Sixty-year-old Maula Bakhsh, a fisherman who joined his father’s line of work, remembers a time when Manchhar Lake was full of fish. “My father’s catch used to be so plentiful that we would have to distribute fish among other people,” he recalls. “Over 30 species of fish survived on vegetation in the lake because there was abundant freshwater flow.”
Mustafa Mirani, who grew up in a houseboat in the area and later joined the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), echoes Bakhsh’s sentiments. “People here had herds of livestock and would cultivate seasonal crops on agricultural lands around the lake,” he says, recalling the all-round prosperity enjoyed by those who resided around the lake.
Gone are those days.
Lying in the lap of Kirthar Range, the calm waters of Manchhar Lake could fool onlookers into thinking nothing has changed. But these calm waters are toxic and unfit for human consumption.
Like those before them, the fishermen from the area still venture into the waters on their motorised boats, in search of a decent catch. But Bakhsh and his fellow fisherfolk cannot dream of the kind of catches his father and those before him brought home.
For centuries, when the lake’s ecology was intact, it was the only source of livelihood for the mohanas (fishermen) and their families. Because of the thick aquatic vegetation and freshwater flows through perennial sources, large catches would take care of the fishing community’s livelihood and prosperity. Fisherfolk’s families still live in the floating boat houses along the banks of Manchhar, but their living conditions are very different from those before them.
Uninterrupted effluent and agricultural saline run-off from upper Sindh and Balochistan have turned Asia’s largest freshwater lake into a drain. How did we get here and is there a way out of this ecological disaster?
“In 1944, Manchhar produced 2,300 tons of fish per annum,” says Mirani. “Now we see only a few thousand maunds of catch, as the toxic water has killed the aquatic plants on which the fish survive.”
These changing dynamics have posed a threat not only for the fish, but also those fisherfolk communities who have depended on these fish for generations.
As a result of contamination in the lake, many families of fishermen have become daily wagers in different cities or migrated to other parts of the country.
Furthermore, as the water becomes toxic, some who live along the banks of the lake are forced to buy drinking water, which they can barely afford. Others have to walk long distances to fetch water in jerry cans from purification plants. These plants, run by the provincial Public Health Engineering Department, are frequently dysfunctional. “We buy water from a supplier as our area’s RO [Reverse Osmosis] plant in Maula Bakhsh Colony works only for six months,” says Atta Mohammad, another fisherman.
The situation we see at Manchhar today has been in the making for decades. Fisherfolk have long been sounding the alarm bells. ‘Solutions’ have been offered and the government has spent huge sums of money on these plans. But the conditions at the lake have only gone from bad to worse.
Fisherfolk have been witnessing the lake’s destruction for decades. After the construction of the Sukkur and Guddu Barrages, in the 1930s and 1960s respectively, intense cultivation of paddy and other crops was seen in the barrages’ command areas. This cultivation necessitated the construction of drainage systems for the disposal of agricultural run-off.
And so, a network of small and big drains was built in upper Sindh. Following the construction of these drainage systems, chemical effluent from fertilisers and pesticides eventually found its way into Manchhar.
This was only the beginning. The lake — which is, incidentally, located in Jamshoro, the constituency of Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah — has a long history of poor planning.
Initially, agricultural effluent was to be disposed of into the river Indus — that could have been a bigger tragedy, so the idea was dropped. But the ecological disaster continues unabated in the shape of effluent disposal through the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD) and the incomplete Right Bank Outfall Drain-II (RBOD-II— a drainage project, ironically, aimed at protecting Manchhar Lake by carrying effluent from upper Sindh and Balochistan directly to the Arabian Sea).
Fisherfolk say that MNVD (also known as RBOD-I) was once a freshwater source for the lake but, in the 1990s, the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) remodelled MNVD’s bed, allowing toxic water to flow into the lake. Because of the drainage water that is continually redirected to the lake, toxic water is now a constant at Manchhar.
Last year, the lake momentarily saw more freshwater. This is because the Nai Gaj, a vital freshwater source for Manchhar, had an unusually high water flow in the monsoon. According to Mahesh Kumar, the then executive engineer at Manchhar, the Nai Gaj flows last year raised the lake’s level by several feet in just a couple of days. But, unfortunately, this good news proved to be short-lived because of the uninterrupted effluent from the MNVD.
RBOD has earned its fair share of notoriety. RBOD-II has been delayed for two decades, while its connection to two tributary drains, i.e. RBOD-I and RBOD-III, have almost been completed by Wapda.
So far, the cost of RBOD-II — being built by the Sindh government through the Frontier Works Organisation — has been revised twice; first from 14 billion rupees to 29 billion rupees, and then to 62 billion rupees. It is now set for a third cost revision, as the Sindh government is hiring consultants for another study on the drain. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has already filed a case in the accountability court for alleged misappropriation of funds — 4.482 billion rupees to be exact — by senior and junior project officials.
But as the conversation around RBOD-II focuses on the incompetence and corruption of those in charge, the affectees at Manchhar continue to suffer.
RBOD-II is not the only proposed solution to Manchhar’s ecological neglect that has seen years-long delays. The Nai Gaj dam — to be constructed by Wapda, and aiming to provide a continuous release of 50 cusecs of freshwater to Manchhar Lake — has also been in the works since 2009.
The dam is meant to not only serve as a source of continuous fresh water for the lake, but would also store 300,000 acre feet of water, Wapda claims. Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to complete the dam even if the Sindh government does not share the project’s revised cost.
But the fisherfolk community is less than hopeful. Mirani thinks it would take a miracle for the lake to be restored as a ‘paradise’ for the migratory birds that would descend among the reeds on the lake in winter, and for fish to flow in clear waters like they once did.
Indeed, the planned projects that have been under construction for years, actually materialising and improving the ecological conditions at Manchhar, would be nothing short of a miracle.
The writer is a staff reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 13th, 2021