KATI BUNDER, June 18: “I never had a satisfying meal as a child. At times, there was nothing to eat and my father told us to drink water when children asked for food. The first time I had a hearty meal was when my father got a large catch with the help of a new net called gujjo. I was 12 then,” Saleem Dablo, a young fisherman of Khariyoon village, told Dawn while explaining problems people faced in Keti Bunder during a recent visit.
Once a thriving coastal town of Sindh, Keti Bunder is an important part of the Indus delta consisting of four major creeks and located about 200 kilometres southeast of Karachi in Thatta district.
The town has been devastated by decades of sea intrusion.
Though no official data exists, it is said that 28 of the 42 settlements have been swallowed by the sea and the population has been displaced thrice.
The absence of government support and exploitation of landlords have made matters worse as the area is deprived of basic facilities and people caught in the vicious cycle of debt are forced to adopt unsustainable methods of fishing as no other source of employment is available to them.
This way of life is now set to threaten their survival.
“My father was fortunate enough to get a good catch in those days with these nets, but I’m unable to make ends meet,” he says.
“Fishermen are desperate. But what about the greed of the landlords who hire poor people to use these small-mesh nets throughout the year in the creeks,” says Saleem, pointing out that the extensive use of these nets for a long period is the major reason behind the drastic decline in fish catch in Keti Bunder.
The whole town, as well as villages that exist on small islands, with a population of about 30,766 as projected in the Socio Economic Baseline Study conducted by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) last year, faces an acute shortage of potable water.
The report further states that 97 per cent people of the town are illiterate and most of them are exclusive fishers.
The government had installed a desalination plant two years ago at Keti Bunder to produce 100,000 litres of freshwater daily. However, currently it is producing only between 3,000 and 5,000 litres, leaving the majority with no option but to buy water brought through tankers.
Interviews with local people indicated that financial and technical issues hindered the maintenance and functioning of the plant. Besides, the government has made no effort to persuade people use the desalinated water, which is not preferred by locals due to its taste.
“We travel to Keti Bunder city to fetch water for which we pay Rs20 for an eight-litre can,” says Khati, an old woman involved in mangrove plantation with her family in Khariyoon, inhabited by between 2,000 and 3,000 people.
The plantation initiated by the WWF would help her earn some money for her family. The non-governmental organisation has also installed solar panels on some houses in the village and set up 12 biogas plants in Keti Bunder. Mud and thatched houses dot the settlement surrounded by water. Abject poverty is evident as people lived there without facilities of sanitation, health and education. What is, however, more painful to see is a widespread use of gutka, a concoction of different ingredients mostly laced with intoxicants.
“The gutka is manufactured here and people, including women and children, spend from Rs25 to Rs30 daily to buy it,” says a villager.
People were found to be very critical of the government and said that their problems could not be solved by a couple of NGOs unless the government intervened in a big way.
“They would leave us once their project is over. The government is doing a great injustice by being indifferent to our misery. There is no employment and with each passing day life is becoming a greater burden,” said Ghulam Rasool, another villager.
Once a flourishing land
More than half a century ago when the atrocities of landlords were not so rampant and dams and barrages had not been built upstream, Keti Bunder was the hub of international trade activities in Sindh.
The deltoid area comprised vast agricultural lands brimming with marine resources. Ships from as far as Europe used to anchor here. Its main produces were red rice, coal, butter and wood.
“The land was so rich that its municipality gave a loan to Karachi. But conditions in Keti Bunder changed with a gradual decline in freshwater inflows on account of agriculture expansion and diversion of water for industrial development and hydropower projects upstream,” says Nasir Ali Panhwar, representing the WWF.
Records from the 19th century suggest that freshwater flows to the lower Indus were around 150 million acre feet per year and currently it is hardly 2MAF, he adds.
“This has gravely impacted humans and ecology of the Indus delta as it led to sea intrusion which has caused extensive damage to the region’s ecosystem leading to the destruction of mangroves, decline in fish stocks, agricultural activities and livestock grazing areas that has subsequently resulted in unemployment and despair among coastal communities and widespread migration from affected areas to urban centres.
Now the active delta is hardly 10pc of its original area.
“There is no other solution to the problem but to release at least 10MAF water downstream Kotri which had been agreed in the inter- provincial water accord of 1992,” he said.
Highlighting the plight of the coastal communities, Mr Panhwar said people living along Hawkesbay up to Keti Bunder had no access to drinking water. As a result, they paid significantly more than the elite of Pakistan for water supply. “This is perhaps the worst example of social injustice in our society and has tremendous economic repercussions for these people,” he said.