Salt in wounds

Posted: 6 February 2003

Author: Shahid Husain

Damage to the water flow of the once-mighty Indus is forcing major changes in Pakistan - and could lead to conflict. Shahid Husain reports.

The river Indus, Pakistan's major water source for drinking and agriculture, is so overused that fishermen and farmers are being forced to migrate as local authorities battle over water rights. river IndusBoats on a section of the River Indus, Pakistan, showing how shallow the river has become.© Jim HolmesThe river once provided such rich pastures for Pakistan, particularly in the vast delta area, that the country could feed itself and had a lucrative trade in exports of rice to the Gulf states. But a series of grandiose schemes on the river, intended to boost production, have so damaged the water flow that the country is now forced to import an increasing volume of grain to survive. Drought and rising population have worsened the problem.

In other areas, farmers are switching from rice production to cotton because it requires less irrigation water, but this is not enough to solve the problem. The World Bank has intervened in the crisis to try to get farmers to pay market rates for water, in a bid to reduce use, but so far without success.

The Indus is fed by the glaciers of southern Tibet. It flows almost a thousand miles north and west through Kashmir before it veers sharply to the south, joining Afghanistan's Kabul river just north of the Khyber Pass.

At the Pakistan border, despite the droughts of the last five years, there is still plenty of water in the river, but as the river runs hundreds of miles further south it becomes a different and increasingly desperate story.

Water migrants

Those who have seen the most rapid deterioration of the river are the fishermen of Keti Bundar in the delta, said to be the oldest inhabitants of the Indus Valley. They have been forced to move time and again in search of fresh water and are poised to migrate again because the once productive 600,000-hectare delta cannot provide them with a living. Cattle are now being replaced by camels.

Keti Bundar is a small town of about 3,000 people, 80 miles south of Karachi in Sindh province. It was once a bustling port, but people there are now poor, malnourished, and usually barefooted. "We can't wear shoes because sea water is all around and they become ruined," said Beer Jat, 70, a fisherman of Keti Bundar.

Twenty years ago, Beer Jat lived in Khobar, one of the delta branches of the Indus. He cultivated paddy rice and was involved in fishing, but the salt water contaminated the river and the land and he had to migrate in search of "sweet water".

He seems eager to migrate again. "There is no fresh water here," he explains. "We can't even construct a cemented water tank because we don't have money. Can you see that mud tank? Humans and dogs quench their thirst from the same tank."

Farmers grew rice in Keti Bundar and Hindu traders would take the surplus to the coastal belt of India and the Persian Gulf states in exchange for goods. Fishing and livestock rearing had a secondary importance, but this was prior to the construction of dams and barrages upstream.

The large-scale harnessing of the Indus waters began as early as 1890, when the Punjab irrigation system was built and used the four major eastern tributaries of the 1,800-mile river for perennial irrigation.

Salt water

Since then, successive schemes have continually reduced the flow to the delta, increasing the ingress of salt water. In 1932, the Sukkur barrage was built; in 1958, the Ghulam Mohammad barrage came into operation; and, in the early 1960s, the huge Tarbela dam was constructed. All these "developmental measures" adversely affected the lives and livelihoods of farmers, fishermen and graziers - especially in the lower reaches of the river.

Once rich in biodiversity, the Indus delta has slowly been dying because there is no fresh water flowing into it. Akhtar Hai, a senior economist associated with applied economicsresearch centre at the University of Karachi, says the delta had once been a major exporter of fish, but over-exploitation, lack of rain and the intrusion of sea water has led to a rapid decline.

Tahir Qureshi, director of coastal ecosystems at the World Conservation Union, based in Karachi, says: "The salinity of seawater in Keti Bundar during winter ranges from 3.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent, which is extreme saline condition."

The need for more water is affecting the whole Indus. There are fears that the acute shortage of irrigation water will not only impact badly on the agrarian economy of Pakistan but may also lead to more border disputes between India and Pakistan, and to inter-provincial wars.

River conflicts

Haris Gazdar, an independent economist, says: "I think riparian conflict occurs at many different levels - between countries, between administrative units within a country, and then within smaller localities, and even between and within villages. In some cases, it flares up with a major political event or even a violent development at local level." He warns that the failure to manage the Indus basin system effectively is a serious problem.

According to official statistics, a shift is already occurring from water-intensive rice to cotton. During 2001, the area under rice fell by 369,000 hectares to 2.01m hectares, while the area under cotton increased by 234,000 hectares to 3.16m hectares. Yields of wheat, a staple crop, have been dropping for 10 years.

Gazdar says: "In large parts of the Indus basin, especially in southern Punjab and in Sindh, there is an overwhelming reliance on river flows and surface water irrigation because the ground water is now generally saline and because aquifers also get charged through canal irrigation systems."

Pakistan, he claims, is generally reaching a stage where it really has exhausted the potential for large-scale engineering works. "The kind of solution that has been promoted or proposed [by the World Bank] is creating corporations that will market irrigation water," he says.

But Arif Hasan, an architect and sociologist, takes a different view. "The problem is not so much of water shortage as absence of water management," he argues.

In the arid areas of Pakistan, Hasan says, water tables have been falling rapidly because of excessive withdrawal of water and since people began using wells for flood irrigation.

He says: "They have to stop using flood irrigation, they must switch to crops that require less water, and they have to prevent water run-off so that aquifers can be recharged."

This article was first published in The Guardian, Wednesday January 15, 2003. © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.