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Dangerous waters

August 27, 2013

THE Indus has been in a state of high and medium flood for the last several days, evoking memories of previous years’ deluges. So far a peak of 567,000 cusecs of water has passed through Guddu. An equivalent amount is likely to pass through the barrage in the coming days.

The expected 700,000-cusec level was not reached thanks to the delayed arrival of waters from the eastern rivers. Had the expected amount been on its way, it would have been a test case for Sindh’s irrigation authorities that recently oversaw the refurbishment of the river’s dykes.

The Sindh government, with financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank, recently spent some Rs18 billion on the repair of 71 dykes identified after the 2010 super floods that spelt disaster for Sindh. Another 17 schemes are pending but five of them will be taken up first if the Federal Flood Commission releases the promised amount.

The irrigation authorities appear confident that the repaired dykes can withstand 800,000 to 900,000 cusecs. Such a claim can only be tested when a quantum of water, equivalent to the over 1,100,000 cusecs of the 2010 floods, reaches the Arabian Sea in Thatta safely, after passing through Sindh’s three main barrages, even though experts say that all technical specifications in repair work have been met. The present floodwaters have soaked the dykes sufficiently. Luckily, no big or small breach has been reported so far.

In fact, from the irrigation officials’ point of view, it is the receding floodwater that is more dangerous for embankments than the rising river. The quality of the new work is determined once the water recedes. For instance, the path/surface on top of the levees should remain motorable post-flood.

There has been a view that the Punjab/federal authorities calculating water discharges did not share/disseminate the correct figures with/to their counterparts in Sindh, thus causing them to start preparing for the kind of flood seen in 2010. The water flows at Chashma barrage are said to have been wrongly calculated and communicated to Sindh between Aug 13 and 15 — the mistake was detected by the provincial secretary, irrigation. Heavy machinery had by then been mobilised, stone stocks were dumped at vulnerable points. All this incurs huge expenses.

It is only the katcha area which has been inundated completely, displacing the population living there. Historically, the people here don’t leave their abodes unless the floods strike. They have been living for centuries on land that is extremely fertile. Soil fertility increases when the floodwaters bring huge deposits of silt and other nutrients with them. But presently, the people are in need

of humanitarian help from the government. The administration tries to evacuate them via boats or they themselves wade through the waters to reach safer places. Still, some families opt to stay on the rooftops of their houses.

Painful memories of the 2010 floods are still fresh. The waters devastated huge swaths of the country, badly hitting Sindh’s eight districts located on the right bank of the Indus. On Aug 7, 2010, the Tori bund breach downstream Guddu displaced millions from both the katcha and settled areas besides claiming lives.

That breach was described by many as deliberate to divert the water. Sindh suffered the loss of billions of rupees in terms of the damage done to the agriculture sector and the irrigation infrastructure. According to the Supreme Court’s Flood Inquiry Commission, formed after the 2010 floods, Sindh reported the most (Rs372bn) in losses followed by Punjab (Rs219bn).

Then came the 2011 heavy monsoon rains that played havoc with lower Sindh — the breadbasket of the province — on the left bank of the Indus. At that time Sindh was set to have a bumper cotton crop. But it was washed away. Late monsoon rains flooded even the urban areas of upper Sindh in September last year.

In 2011, it was mainly the encroachments on natural waterways in lower Sindh which were behind the devastation as the accumulating rainwater could not be drained for a long time, affecting soil fertility in orchards and farmlands.

The Sindh government declared building encroachments on natural waterways and river dykes an offence. It resolved it would get the natural waterways cleared of encroachments and all kind of structures. These waterways have not yet been cleared especially in lower Sindh. Settlements in the katcha area are increasing. The government doles out land to powerful landlords for farming, which are otherwise meant for forests, a natural defence against floods. It seems that we have learnt few lessons.

No properly worked out disaster mitigation plan has been shared with civil society or announced by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority.

Keeping in view the experiences of 2010-2012 and the effects of climate change, it appears that Sindh is now prone to disasters but we have yet to show the commitment needed to ensure minimal loss to life, property and our irrigation network. The majority of the province’s population is directly or indirectly associated with the agriculture sector. The irrigation and agriculture sectors are inseparable. Sukkur Barrage is the lifeline of the agrarian economy and only recently the Indus River System Authority pointed out violations of rules at the barrage which caters to the irrigation water needs of 25pc of the canal command areas in the country.

Irsa believes the barrage is at risk due to a large island-like formation in the middle of storage area. A study on the rehabilitation of the barrage is in progress and while we wait for it to be completed we hope that the expected second peak due to hit Guddu passes safely through Sukkur Barrage.

The writer is Dawn’s senior reporter in Hyderabad.