Posted: Fri May 08, 2020 2:09 pm Post subject: Shortage Of Water In Pakistan
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020
Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The Indus delta is being lost to the sea and we need to do something about it
If authorities do not act fast, Indus delta will cease to exist, spurring mass migration and ecological consequences.
"What you don’t see, you cannot feel." This phrase was used by Tanzeela Qambrani, Pakistan’s first lawmaker of African descent, to encapsulate the plight of the impoverished communities living in the once-flourishing Indus delta. Qambrani, whose Sheedi community is concentrated in the coastal regions of Makran in Balochistan province and Sindh, said the level of poverty is "incredible".
Known as the vertebra of Pakistan’s ecology and economy, the Indus delta is the fifth largest in the world and home to the seventh biggest mangrove forest. In recognition of its international importance, the wetland was designated as a Ramsar site in 2002.
It forms where the mighty Indus river flows into the Arabian Sea, creating a complex system of swamps, streams and mangrove forests. A triangular piece of fertile land is created when the fast-flowing river deposits rich sediment as it empties into the sea.
However, dam construction and mismanagement of water by the government have significantly reduced river flows, causing the delta to shrink, and threatening both human life and its ecology. The absence of flowing freshwater allows seawater into the delta, destroying the soil and the aquifers, making it unfit for humans, animals or crops.
Last year, The Third Pole reported that around 1.2 million people from the delta have already migrated to Karachi.
For years, the communities in the delta have reported the loss of livelihood, an increase in disease and forced migration to cities which are already densely populated. "Almost everyone you know has tested positive for Hepatitis C," said Qambrani.
There are acres of land where nothing can grow, and people are forced to remain only because they do not have the resources to migrate. To understand the extent of their despondency, she said, Prime Minister Imran Khan must visit the delta himself.
Yet, despite pleas from the communities and compelling recommendations made by experts in a first-of-its-kind study published in 2018, not much has changed.
Scale of loss
The study made some startling revelations. Among the most shocking discoveries is evidence that, over the last two centuries, the delta has shrunk by 92%.
With the help of remote sensing and geospatial tools, the 15-month long study conducted by five university researchers found that nearly 60% of the tidal floodplain was barren, while 32% was under water. Satellite images revealed that from 16% in 1990, the floodplain covered by mangroves had been reduced to 10%. By 2017, even with the concerted efforts of the government and conservationists, it increased to just 13%.
Altaf Siyal, a professor at the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET) in Jamshoro which led the study, was its lead author. "When the delta was a flourishing ecosystem, it had 17 creeks," he told thethirdpole.net. "Today, there are just two active ones left."
The evidence pointed to the following reasons: decreased river flow to the delta resulted in reduced sediment deposits; surface and subsurface seawater intrusion; land subsidence, sea level rise, climate change, and anthropogenic activities — all of which have contributed to the shrinkage and degradation of one of the largest ecosystems in the world.
A glacier fed system
As the glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalayas —which make up 80% of the Indus flow — melt at a faster rate, there should be more water to sustain a sizable population in the short term, but in an increasingly unpredictable manner. However, detrimental policies and ill-informed projects have destroyed both the delta and the groundwater.
The findings mirror the experiences of the residents. Gulab Shah, who lives near the village of Kharo Chan in Thatta district, said his family has 6,500 acres of land that they want to sell and move to the city but there are no buyers. Even if he wanted to cultivate crops, he is unable to find farmhands as people have migrated from his village due to the acute shortage of drinking water. "It is giving me sleepless nights," he said.
The study also found that 88.4% of the population of the delta lived below the poverty line, of which 31.4% were the "poorest of the poor".
Economy over ecology
Many experts feel that taming the mighty Indus through dams and barrages was perhaps the biggest mistake.
Nasir Panhwar, an environmentalist and former coordinator for WWF’s Indus for All Programme, said the reservoirs on the Indus and its tributaries were constructed to serve the needs of expanding agriculture as well as the subsequent industrial development. He said that today the delta is starved of sediment because economic priorities overruled the ecological consequences that will haunt us for years to come. He blamed the severe degradation of the delta on the upstream diversions of the river. "It is one of the worst examples of human interventions in nature."
Another factor, he added, is the intricate system of canals, barrages and reservoirs which transferred supplies from the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers to the areas formerly fed by the eastern rivers. This was done in order to compensate for water lost to India under the Indus Waters Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in September 1960, he said.
The irrigation system was developed in the British era to increase crop production, which turned the basin into a densely populated area. Extensive human interventions since then have led to adverse ecological consequences.
