CAN a river have legal rights as, say, a human being? Why not, a Maori would say. Te Awa Tupua, New Zealand’s third largest river located in the North Island, was recognised as a legal entity in March 2017 by an act of parliament. This move came in response to a 140-year-old demand of the Whanganui tribe of the region which has traditionally treated the river as its ancestor. This in effect means that a close link between man and nature has been recognised and man’s obligations towards the river — his lifeline — acknowledged.
This is a unique concept which makes much sense. Within the span of a few weeks, an Indian court followed suit, and the Ganges and Jamna, sacred rivers of the Hindus, were also given legal rights. These initiatives have reinforced the personhood rights of rivers movement, which is rapidly gaining ground worldwide. It has significantly caught the attention of Pakistani environmentalists as well. I first heard of it the other day from Muhammad Ali Shah, the chairperson of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, who spoke of this in his speech on dams at a meeting organised by the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences. Who else but the fisherfolk would be the first to ponder the implications of the savage abuse of rivers in Pakistan?
A few facts and figures quoted by Shah should be eye-openers. Of the thousands of rivers in the world, only 292 are defined as large — that is, they carry over 1,000 cubic kilometres water — but only 21 of them reach the sea. The remaining have been depleted by dams and mega irrigation projects.
The worst form of social injustice in Pakistan can be found in water distribution.
What about Pakistan? The Indus, the only river to reach the sea in the country, is in its death throes. Dams and canals are draining the waterway while garbage and solid waste are choking it. As a result, the sea is encroaching on the delta, strangling the mangroves and affecting the ecological health of the coastline and the river mouth. Pollution is another major enemy of the Indus and its tributaries.
And the dams? According to the International Commission on Large Dams, Pakistan has 150 dams of the height of at least 15 metres, including the world’s largest earth-filled dam (Tarbela). Yet we seem to be desperate for another one.
If the personhood rights of the Indus were to be accepted in principle, we would have to ensure that the river is not polluted, no more dams are built on it and water is drawn judiciously so that the river’s ecology is not damaged further or marine life decimated. Many lakes have also been affected by the pollution and depletion of river waters.
Pakistan is a water-scarce country, we are told, and our exploding population needs water to live. What is strange is that the many options available have not been explored seriously. There is no discourse on reservoirs to store the excess water that the heavy monsoon rains and the floods bring. There is no mention of conservation in agriculture (drip irrigation has never been tried on a large scale) and industry, or of the need to check the wasteful practices of the rich. And what about the leaking pipes which drain away as much as 30 per cent of the water in Pakistan’s largest city where the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board rules over the water kingdom. Muhammad Ali Shah’s was a lone voice that spoke strongly of conservation at the Irtiqa meeting.
The worst form of inequity and social injustice in the country can be found in water distribution. It is no wonder that the Supreme Court-mandated commission on water and sanitation in Sindh expressed its “serious resentment” on the “unfair” distribution of water in Karachi recently. Water theft, the operation of a tanker mafia and the prevalence of illegal water pumps are the sad story of Karachi’s water supply system. These illegalities are provided cover by allowing half of the 2,600 flow meters installed on the intervention of the Supreme Court to remain out of order. And who are the beneficiaries? Naturally, the rich and the privileged who can buy water at exorbitant prices to meet their needs, while the indigent continue to be denied even this basic necessity of life.
With the lack of availability of water is in itself the first major issue that has to be addressed, no one speaks about the quality of the water that is being supplied. It is not fit for drinking. As a result, water has become a commodity that is sold in the market and that has made many people wealthy. But there is no guarantee that bottled water is always safe for drinking.
The root of the problem lies at the source. Alas, rivers have no rights in Pakistan. But neither do the citizens, not on paper but in reality. This is certain though, when the rivers die, so will the citizens.
Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2018