Death of the delta in Sindh

Is Punjab to blame for the plight of Sindh's delta farmers?

Zulfiqar Kunbhar
Since January, there have been five long marches from the delta regions of Sindh to Karachi, all desperately seeking the state’s attention to the water shortage and land erosion in their villages. Photo: Zuhaib Pirzado
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It took the protesters one week, to walk 150 kilometres from their homes in the coastal area of Kharo Chan to the city of Thatta, in the Sindh province. Around them, the temperatures rose as high as 46 degrees Celsius. Yet, they remained undeterred. On reaching Thatta, the men shouted, “Karbala, Karbala” to bring attention to the water emergency in their areas.

The 1,000 or so protesters did not make the headlines. Even the few media outlets which picked up the news got caught up in the maelstrom of daily political headlines and pushed it further down the bulletin.

Since January, there have been three long marches within the delta regions of Sindh, all desperately seeking the state’s attention to the water shortage and land erosion in their villages.

According to the 1991 Indus Water Accord signed between all four provinces of Pakistan, the government is supposed to release at least 10 Million Acre Feet (MAF) every year downstream to the Kotri dam in Sindh. But the agreement is usually violated and the water is only released during the rainy season. For the rest of the year, hardly any freshwater is allowed to flow into the delta, according to LEAD Pakistan, an Islamabad-based non-profit.

For the three million people of the delta, living in areas including Thatta, Badin and Sujawal, there is no fresh water for their homes or their agriculture land. “The district Thatta is mainly an agricultural area,” states LEAD in its report titled, ‘Death of the Indus Delta,’ “The riverine and deltaic tracts of the delta once formed part of a rich agriculture land. Irrigation water was readily available from the river. Now freshwater has ceased to flow in the delta channels, except in the few weeks of the monsoon season.”

Separately, the Arabian Sea, into which the Indus river flows, is swelling and rising due to climate change and turning once-fertile stretches of land into a wasteland.

“The lack of river water has put the local population in danger,” says Ayaz Lashari, who organised the Thatta march, “This is adversely impacting the livelihood and health of the villagers and the aquatic life and biodiversity of the area.”

As many as 150 water canals are being denied water, he adds. “We don’t even have clean drinking water for ourselves these days. How do we survive?”

Majority of those who live along the Indus delta are fishermen. The river’s decline has shattered their means to earn a living. In the last few years, many families have been forced to leave their homes and move to Karachi.

The situation has become so critical that since 2012, every year the coastal inhabitants have been arranging marches to the capital of the Sindh province. In 2015, a rally, with similar demands, had participants from nine districts of Sindh including Thatta, Sujawal, Badin, Tharparkar, Umerkot, Sanghar, Nawabshah and Hyderabad.

While some causes of the freshwater decline are due to mother nature, others, Sindhi farmers say, are man-made. They blame the Punjab province for diverting Sindh’s share of water for their own agriculture lands. Photo: Zuhaib Pirzado
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Pakistan’s coastline, bordering the Arabian Sea, is 1,050 kilometres long. Of which 350 kilometres fall within Sindh and 700 kilometres in Balochistan. The Indus river, Pakistan’s longest river, is fed by the glacial in the Himalayan mountain range. The water enters the delta and its 17 creeks or tributaries in Sindh before heading towards the sea. Out of 17 creeks, 15 of the waterways lie in the Thatta, Sujawal and Badin districts. Two are located within Karachi.

Water has been decreasing in the delta region for the last eight decades, according to government records. In 1938-39, 90 million acre-feet (MAF) water was released downstream to the Kotri barrage. In 2017-18, the water volume decreased to 1.7 MAF.

While some causes of the freshwater decline are due to mother nature, others, Sindhi farmers say, are man-made. They blame the Punjab province for diverting Sindh’s share of water for their own agriculture lands.

Over the years, Punjab, also known as the breadbasket of the country, has been building small dams, barrages, and canals on the Indus river to benefit their farmers.

According to a study ‘Dams and Destruction: The Case Study of Indus Delta, Sindh, Pakistan’, since 1947, 19 barrages, 43 canal systems, 38 take-offs, three storage dams and 12 link canals have been constructed on the River Indus in upper riparian Punjab.

“The Indus Water Accord of 1991, does not guarantee any minimum water requirement for the survival of the Indus Delta in Sindh,” says Gulab Shah, a representative of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. “Today, Sindh’s delta is not even getting the 10 MAF we were promised and that was agreed to by all stakeholder, from all the four provinces.”

If this continues, Shah went on, Sindh will experience a mass level of climate change refugees and migration. “The delta is dying. In the last few decades, nearly 1.5 million people have migrated from the coastline.”

Shah’s opinion is supported by a study held at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET) and the Jamshoro’s United States-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCASW). According to the study, since 1833 the Indus delta has shrunk by 92 per cent mainly due to sea intrusion. Two hundred years ago, the delta occupied 12,900 square kilometres. Now, it is only 1,000 sq km’s long.

Families who cannot find water in the river, then turn to digging out water from underground. But that too is not feasible. Due to sea intrusion, 90 per cent of the groundwater has become brackish and inconsumable.

The USPCASW study also reveals that the decreased flow of river water has also drastically impacted fishing – a major source of livelihood in the area. In 1951, the delta produced 5,000 tons of fish, which had reduced to 300 tons in recent years.

Dr Pervaiz Amir, an Islamabad-based environmental expert and Director Pakistan Water Partnership, acknowledges that Punjab is not sharing the equal burden of reduced water flow in the Indus river system. “While rainfall has reduced over the years, every province will have to take equal share under the guidelines of the 1991 water accord,” he said. Amir also suggests a change in the type of crops being planted in Punjab and Sindh, along the river. There is a need to change the cropping pattern in terms of high-water consuming crops, he adds, such as sugar-cane. Reducing sugar cane production by 10-15 per cent can add 3-5 MAF to the Kotri barrage. “But will the influential sugar mill owners in Punjab allow that?” he asks.

Kunbhar is a Karachi-based environment journalist. He tweets @zulfiqarkunbhar