Siyal added that a series of dams were erected: the Warsak dam in 1965, followed by the Mangla dam in 1967, and the Tarbela from 1968-76.
He warned that construction of more dams might result in "no flow", to the detriment of the delta. If electricity is needed, maybe run-of-the-river plants maybe considered, as they do not obstruct water as much. Still, he emphasised that wind and solar are better options, especially when both the resources are found in abundance.
A blow to biodiversity
According to Siyal, deltas need to be kept alive as they are biologically the most "productive places" in the world, due to their rich biodiversity which provides shelter and a natural breeding ground to migratory birds and animals. In addition, he said they provide livelihood to millions of people both in and around the delta, especially those working in agriculture.
The construction of dams upstream, however, led to a decline in sediment which has translated to a massive loss in agriculture for the inhabitants of the Indus delta. Panwhar cited a 2019 World Bank study which noted that from an estimated 270 million tonnes per year at pre-development levels, the sediment that reaches the delta today is a mere 13 million tonnes.
"Flow reductions have led to significant salinity in the delta, leading to a reduction in plant diversity." He added that four out of eight plant species that thrived in the delta have disappeared in recent years.
In addition, the MUET’s United States-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water which conducted the study found that up to 78% of the water available is unfit for either drinking or farming.
The groundwater is as bad, if not worse. Evidence showed that up to 94% of groundwater samples had chloride concentration higher than the safe limit.
"We even found arsenic beyond the permissible limit prescribed by the WHO in water samples collected from installed reverse osmosis (RO) plants," said Ghulam Shabbir Solangi, a member of the research team that went by boat to collect samples of water and soil from the creeks.
Despite the significant degradation, Siyal said, the most imperilled part of Pakistan fails to draw public attention.
Poor understanding of water systems
There is little understanding among the public or policymakers about why the flow of the river is important for the sea. "The delta is considered a wasteland. The release of freshwater from the Indus is also termed 'wastage'," said Panhwar. "It is imperative to educate and sensitise everyone about the significance of the Indus delta."
If the delta fails to get fresh water from the Indus, Siyal said it may die. He shared the example of central Asia’s Aral Sea which dramatically shrank because of the damming of the Syr Darya river upstream.
The report’s lead author said that for surface seawater intrusion, the construction of dykes and levees is very important. He added that this was among the demands of the local communities in the delta as it will provide them quick and easy access to the markets of Karachi.
Water resources expert, Hassan Abbas, however, said dykes interfere with tidal action necessary for mangrove forests and roads on dykes can block high floods from draining out to the sea, trapping the communities in un-drained floodplains for months to come.
"A coastal highway through the delta is a good idea as long as it does not interfere both with the tidal action as well as natural flood flows," he concluded. The study recommended the expansion of the 38 kilometre coastal highways to up to 200 kilometres in length.
Some work had already started long before Siyal’s report. Qambrani pointed to the 87 kilometre Sindh Coastal Highway terming it a "good initiative" but added it would take a decade to complete.
Siyal further said there was field evidence that whenever levees were built in the delta, there was minimum surface seawater intrusion. He gave the example of the Netherlands, where levees have been built to protect seawater flooding.
Other recommendations included the promotion of biosaline agriculture; encouraging shrimp and crab farming in natural water bodies; imposing a ban on overgrazing and cutting of mangroves for wood; restoring dried up river channels like Ochito and Old Pinyari; ensuring water availability at the tail end of canals, such as Pinyari and Phuleli; and reviving saline lakes by adding freshwater.
But the most important thing, the study noted, is ensuring 8.6 million acre feet (MAF) of water flows annually below Kotri barrage as recommended by an international panel of experts.
Sadly, almost three years since the report was made public, none of the recommendations has been taken up by the government.
"We were approached by the Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives a year back. They had seen our study and wanted to carry out a discussion with us on how to improve the delta conditions, but nothing concrete has happened based on the report so far," said Bakhshal Lashari, Project Director at the USPCAS-W.
Lawmaker Qambrani had not read or heard about Siyal’s report. But as someone who hails from the coastal town of Badin, she was well aware of the issues of sea intrusion, waterlogging and salinity.
"We have been crying ourselves hoarse to bring this to the notice of the federal and provincial governments. If they do not take the plight of the delta seriously, the map of Pakistan will change in the coming 50 years, when all of the delta will be submerged in the Arabian Sea."
This article originally appeared on thethirdpole.net and has been reproduced with permission.
Zofeen T. Ebrahim is an independent journalist based in Karachi.
