Climate Change Is Causing Sea Water Intrusion, Salinity & Skin Disease In Sindh Province

Climate Change Is Causing Sea Water Intrusion, Salinity & Skin Disease In Sindh Province

Ali Asghar sits still at a local Tea Shop, looking helpless and scratching his skin constantly. The 62-year-old man has been having sleepless nights since 1992 due to a skin disease.

Asghar lives in the small village Talib Khan Kalmati near Mirpur Sakro in district Thatta, around 85 kilometers from Karachi. He is not alone in this suffering; all his relatives are victims of the same skin disease. In fact, Asghar says the majority of the population of the districts of Thatta and Badin near the Indus Delta face waterborne diseases because of brackish water.

There is a lot of scientific and academic research to support this. Underground water in the area becomes saline due to a decline in flow of the Indus River from Kotri downstream to the deltaic and coastal area. The decline in flow occurs because of climate change and diversion of water in the upper basin of Indus. Consequently, this in turn leads to intrusion by the sea, and the sweet water turns saline.

“For three decades I have been seeking treatment for this disease which is caused by the water which I used to drink and bath from, through a hand pump. I’ve spent a lot of money to get rid of the itching but to no avail; it seems that there is no cure for this disease,” said Muhammad Hashim, a resident of Talib Khan Kalmati Village. He added that most of the residents of his village have also been suffering from waterborne diseases.

Doctors have advised the patients to stop using this underground water, but for the people along the coastal belt, there is no other option. Thatta district has just two water sources - ground and surface water, and both are not fit for human consumption, said Hashim.

“Cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, and skin diseases are found commonly in both districts from May to October every year. This outbreak of these diseases reduced a couple of weeks back because of the cold” said Dr. Murad Baloch who is the clinical support officer at the Sheikh Zayed Taluka Headquarter Hospital in Mirpur Sakro. "In hot and dry seasons, people drink more water due to heatwave, and the water they drink is saline which causes various waterborne diseases," Baloch said, adding that the major cause of the diseases is saline water that people are forced to drink due to a lack of other clean water options for drinking and bathing purposes.

In 2016, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) did a survey under instructions from the now defunct Water Commission headed by Justice Iqbal Kalhoro, a sitting judge of the Sindh High Court (SHC). During the survey, 52 water samples were collected from different locations along the coastal belt within the two districts of Badin and Thatta for analysis. The result of that analysis showed 87 percent of the water samples were unsafe for human consumption because the sweet water had turned saline due to sea intrusion.

“Around 80% of the populations in the coastal belt have no access to clean drinking water; people used to drain water through hand pumps which are not fit for consumption. So, we are worried more for our future generations,” said Manzoor Hussain Kalmati, a 27-year-old, consultant at Medical Emergency Resilience Foundation (MERF) NGO.

“Before the introduction of hand pumps, people used the canal water as it drains from the Indus River, and no one was affected by water-borne diseases. Now, after the installation of hand pumps by the government of province, most of the residents are suffering from water-borne diseases,” recalled, Ghulam Sarwar, a 45-year-old resident of Sakro.

Professor Dr. Altaf Ali Siyal, of the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology Jamshoro, along with his team, collaborated with the USAID supported Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water (PCAS-W) in 2018 to research water-borne diseases in the area. According to the research, sea intrusion is one of the main causes of brackish water in coastal areas. This phenomenon is threatening coastal aquifers too, said the Professor. "It has been estimated that about 0.5 million hectares of agricultural land of the Indus delta, or about 12% of the total cultivated land, are degraded due to seawater intrusion," said Siyal.

The research team led by Siyal revealed that around 14.8 percent people are affected by skin diseases, 16.4 percent had hepatitis, 9.2 percent had cancer, and 8.4 people live with sugar, blood pressure, cardiac and kidney disease. They concluded that the main cause is brackish water.

This happens because of the reduction of freshwater from the Indus River on a very large scale. There are two reasons for this acute shortage of freshwater; one is climate change, and the other is the diversion of the Indus' freshwater by barrages in the upper basin for agriculture purpose. These barrages run throughout Punjab, which is the largest and most populated province of Pakistan, according to water expert Idrees Rajput. "Due to climate change, glaciers are melting, and consequently, the quantity of water in Indus reduced which affects the lower Indus basin," Rajput said.

There are three major barrages within the upper basin area of the river Indus, namely Jinnah Barrage, Chashma Barrage, and Taunsa Barrage, all located in Punjab. These have capacity to divert 0.01 Million Acre Feet (MAF) water in the upper basin per day. "While Pakistan’s four provinces settled their water distribution issues in the 1991 water accord, unfortunately, the accord is not implemented with the same spirit," Idrees Rajput lamented. He added that the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) looks after the issues related to water among provinces and is supposed to regulate the water distribution according to the 1991 water accord, which it fails to do.

Statistics obtained from the Irrigation Department of Sindh show that the due share of province for lower basin is 48.76 MAF, however in reality, Sindh faced 15 percent shortfall from its mandated share. Consequently, that shortfall also hits the Indus delta as well. Departmental data showed that water discharge from Kotri downstream to Indus Delta was only 13 MAF from 2001 to 2020; the legal share of Sindh was supposed to be 200 MAF but the province received a massive 187 MAF less from what it was owed.

As many as 2.4 million acres of land in the Thatta and Badin districts have been inundated due to the sea intrusion of the Arabian Sea, owing to a combination of climate change and the sinking of the Indus delta. "There is an important reason behind seawater intrusion in the coastal belt of Sindh," said Nasir Pahnwar, an environmentalist. Pahnwar said it has been estimated that the area of the Indus Delta has shrunk from 3000 square KM to 250 square KM. The active delta is now only 10% of its original area.

"The Water Accord of 1991 stated that 10 MAF of water shall flow downstream from Kotri to avoid sea intrusion. However, environmentalists believe that this is insufficient flow and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has directed that a release of 27 MAF is essential for the continued survival of the Indus Delta," Pahnwar added.

In 2015, the Senate's Standing Committee for Science and Technology, issued a letter to the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, expressing fears and concerns regarding the sea intrusion along the coastal areas of Sindh. The Senate committee had warned in the letter that if proper measures were not taken, both Badin and Thatta would be submerged, followed by Karachi by 2060. Sea intrusion has already dissipated the Sokhi Bunder and Kharochhan area in Thatta.

"The overall reason behind sea intrusion in the coastal belt is the shortage of sweet water. It has huge potential to damage natural resources that may further lead to troubled livelihood and lifestyle of the people," said Jameel Hussain Junejo, an environmental expert. He said that the permanent solution to prevent seawater intrusion in the coastal belt is the flow of sufficient water from Kotri downstream.

This intrusion has also impacted the various sectors of a coastal society such as the agricultural lands that have badly been affected, and harshly intruded on food grain crops in the region. The natural and human-made threats and the succeeding risks have made it much harder for the coastal communities of both districts to endure the effects of catastrophes and external shocks, he added.

Sea intrusion has damaged the deltaic ecosystems and adversely affected the groundwater aquifers. If this is not tackled, the situation will deteriorate even more, and the province of Sindh will face irreparable loss of fisheries, mangroves, agriculture and livestock. It is expected that this issue will even affect and cause changes in land use and huge population.