Pakistan: Drinking Dust

Courtesy of The Globe and Mail, an interesting look at the challenges posed by the shrinking water resources in the Indus Basin and the emergence of a risky geopolitical environmental crisis.  As the article notes:

“…The Indus looks nothing like the mighty river from history books. Alexander the Great once sailed galleys along these waters; centuries later, the British used steamboats. Now, the decaying remnants of boats are stranded high on the sandy banks, dozens of metres above the brown trickle that was once a legendary river. Only small fishing skiffs remain on the water, and most sit empty.

As a sandstorm sweeps down from the dunes, obscuring the river with its haze, a fisherman named Ghulam Ali turns away and says what everybody fears in Pakistan: “The desert is coming back.”

Water scarcity in the Indus basin may be the world’s most dangerous environmental phenomenon. If anything will cause a civil war in Pakistan, or a conflict with its nemesis, India, many analysts believe that it will be water.

In southern Pakistan, the legendary Indus river looks nothing like  the mighty waterway described in history books. A local fishermen's  association says the number of boats has dwindled from 112 to 50 in the  past three years, as the water levels decrease and fish disappear.Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail

In southern Pakistan, the legendary Indus river looks nothing like the mighty waterway described in history books. A local fishermen’s association says the number of boats has dwindled from 112 to 50 in the past three years, as the water levels decrease and fish disappear.

Civilization in this region depends on snow melting from the Himalayas, feeding tributaries that join the Indus. These pour into the largest continuous irrigation system on the planet, transforming the desert into fields of rice and wheat.

But the system is breaking down. Dry conditions in the past few years have prompted bitter conflicts: Southern Pakistan accuses the north of grabbing more than its share of water; many in the northern regions, in turn, blame their upstream neighbours in India for stealing water. In the mountains that give birth to the rivers, struggles over hydroelectricity are spurring rebellion in Kashmir.

These arguments now dominate regional politics. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad this week, the top item on Pakistan’s agenda was water, not terrorists or insurgents.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister held an emergency meeting this month, but failed to settle a water dispute between the country’s major provinces, Sindh and Punjab. Senior ministers from India and Pakistan have visited each other in recent weeks, trying to restart peace talks for the first time in two years, but the fledgling dialogue has been hampered by disagreement over water.

The talks have also been dogged by Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a group suspected of links to terrorism. This year, the group took up the slogan “water or war,” accusing India of blocking rivers. It says the rallying cry has boosted recruitment in rural areas.

A presentation by the Lahore Chamber of Commerce to a delegation from the local U.S. consulate this spring spelled out a nightmare scenario in the starkest terms: “It can result in confrontation between two nuclear states,” one slide said. Another slide repeated the warning: “No water means poverty, hunger, war.”

Ironically, these problems have their origins in a triumph of engineering: the spread of irrigation that allowed the Indus basin to support millions of extra people.

The region has always been arid, so farmers have depended on irrigation for thousands of years, but the network of canals and ditches expanded dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pakistan’s irrigated lands have almost doubled since the country’s birth in 1947; during the same period, its population grew fivefold. Populations have also exploded across the border, in Indian states that rely on the same rivers.

Rupshee, right, a rice farmer in Badin district south of  Hyderabad, Pakistan, now uses a well outside of his village to get  water. The pump in his village has run dry, and the others provide water  contaminated with salt.Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail

Rupshee, right, a rice farmer in Badin district south of Hyderabad, Pakistan, now uses a well outside of his village to get water. The pump in his village has run dry, and the others provide water contaminated with salt.

“It’s like pouring an ocean into the sand,” said Abrar Hussain Kazi, president of a leftist party in southern Pakistan and author of two books on water issues. “But we’re increasing our population at terrific speed, and everybody needs water and sustenance.”

The grand experiment in large-scale irrigation worked well in the past century. In Badin district, south of Hyderabad, old farmers still recall the joy of seeing the digging machines carving canals into the dusty landscape. Nagi, a wizened 75-year-old (from a generation that often doesn’t bother with last names), gestured with his cigarette at an expanse of rice fields stretching to the horizon.