Indian PM Narendra Modi has warned Pakistan he means what he said about not wasting a single drop of ‘Indian water’, after Islamabad stated that any attempt to divert rivers would be viewed as an ‘act of aggression.’
“Once I decide to do something, I always accomplish that,” the PM told an election rally on Friday, slamming the opposition party for allowing a portion of India’s river water to leave the country.
The water over which Haryana’s farmers have the right will not flow to Pakistan now.
‘This water belongs to our farmers’: Modi vows not a single drop of Indian water will flow to Pakistan
However, Pakistani Foreign Minister Muhammad Faisal had accused India of not just planning to utilize its water share to the max, but plotting to actually divert the rivers, and framed the PM’s words as “another glaring example of the fact that the present government of India is bent upon making India an irresponsible and aggressive state that has no regard for human rights or international obligations.” He stated that Pakistan has “exclusive rights” over three western rivers under the Indus Water Treaty.
Any attempt by India to divert the flows of these rivers will be considered an act of aggression and Pakistan has the right to respond.
Modi pledged during a rally in Haryana earlier this week to “stop” the waters flowing to Pakistan and “bring it to [farmers’] households” in Haryana and Rajasthan, promising supporters that work was already underway on the project.
On Friday, he elaborated on his plan to free farmers in Haryana from dependence on weather, which left India catastrophically dry until the monsoon earlier this month drenched the nation. Modi promised to invest 3.5 lakh crore rupees over the next five years to beef up irrigation systems in the state, including recycling household water for that purpose, along with diverting river waters.
Under the Indus Water Treaty, India and Pakistan share the waters of the six rivers that run through both countries. The 1960 agreement has not been broken despite three wars. India has rights to the waters of the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers – but about 5 percent of unused water from those rivers currently flows into Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was informed on Monday that all the prep work for the Diamer-Bhasha dam has been completed and the project was ready for construction.
Taking to Twitter, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa called the announcement "historic news".
He said: "Announcing to start construction of Diamer-Bhasha dam today is historic news for all generations of Pakistan. A huge stimulus for our economy, [will] create 16,500 jobs, generate 4,500 MW hydel power and irrigate 1.2 m acres agri land, enhance Tarbela dam’s age by 35 years."
Chairing today's briefing on national water security strategy and the construction of dams to meet the country's agricultural and energy requirements, the premier was informed about the progress of all pending issues related to the dam's construction.
The premier expressed satisfaction over the progress made so far and directed authorities concerned to begin construction work on the dam. "Ensuring water security is the government's first priority," he said, according to a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office.
"In addition to ensuring the optimum utilisation of available water resources for agricultural needs, the construction of dams will help meet energy requirements at affordable rates."
The prime minister directed that local materials and expertise be used during construction to provide the people with ample job opportunities.
According to the statement, during today's meeting, PM Imran was informed that "all issues related to this critically important project, including settlement, detailed roadmap for mobilisation of financial resources etc. have been resolved and the project was ready for commencement of physical work".
The meeting was informed that Diamer-Bhasha dam had remained in limbo for decades due to various reasons.
"The construction of the dam will create 16,500 jobs and utilise a large quantity of cement and steel which will boost our industry, in addition to its main purpose of water storage and producing 4,500 MW of cheap and affordable electricity," the press release said.
"The 6.4 million acre feet (MAF) water storage capacity of the dam will reduce the current water shortage in the country of 12 MAF to 6.1 MAF. It will add 35 years to the life of Tarbela dam by reducing sedimentation. An area of 1.23 million acres of land will be brought under agriculture [use] due to this dam," it added.
The meeting was also informed that Rs78.5 billion will be spent on the area around the dam for its social development as part of the project. "[The dam] will also be a major source of flood mitigation and save billions in damages caused by floods each year," the statement added.
The chairman of Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) also briefed the meeting about the progress of the recently-commenced construction work that at Mohmand Dam.
PM Imran was also informed about the Dasu hydropower project and the progress made so far. "The premier expressed satisfaction over the progress and directed to ensure expeditious commencement of the project," the statement read.
It added that the prime minister was also told that funds have been arranged for Naulong dam in Balochistan and that work on the project will commence next year.
The premier stressed the need for starting the Sindh barrage project. "The project has huge benefits in addressing the agriculture needs of the province. It will stop soil erosion and also improve the drinking water situation for urban centres in Sindh," he said.
PM Imran also appreciated the efforts made by the water resources ministry and Wapda in pursuing the projects. He reiterated his emphasis on keeping a close eye on the quality of work and meeting timelines.
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