Pakistan's largest lake fights for survival

Posted: 23 July 2003

With a population of 145 million, projected to more than double by 2050, Pakistan is very dependent on a healthy water supply. But its irrigated land is plagued with spreading salinity, and its freshwater lakes are choking to death on polluted effluent and sewage. One example is the Manchar, Pakistan's largest freshwater lake. Mohammad Shehzad reports.

Manchar is a major source of water in an arid region, but it faces an ecological disaster, which is endangering the livelihood of over 100,000 fishermen and causing disease and death. Located in the southern province of Sindh, Manchar is a vast natural depression flanked by hills in the west and the south and the mighty Indus river in the east.

Dying lake

Environmentalists say the 100 sq mile lake is choking to death due to three reasons. One, Manchar does not get enough fresh water replenishment, two, increasing salinity because of effluent brought in by the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD) and, three, rise in the lake's bed due to sedimentation.

"The lake has become an agricultural waste dump for those living upstream (in the northern Punjab province). Pollution has drastically reduced the catch, forcing 60,000 fishermen to migrate and millions of migratory birds to desert the lake," said fisherman Ghulam Mustafa Mirani at a dialogue on Manchar Lake by nongovernmental organization (NGO), Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).

Threatened livelihoods

Fishing for trouble are the over 100,000 fishermen, most of whom live in boats - a unique aspect of Sindhi culture. "A decade ago around 2,000 households lived in boats on the lake's shores. Today, only 300 do. Thus, a 1000 year relationship between the fishermen and the lake is threatened.

A few decades ago, the fishermen were prosperous folk. But now their catch is down to a tenth and under a revival of the banned contract system of the 17th century, they have to surrender 25 per cent of the fish to the contractor. "We are condemned to starvation," cries Mirani.

An official of the Sindh Education Department, Akram Jatoi, says, "Poverty is fast engulfing the people of Manchar. Using US$1 per person as a baseline, 50 per cent of all men and 90 per cent of all women over 15 years are below the poverty line." In terms of economic and social indicators, the area could make Sub-Saharan Africa look good. The average household monthly income here ranges between US $17 and US $50. A quarter of the men and 85 per cent of the women over 15 years are jobless.

The literacy rate is also abysmally low. Three quarters of the boys and 84 per cent of girls in the age group of 5 to 15 years have never seen a school.

A fellow of NGO, the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), Naseer Memon, who has done a study on the lake's degradation, says that though the lake is practically a sewer today, it has seen better days.

"Until the early 90s, Manchar attracted thousands of tourists who would visit it in winter and camp around it for weeks to take in nature's bounty. Unfortunately, the place gives a deserted look now," Memon laments.

Water-born diseases

What's left in the vanishing lake is a germ-infected sludge. "The water used to be clean and sweet. We never contracted any water-borne diseases. But now it stinks. Most of our people remain sick," observes Meerani.

Despite the fact that water-borne diseases are endemic, the lake people have to trek to a distant village for medical aid. The facilities are appalling there with one dispensary and no medicines. There is no lady doctor either. "Hundreds of people die every year because of the government's callousness," claims an activist.

But expect things to get worse before they get any better, if at all. Test reports indicate an alarming rate of salinity build-up, which is a serious threat to the lake's existence. The water contains 12,308 milligrams per litre of TDS (total dissolved solids). "You have to dilute the lake to wash away the pollution. That is the only solution," says LEAD water expert Javed Afzal.

Spreading salinity

"Manchar is badly hit by the construction and enlargement of the artificial channels linking the Indus with the lake and the construction of flood embankments to the north. MNVD brings a considerable supply of saline water into the lake," points out Memon.

An official of the Sindh Irrigation Department expresses his helplessness, remarking that, "We understand the situation. The lake is dying due to the shortage of fresh water. We used to release water into the lake for its survival but we cannot do so because the Indus River is almost dry. There is no spare water to released into it."

Another looming threat is the Sehwan Barrage which is under construction. Under the project, the lake will be used as a storage reservoir. Manchar isn't the only lake that is choking. All major wetlands and lakes in Pakistan are turning into cesspools. Many face irreversible damage, and several species of flora and fauna are disappearing from lakes in Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province and the Northern Areas.

Experts say that before embarking upon a high-cost clean-up of Manchar, the authorities should formulate a broad agenda.

"Instead of a piecemeal approach, one has to see the issue collectively. There should be a board of experts to examine how these lakes need to be protected," recommends LEAD chief Ali Tauqeer Sheikh.

Source: OneWorld South Asia, 10th July 2003.