JAMSHORO: The recent heavy monsoon spell wreaked havoc across Pakistan, but the country’s largest freshwater Manchhar Lake got a new lease on life from the heavy downpour.
After the heavy rains, smiles returned to the faces of thousands of people who are dependent on this freshwater body.
The record-breaking rains destroyed communication infrastructure and crops across the country, but mainly in the south and northwest provided enough fresh supply to replace the toxic waters of Manchhar.
Located in the west of the mighty Indus River in the southern districts of Dadu and Jamshoro and spreading over 250 square kilometres, Manchhar is also one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes. With an average depth between 2.5 to 3.75 metres, the lake can expand to 500 square kilometres during the peak monsoon season.
However, it has become a dumping ground for industrial waste generated from upper parts of southern Sindh and a few areas of south-western Balochistan, putting at risk the lives of those who depend on its waters.
A gradual build-up of pollutants that began from 1992 after the construction of canals and artificial drains has contaminated the lake and destroyed fish stocks, forcing the local fishing communities to either migrate or seek other forms of employment.
The canals were aimed at tackling salinity and waterlogging which was affecting the large tracts of arable land in the adjoining areas, but the misconceived project actually destroyed the lake.
According to Nasir Panhwar, a Hyderabad-based environmentalist, waste-water effluent washed into the lake even before the construction of the canal known as the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD), but they were “manageable” and did not pollute the water to an extent where it would destroy the lake ecologically.
Manchhar gets fresh water from three sources: fresh rainwater from 18 torrents in the Khirthar hills, the Indus and the RBOD.
“Less rains, a gradual reduction of water from the Indus River due to the construction of barrages and dams, and the industrial waste washed into the lake through RBOD have destroyed the ecology of Manchhar,” he said.
The lake, filled with glistening light blue waters nowadays, gives off a dazzling look. The otherwise saline and murky waters have been replaced with fresh rainwater.
“I see this new look after years, which is no doubt eye-soothing,” Rahib Ali, a local fisherman sitting on the eastern bank of the lake, said.
It was in 2010 when super floods, which inundated a fifth of the land in the country, had filled the lake.
“But more than the eye-soothing view, it will meet our several physical and economic needs,” he added.
The first and foremost requirement of the area’s people is potable water, for which they had to travel miles. One could literally not even gargle with the lake water until a couple of weeks ago.
“We had to travel to the nearest bazaar, which is three kilometres away, to buy potable water. We could use that water only for drinking, not for washing or cooking, as we could not afford to travel and buy that much water daily,” added Ali, 54.
Many could not even afford to buy potable water and would use the toxic lake water for drinking, bathing and washing, which caused eye and skin infections and waterborne diseases, mainly diarrhoea and gastroenteritis.
“But now, our men and women do not have to travel to fetch water. We have ample water, at least for the next several months,” Ali said with a big smile.
“All we have to do is boil the water before drinking it as it still has remnants of toxic effluent,” he maintained, while acknowledging that most of the communities do not do that.
Partial revival of lake’s ecology
Decades-long deterioration of the lake’s ecosystem and fast-dwindling fish stocks have led to a gradual exodus of local fishing communities, particularly in the previous decade.
Thousands of fishermen have either moved to the ‘fishing towns’ of Karachi, Gwadar and Pasni and even to the districts near barrages to make a living or became labourers in the recent decades.
Once filled with 35 species of fish, only six to seven are currently found in Manchhar, mainly one locally known as ‘dhayya’ which were not commercially profitable and only used to make chicken feed, said a local.
Mohammad Moosa, an old fisherman, was shifting a catch of ‘dhayya’ into a cold storage box at a fish market located on the bank of Manchhar before transporting it to a feed factory in the nearby town of Sehwan, some 20km away.
He is one of the fishermen who have neither migrated nor changed their occupation despite the distressing conditions.
“It’s not that the [fish] business is completely over. No doubt, it has been damaged to a massive level. But still we are earning our livelihood from this lake,” Moosa said as he placed a layer of ice on the fish to preserve them.
He hopes the replacement of the toxic water by fresh rainwater will rejuvenate the lake’s ruined ecosystem.
“Fresh water means more food [including different kinds of grass and herbs], and more food means more fish,” Moosa said, adding that it would take some time to put things on track as the lake’s ecosystem had long been deteriorated.
“Fish will not come automatically just with the replacement of water, which had long been due. But it will have to complete a full cycle. For example, the fresh water will restore the food circle, which will subsequently lead to improved fish stocks,” he noted.
Tahir Rasheed, director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan), observed that the recent rains would certainly contribute to the ecological health of Manchhar Lake.
“More water in the Manchhar wetland will promote healthy water supplies and even positively affect air quality. Floods also carry and deposit nutrient-rich sediments which support both plant and animal life in lakes/wetlands and ultimately support healthy fisheries,” Rasheed said.
Panhwar, the Hyderabad-based expert, warned however that the relief provided by the abnormal rains could be temporary.
“This relief is only because of massive rains. It’s not a permanent solution. If rains remain regular and heavy at similar levels in the coming years, only then will it rejuvenate the lake’s marine life and depleting fish stocks,” he maintained.
The permanent solution to this problem, he went on to argue, was change in the faulty design of the RBOD.
Realising the damage caused by the drain’s faulty design, the government had decided to build a new canal to carry effluent directly into the Arabian Sea in 2002, but due to bureaucratic hurdles and other unspecified technical and financial reasons, the project has experienced lengthy delays and cost overruns.
“If the government does not act swiftly for a permanent solution, we may return to the old position within the next six to eight months,” he cautioned, explaining that the industrial waste would continue to wash into the lake from the RBOD and refill it with toxic water.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2020