THATTA: Surrounded by an eerie silence and a cool breeze, the muddy blue waters of the Keenjhar lake seem to be in harmony with nature. But this impression is far from reality.
The unabated discharge of effluent from neighbouring industrial areas has been wreaking havoc with the lake’s biodiversity, a fact highlighted many times by experts as well as by communities directly dependent on the lake for their survival.
Mounting evidence of official neglect has yet again come to light after livestock carcasses and a human body were recently found floating at the mouth of the lake.
Also considered to be the second largest freshwater lake in the country, the Keenjhar lake is a major source of potable water for Karachi and parts of Thatta district, a wildlife sanctuary, and a Ramsar site. Despite these facts, the lake has still not been protected.
“It wasn’t an unusual incident since the Kalri Baghar Feeder bringing water from the Indus river to the lake carries waste from Kotri and its industrial area and the cattle pens located there,” said Kamal Palari, heading the Keenjhar Conservation Network that represents nine community-based organisations of 39 villages around the lake.
According to him, though the human body was retrieved from the lake by police, livestock carcasses were not. “The carcasses that became stuck in the lake’s gate were allowed to enter the lake by irrigation department staff as they lifted the gate up,” he said.
He also pointed out that human bodies were often recovered from the lake during the monsoon when mountainous slopes along the lake became slippery and caused incidents of falling. During the same time, waste from the Nooriabad industrial area also entered the lake through different drains.
The lake also serves a waste dumping ground for at least 15 villages with a population of about 1,500 people. Their homes are located very close to the lake.
No irrigation department official was available for comment.
Managing director of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board Misbahuddin Farid said the irrigation department was responsible for the upkeep of the lake whereas the responsibility of his department started from the Keenjhar-Gujjar headworks located about 23 kilometres from the lake.
“Here, we have a laboratory where the staff regularly tests water quality. Water is treated at the five filter plants located within and outside the city,” he said.
The recent incident brought fishermen living in the surrounding areas of the lake together and their representative forum held a meeting last week to press the government, once again, to resolve their longstanding issues.
“Around 25 years ago, there were 12 fish landing centres around the lake and the catch from the lake was not only available in the Karachi market, but was also sold to parts of Punjab. Today the catch has decreased to such an extent that our families are forced to fish in Balochistan and other parts of Sindh,” Arshad Ali of Jhimpir village told Dawn.
Explaining how the fish stocks started depleting, he said a major drop in their catch occurred when another channel from the K.B. feeder was created to irrigate agricultural fields.
“Before 1981, the lake used to receive the entire fish seed from the Indus through the feeder. But the situation changed with the establishment of a link canal set up near the lake’s Chul regulatory as the seed flowed into the irrigation channel,” he said.
The government, he added, had repeatedly ignored fishermen’s demand to either place fishing net in front of irrigation channel’s gate to allow the fish seed from the K.B. feeder to turn towards the lake or introduce fish seed annually in the lake to encourage their breeding.
“Fishing net was placed only twice during all these years; once by the fisheries department and then by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, an NGO working for fishing communities,” he said, adding that a fishing net was usable for only three years.
The fishermen regretted that the government was yet to make its fish hatchery operational, which was set up along the lake some years ago. The lake, they said, was drying up since it received water supplies only in the winter.
They also expressed their concerns about the increasing level of pollution in the lake and said that it was responsible for the outbreak of different illnesses in fishing communities.
“Having deprived of education and livelihood skill (other than fishing), we see no future. The lake is being destroyed deliberately and we will have to migrate from here sooner or later,” Abdur Rehman of the Keenjhar Khushal Welfare Organisation said.
Conversation with fishermen shows that though the government has raised the level of the lake, it has never taken any initiative to de-silt the water body.
The lake lacks a mechanism to periodically monitor its water quality while the continued discharge of waste over the years has replaced eco-friendly vegetation with harmful plants and organisms.
For instance, according to fishermen, a kind of toxic plant is ruining the little fish stocks left in the lake. “We have been seeing it for the past some years and it has rapidly occupied a vast area in the lake. The fish being caught from the affected area suffers from some kind of a skin infection, thus depriving fishermen of any benefit,” said Nazeer Jakhro, an old resident of the lake.
Government departments, they said, had been informed about it and requested multiple times for their removal but to no avail.
Ghulam Rasool Khatri of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, which has established an information centre at the lake, described the toxic plant as Salvinia molesta, a floating aquatic fern that thrives in slow-moving, nutrient rich freshwater.
“It’s an invasive species destroying the lake like a cancer, though it can be used as a biogas since it contains methane. For a year or so, we are also noticing the presence of apple snail in large numbers here.
“This invasive species, too, is contributing to the lake’s destruction. Fishermen are reporting death of their livestock after consuming plants carrying snail’s eggs,” he said.
Decades of official negligence has made people believe that the government has ‘secretly’ decided to reduce the status of the lake to a water reservoir, mainly for Karachiites.
“The situation is alarming as it seems that a conspiracy is in play. A few basic measures can help rehabilitate the lake and help support livelihood of thousands of fishermen. But official indifference has left the poor with no hope,” Mr Khatri added.
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2015