A Thirsty Delta

Muhammad Abbas Khaskheli reflects on the dying ecosystem of the Indus delta – and how matters came to this point

A Thirsty Delta
According to a 15-month research study of the US-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCAS-W) located at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology Jamshoro, “The Indus Delta which requires 10 MAF water regularly could only get 1 MAF of water during years 2018 and 2019.”

Since the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord, except during the year of floods in 2010-11, the Indus delta has never seen 10 MAF of water in its body. Once it had 17 creeks but today only two creeks, namely Khobar and Khar, are in existence. This is the same Indus delta which once was spread over 12,900 square kilometers in 1833. But during the last 200 years it has shrunk down by 92 % and consequently today it is merely a curvy barren piece of land filled with sand - the whole comprising just 1,000 square kilometers of area.

Despite knowing exactly why it is so important to allow water to flow freely down to the Kotri Barrage till its tail end, the babus of the water bureaucracy of IRSA and WAPDA have been turning a blind eye to the problem.

When it comes to releasing water downstream to the Kotri Barrage, it would appear that the bureaucrats don’t even want to think about the fact that the entire ecosystem of the delta is close to dying altogether.

Many fish species - a source of livelihood for locals - have been lost. Mangrove forests, a protective wall against cyclones and floods for the coastal belt, are disappearing at a great rate and most importantly the Arabian Sea has been intruding and eating up Sindh’s land speedily - which results in hundreds of villages lost on the ground.

During the era of the Musharaf regime, it was suggested by a committee of international water experts that 5,000 MAF water must be released to Kotri downstream on a daily basis but IRSA neglected such a proposal by saying it was a waste of water and cited the reason that 1,000 MAF of water was worth 1 billion US dollars - and so Pakistan could not afford to bear such a heavy financial loss. Today, many in Sindh would ask IRSA officials as to what they think of the cost of 3.5 million acres of Sindh’s land, which has been eaten up by the sea so far. Can Pakistan afford to bear this loss?

A scene from the Indus delta region

It is impossible to understand the consequences of this process of environmental destruction if one is unaware of the history of civilizations and their relationship to water supplies. When brackish water occupies the place of sweet/fresh water, it destroys populations, turns green agriculture lands into barren and unproductive fields and greatly affects local flora and fauna. In other words, there is a destructive change in the whole geography of that particular region - all within no time.

Dams and barrages built upstream had long had a destructive impact on the Delta. The dams were built for agricultural activities - so we are told - but later on they were used to generate electricity. Keti Bandar which once was a busy seaport and a trade hub of Sindh is a desolate, abandoned piece of land today. The stories of two other famous seaports situated in the coastal belt of Sindh i.e. Shah Bandar and Ali Bandar are similar.

Many in Sindh wonder as to why they must pay the price if federal authorities cannot store the water of melting glaciers and rains. The perspective of those who oppose dams gains strength under such conditions.

If we go into the historical background of agreements on water distribution between Sindh and Punjab, we are compelled to say that there appears to have been a systematic flunking of agreements by authorities on behalf of the upstream province. Morevoer, the 1945 water distribution agreement was not between two provinces - because Pakistan hadn’t come into being at that time. But as a result of Radcliffe Award in June 1947 when Punjab was divided into two parts, control over water went to the part that became Indian Punjab. The 1960 Water Treaty between India and Pakistan was, in effect, penned between India and Pakistani Punjab - in the sense that its goal was primarily to protect the water supply of the latter. Sindh does not appear to have been a major consideration in that moment.

In 1991, the last water accord between Sindh and Punjab failed to resolve the water distribution question. As a result, today the Indus delta and surrounding agricultural lands are quite literarlly dying of thirst.

Long ago when dams and barrages were not yet built, there were around 18 different waterways from where the water used to reach the Arabian Sea. But now, stories of those waterways have become part of the folklore of the Larr belt’s rich history.

The establishment of the Kotri Barrage in 1958 proved to be the last stamp on the fate of the Indus delta. Fresh water flow was restricted and only during flood seasons was water allowed to go downstream from Kotri Barrage. That is the situation as matters stand today.

Such harsh circumstances have made life unlivable for the people and livestock in the Delta, so they have decided to migrate to areas which lie closer to the barrage. It has become an uphill task for the oldest indigenous community of Sindh, i.e. Mallahs, to continue their fishing occupation in this region. The upper and lower parts of the delta are both in serious trouble.

The Indus delta is the tail end of the mighty river Indus, one of the most beautiful ecosystems of the world. Today when sand flies about in the barren body of the river Indus at Jamshoro and when one sees anchored boats of disheartened Mallahs somewhere along the banks of an empty Indus, it is a most painful sight. One wonders why the government authorities do not feel that pain. In fact, one also wonders: Why do they think that the meeting of fresh water and marine water is somehow a loss of water?

Experts have also warned Pakistan that if the delta remains waterless as it is today, then the coastal belt districts of Sindh i.e. Thatta, Sujawal and Badin simply will not be here in 2050. The Indus delta has been dying bit by bit. In the wake of ecological collapse, a great civilization is counting its last breaths.

If the authorities are to open their eyes to the scale of the problem, now would be the best time. A delay would mean that the Indus delta would be remembered only in wistful songs tomorrow.

The writer can be reached at abbaskhaskheli110@gmail.com