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Death & the delta

July 22, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THANKS to Mao Zedong and the Red Army, the term ‘Long March’ has become firmly embedded in the political lexicon of Pakistan. Rarely though have its Pakistani variants been actually involved in much marching, as most of the participants opt to travel by car, train or sometimes even planes, to reach the appointed gathering point to press whatever political demands they may have. Every such march has garnered round-the-clock media coverage and analysis. Airwaves have been saturated and front pages dominated by the demands of the marchers, their every move examined and dissected ad nauseam.

But a few weeks back, a true long march took place when a group of desperate and poverty-stricken farmers — numbering a few dozens — walked from Kharo Chan on the Indus Delta all the way to Thatta city. In the scorching heat they walked close to 150 kilometres and by the time they had reached their destination their numbers had swelled to close to 2,000 marchers. Away from the spotlight, with little media attention, they walked and suffered to draw attention to their pain and plight.

These are the children of the dying Indus Delta, trying and failing to draw our attention away from the constant political wrangling to the disaster that has been unfolding for decades now, a disaster that has turned these once happy and relatively prosperous communities into the downtrodden destitute.

A few weeks ago, desperate farmers undertook a true long march in Sindh.

Flowing for 3,000 km from the Himalayas to the delta, the Indus river has historically been the birthplace of civilisation, providing life and livelihood to countless millions. But now, thanks partially to climate change and largely due to bad and shortsighted policies, this mighty river has, in many parts, been reduced to a trickle with disastrous consequences for those who lived in, and off, the delta itself.

The Indus delta stretches along the coastline of Pakistan, some 150 km in length, and once covered an area of some 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) from Karachi to the Rann of Kutch. There were forests, creeks and mudflats, many of which now no longer exist except perhaps in memory. The area was once home to 97 per cent of Pakistan’s mangrove forests, an essential habitat and breeding ground for fish, shrimp and crabs and a natural shield against cyclones and tsunamis. But over the years, this crucial resource has dwindled just as the flow of the river has dwindled, and just between 1966 and 2003 we lost 86 per cent of the mangrove cover.

The further upcountry you travel, the more often you hear the refrain that Sindh ‘wastes’ the water of the river Indus by letting it flow into the sea. It is a view born largely of ignorance with a dash of parochialism, a patronising statement made by those who wilfully choose to remain blissful in their ignorance. If only that ignorance didn’t have such disastrous consequences. Because when freshwater no longer flows into the sea, the sea flows onto the land, eroding it and gradually inundating it; as far back as 2001, the Sindh government declared that over 1.2m acres of land in Badin and Thatta had been claimed by the sea and one can imagine what the position must be now.

And if imagination fails, one can simply ask the marchers what they have endured. Because the sea is as insidious and it is relentless, we can measure the land lost to it but what is harder to detect is the sub-surface creep, which sees saltwater infiltrate groundwater aquifers, making agriculture impossible and rendering entire tracts of once fertile land barren, to the point that entire villages have been abandoned simply because the water is unfit to drink. Take Keti Bandar and Shah Bandar, which were once thriving communities relying on trade and the port facilities they provided, but are now, in the words of prominent architect and activist Arif Hasan, ‘ghost towns’.

What should we blame? Certainly the diversion of waters from the Indus into various canals has helped irrigate large tracts but with little concern about the costs to the delta. Certainly, there is a case to be made that dams are needed, but where is the realisation that the root of our water woes is largely management and supply? The 1991 Water Accord prescribed that at least 10 MAF of water must be allowed to flow below the Kotri barrage to keep the fragile delta alive, but this has rarely actually happened.

It’s going to get worse. As the effects of the climate crisis unfold and the ice sheets continue to melt at unprecedented rates, sea levels as a whole will rise, adding a global dimension to this crisis. Here in Pakistan along with human and economic suffering we will see waves of climate-caused internal migration, adding to our miseries. Meanwhile, the marchers camp out in Thatta warning us of what is to come, and no one is listening.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2019