who toils in the sea with his tiny boat and a crew of not more than five or six. It is such individuals who know that unsustainable harvests will lead to eventual hunger.

Lungh Lake in Larkana and Rangla in Thal Desert in Muzaffargarh both lie on the Indus Flyway followed by migratory Siberian birds. The one is an oxbow lake formed by an abandoned branch of the Indus while the latter takes seepage water from a nearby canal. Both are prime sites on the great flyway. Surely, it was either of these water bodies that Katerina, the black stork was heading for.

Radio collared in Siberia by a team of Czech scientists, Katerina showed a rather peculiar flight pattern as it zigzagged its way as if unsure of where it needed to go for winter. In December 2002, her radio collar showed her to be inactive near Chilas (Gilgit-Baltistan). In a remarkable bit of sleuthing, a joint team of Czech and WWF-Pakistan experts found that the bird had been shot by a Chilasi youth. That may have been an immense loss to science, but even in her final moments, Katerina left behind information on migrating patterns: when she was shot, Katerina was by the banks of the Indus along with half a dozen other black storks.

For researchers this meant that Katerina was not a solitary straggler flying about aimlessly. She and her group of black storks were working their way south by a route calculated to provide them abundant food en route.

Even as Waters demolishes the old erroneous belief that the Indus rises in Lake Mansarowar in Tibet, it dishes out a bit of misinformation. We are told that the Silk Road came down into Pakistan by the Khunjerab Pass. For one, there was no branch of that fabled road extending south of Kashgar. Secondly, the Khunjerab was merely a summer pasture, never a crossing point until the building of the Karakoram Highway.

On the issue of misinformation, the authors have stumbled upon another one: that Alexander marched west along the Makran coast. He did not. He led his armies west from Lasbela through Hoshab and Turbat. At Turbat, he wheeled south to reach Pasni and Gwadar. Ditto in the case of Mohammad bin Qasim where we are incorrectly told that three hundred year old Kalmati Baloch tombs were the last resting places of soldiers of the invading army.

But these are minor nits that I pick. The point the book makes is how severely our natural world is under threat. The degradation of Shandur because of the annual polo festival and the resultant trashing of this pristine plateau is akin to the threat that Deosai National Park faces because of easier access and the hordes that now visit it every summer.

More importantly, the danger to our glaciers, the largest outside polar regions, is highlighted very elaborately. Indeed the final part dealing with glaciers is the cri de coeur of the book. This issue alone makes Water in the Wilderness essential reading for the general duty babus that infest the departments of environment both at the national and provincial levels.

But it can be said with certainty this will never come to pass; the self-assured babus will never read the advice offered between these covers. One only hopes that the foolishness that almost came to pass during the early 1990s is not considered again. The federal environment ministry advised that the glaciers be seeded with coal dust in order to enhance summer melting. The idea was to quickly fill up Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs to countervail the affects of the drought.

Had that eventuality occurred, we would have been very poorly off today. Water in the Wilderness is the book to read and understand that there are no quick fixes to the sabotage we have already perpetrated against our environment. That the way ahead is long and hard.

Extract: Contrary to the common image of Pakistan as an arid, irrigated country of plains and deserts, it is thought that outside of the North and South Pole, the belt of high-altitude mountains located in Pakistan’s territories is among the most glaciated regions in the world. The Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan arc amounts to a great mass and collection of glaciated ice, and is sometimes referred to as the Third Pole.

Water in the Wilderness
Oxford University Press.
Pages 365.
Price Rs 2495.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

2 Comments:

At May 14, 2016 at 11:56 AM, Blogger Spade said...

Right , there are many dimensions to this issue . Pakistan is turning into a water scarce country , this needs immediate attention. We do need major dams, but we need to look at water pricing and use for irrigation purposes, flood irrigation does not seem to be the right way anymore. Ground water which is a significant source is also being mined, the main auquifier in Central Punjab is misused at places, we share it with India , who misuse this by very low to no tariffs . Baluchistan is since long turning more and more arid, Quetta is threatened , water pricing, recycling need to be looked at , there may be a need of a canal from Indus to Quetta in the foreseeable future . Check dams in Balucistan will work if done properly . Rain water harvesting needs to be implemented . Thar has a problem which needs special attention. Thier livestock resources are dwindling and their water sources are in many cases not fit for consumption. This needs to be corrected . We do not have at this point of time a water policy , that to me is criminal .

 
At May 15, 2016 at 3:45 PM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Great article for eye opening but unfortunately authorities at Pakistan are sleeping

 

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My Books

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

Books of Days