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FOOTPRINTS: LEFT HIGH AND DRY

August 13, 2017
A VILLAGER looks at the groundwater well in a village downstream the Darawat dam on its left side that has gone dry.—Photo by writer
A VILLAGER looks at the groundwater well in a village downstream the Darawat dam on its left side that has gone dry.—Photo by writer

A STEEP, zigzagging road takes travellers from the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway to the Kohistan area. The terrain is normally barren and rocky, with sand flats here and there. The recent rains though have brought grass to the low hills where nais, the natural watercourses, flow.

As in any other arid region, the people here are dependent on the rains. One of the oldest of the watercourses, Nai Baran, is an important source of irrigation, eventually falling into the mighty River Indus in Thatta. As I travel deep into the area, shepherds look after their herds of goats and sheep that graze on the wild bushes dotting the landscape these days.

But for those dependent on Nai Baran’s flows in Thana Bula Khan, the rains have proved a bane. The huge structure of the Darawat dam has been built on the watercourse to store its flows, which has submerged cultivable land and inundated a number of villages.

“We have been left to fend for ourselves,” complains wrinkled octogenarian Long Khoso, despondency writ large on his face. Khoso’s village is named after him in the revenue record and is one of the 25 villages falling in the dam’s reservoir area. The resettlement of these populations was to be taken care of under the project.

A resident of Yar Mohammad Palari, Qamar Deen, reminisces that Nai Baran never threatened his village or other ones. “Before the dam’s construction we were never worried but now the threat of inundation looms large over us. When the dam’s storage was 108m in 2016, in Long Khoso and other villages, land and groundwater wells from where we lift water for crop cultivation were all submerged,” he remarks. The fear is that if the dam attains the 112m storage level, it will inundate more villages as Nai Baran’s backflows build pressure upstream.

Any development project always has as a basic component the resettlement of affected communities. In this case, people have been overlooked though the project stood completed in 2014. A federal government document says the Sindh government was to bear the cost of land acquisition and resettlement, estimated at Rs1.2 billion. No evidence is in sight though that any of these funds were spent.

“The storage level of the Darawat dam is 105.5m now and it was 108m in August 2016,” says the dam’s project director, Iqbal Shaikh. “Water can go over the 119m mark by overtopping spillways in case of torrential rains.” It must have inundated at least six villages upstream during this year’s rains, he adds.

With the monsoon season set to last till mid-September, the forced relocation of more villages upstream looks imminent. Extreme weather events have become more frequent in view of climate change.

Accompanied by several villagers, the elderly Long Khoso takes me to a location upstream of the Darawat dam. “Since Nai Baran’s water is being stored in the dam since 2016, its backflows have thrown everything into jeopardy for us,” he murmurs. “For crop cultivation we were dependent on flows in the natural waterway which are triggered by the rains in the summer. Last year’s rain submerged my village and now my agricultural land is inundated,” he explains. “Wherever we went we had to move away as this or that piece of land belonged to someone else.”

The story doesn’t end here. If one community fears inundation upstream, those living downstream confront somewhat drought-like conditions. Populations on the dam’s left side are literally left high and dry, for groundwater wells have gone dry. These wells provided drinking water for human consumption. Basically, it is populations on the dam’s right side that are to benefit from the reservoir once the provincial irrigation department builds watercourses. A feasibility for this is under way.

Meanwhile, the villagers now travel 6km on motorbikes and donkey carts to fetch water, which incurs extra expenses. Many living downstream tend to work as daily wage earners in other areas to make ends meet. Villagers fear that if the authorities don’t intervene to ensure water supply, they will have to migrate. “Ever since it [the dam] was built we don’t even have access to drinking water, forget sowing crops,” says a dejected villager, Arbab Khaskheli, in Deh Okhrigas in Kotri taluka. Another villager, Ramzan, interjects: “Whenever Nai Baran rises our wells are recharged to help us cultivate crops of wheat and vegetables, including onion. We last cultivated crops in 2012. Now we can only eke out a living if an off-taking channel from the dam is given to us, or some other arrangement is put in place. Without that, we are doomed.”

Inaugurated by the then president Asif Ali Zardari, the reservoir was built by Chinese engineers during the last PPP government’s tenure at a cost of Rs9.3bn. Now, its cost is to be revised at Rs11.67bn. The dam’s command area is located in Thatta where 25,000 acres of land are to be distributed among landless peasantry, especially women. The Sindh government is not ready to take over the operational control of the dam, at least for now. The Sindh irrigation department lacks the expertise to manage such medium-sized dams according to official communication by Wapda, which has been pressing the provincial government to take over control of the dam since 2014.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017