“Before, this was a desert,” he said. He took a long drag on the cigarette and looked down at his feet, where the hard-baked earth was starting to resemble a desert once again. Planting season arrived two months late this year, he said, because the canal water remained low. “Day by day now, the water is less and less,” he said.

Measurements of water levels in rivers have become controversial, as all sides accuse their opponents of fudging statistics. But nobody disagrees that the farmers at the bottom of the canal system, the “tail-enders,” are suffering.

Sindh province, in southern Pakistan, has already witnessed street protests, mass migrations and whole villages abandoned to the spreading desert. Some farmers are driven off their land by a lack of water, while others give up because the water has become too polluted or salty.

Mahmood Nawaz Shah, secretary-general of the Sindh Growers Board, says the meagre flows reaching southern Pakistan are not enough to wash away industrial contaminants or to prevent sea water from encroaching inland. Although farmland has increased in Pakistan as a whole, he said, Sindh now leaves 44 per cent of its arable land unused, compared with 28 per cent in 1947.

“The soil is being destroyed,” he said. “I’ve seen people drinking water you wouldn’t want to stand beside.”


Along the edge of the muddy Indus, in the town of Kotri, the fishermen have their own way of measuring the loss of water.

Mohammed Molah, district president for the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, stood on a bluff overlooking the river, high enough that leaping into the water would be a deadly plunge, and described happier days when the water would have reached his ankles.

In those times, he said, flotillas carried whole wedding parties on to the river, and the waters reverberated with singing and the music of one-stringed ektaras.

Mr. Molah estimated that 31 types of fish have disappeared from the river, leaving only smaller species that survive in shallow water. Only three years ago, his district had 112 fishing boats, he said, and now only 50 remain.

Many fishermen have moved away, joining the throngs of poor in city slums.

“It’s not just our livelihood, it’s our culture and customs that were lost,” he said.

Like the river itself, the reasons for the declining waters are murky. Pakistan’s own measurements of river levels flowing into the country show some declines in the past three years but no changes big enough to account for the shortages downstream. Climate change seems an unlikely culprit in the short term, as melting glaciers are expected to boost river flows over the next few decades, before the dwindling ice fields eventually start to hurt the supply.

A World Bank report observed that the volume of fresh water reaching the sea has fallen almost to zero in some recent years, suggesting that Pakistan now consumes too much water for irrigation.

In theory, the canal system is regulated by the Indus River System Authority, which oversees a 1991 accord between the provinces. But the IRSA has been paralyzed by arguments among its board; three of five members tendered their resignations in recent weeks amid squabbles between delegates from downstream and upstream provinces.

A similar paralysis has prevented Pakistan from building dams that might store the excess water during monsoon rains, keeping a supply on hand for the rest of the year. Existing dams and storage reservoirs are filling up with silt. Former president Pervez Musharraf announced plans to build a new dam, Kalabagh, in 2005, but the project never got under way because of objections from Sindh and other parts of the country.

For those near the bottom of the rivers, any construction of waterworks raises the fear of the flows being manipulated by those upstream. Yet tail-enders have lost faith in local authorities too.

“We’ve had mismanagement at the local level,” said Abdul Halik, who owns 20 hectares of rice in Badin district. “Nobody repairs the water channels. The government officers just come on festival days to collect money from us.”

Faced with such arguments inside the country, some politicians in Pakistan have started to deflect the anger toward neighbouring India.

Abdul Salam, deputy head of Badin district, who owns a farm himself, says most of his neighbours blame those immediately upstream for the recent problems.

But he is trying to persuade them to look farther afield, at the new hydroelectric dams under construction in India.

He pours a glass of water drawn from the well on his farm. It looks cloudy and tastes of salt.

“This taste does not belong in our mouths,” Mr. Salam said.

“The next war will be over water.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 25th, 2010 at 6:49 am and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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