LIKE every other living being, rivers have rights. The most fundamental one is the right to free-flowing water that has sufficient oxygen, and land, or riverbanks, for the river’s waters to flow without obstructions. The minimum quantity of good quality water that flows freely and keeps the water body healthy and alive is referred to as environmental flows (e-flows). The life of what was once the mighty Indus River is threatened. There is an urgency to measure and guarantee e-flows.
The Indus has begun to choke. It lacks running water all year round, and dry periods are on the increase. Water quality has degraded due to deposits of fertilisers, pesticides, chemicals, sewage and industrial effluents. Water quantity has diminished because of upstream infrastructure, agricultural intensity, high per capita usage and climate change. This is the story of all ecosystems from Gilgit-Baltistan, where they originate, to Thatta and Badin, where they culminate, covering all our rivers, streams, springs, riparian, watersheds, wetlands, lakes and other floodplain- and groundwater-dependent ecosystems, coastal waterbodies and delta estuaries.
E-flows are essential for the protection of all three aquatic systems.
The concept of e-flows is relatively new but it has rapidly evolved into a set of principles, supported by a range of practical measures. This awareness was not there when the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) was signed in 1960. In fact, the treaty did not even mention the word ‘environment’, let alone commit to e-flows for the three eastern rivers allocated to India (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). The lacunae were covered by developing several link canals in Punjab, but the provision of e-flows would have saved or could perhaps still help support the local biodiversity, species, culture and livelihoods of inhabitants spread over thousands of hectares.
E- flows can be implemented in several ways. First, by adopting policies and decisions that will help maintain e-flow conditions in water bodies. Second, by managing water withdrawals and diversions. Third, by changing the operations of existing dams and run-of river hydropower projects. Fourth, by introducing changes to the design or building new supporting infrastructure.
E-flows are essential for the protection of all three aquatic systems: i) freshwater and coastal ecosystems supported by flowing water, ii) standing water ecosystems such as wetlands and lakes fed by surface or groundwater, and iii) systems dependent on groundwater. In other words, e-flows are not restricted to rivers. Instead, these are essential for basin-wide approaches to also cover wetlands as well as groundwater that is recharged by freshwater systems. Just to highlight the broader relevance of the concept, Pakistan has over 780,000 hectares (1,927,421 acres) of wetlands covering about 10 per cent of the total land area, with 225 nationally significant wetlands, of which 19 have been recognised as Ramsar Convention sites of global significance, including the Indus delta.
It was only in 2018 that the National Water Policy recognised the importance of environmental integrity of the Indus basin and committed to ensuring e-flows to conserve river ecology, morphology and delta and coastal ecosystems. Yet, the federal government has not budged to take any action. In the meanwhile, the provinces have begun to develop their own water policies, authorities and commissions that have provisions for water allocation for the environment, river systems, wetlands and aquatic life.
While Punjab and KP have already approved their water acts and notified their water commissions, Sindh and Balochistan are expected to follow suit in the coming months. The status of Gilgit-Baltistan, where most of the Indus tributaries originate, is not known. These commissions will allocate waters on request for nine usages, including environment, river systems, wetlands and aquatic life. An example of a possible operation is that each user will buy water from the commission on payment basis. The theory is that the process will, over time, increase allocations for non-agricultural usages, and e-flows will also benefit, even if they will probably remain poor cousins unless clear targets and mechanisms for them are agreed to and implemented.
None of the provinces has thus far created any mechanism to allocate water other than for irrigation, but e-flow calculators exist to ascertain the level of e-flows needed to protect various types of habitats, aquatic species, pollution or chemical loads during different months rather than waiting for the monsoon for flushing. The latter can be a year-long operation as rivers and seasonal nullahs enter Pakistan with heavy pollutants not covered under the IWT. For example, there could be a provision for a chain of rubber dams on the eastern rivers to store water during high floods and steadily release it to keep the ecosystem alive. Likewise, the Marala-Ravi Link Canal that transports water from the Chenab to the Ravi can double to 16,000 cubic feet per second and provide e-flows for the Ravi and also help recharge groundwater for Lahore. The canal has a carrying capacity of 22,000 cubic feet per second, but just requires some maintenance.
Likewise, long-stretches downstream of the Rasul, Marala and Qadirabad headworks on the Jhelum and Chenab rivers need e-flows. Water diversions for the Neelam-Jhelum hydropower project has reduced the pristine Neelum river into a stagnating nullah and Muzaffarabad to a stinking city. Reducing the diversion levels and flushing the rivers with e-flows can help revive the ecosystem.
Further, the development of irrigation system structures over the last 150 years has led to the sub-division of the Indus into 17 sections. In the absence of any fish ladders on the barrages, and due to the intensive usage of river water for irrigation and low water discharges in the dry season, riverine transportation and aquatic life are both on the verge of extinction. In the downstream area of the Sukkur Barrage, the river channel is highly constricted.
Finally, the Indus delta is dying because of reduced freshwater flows downstream from Kotri Barrage. Irsa, the irrigation authority, has been unable to implement a 2005 study by the government to release e-flows of 10 MAF annually. This has resulted in an increased rate of seawater intrusion, making the coastal areas unproductive for agriculture and livelihoods. Hundreds of estuaries have dried up and are being used for subsistence agriculture. New scientific studies determining baselines for e-flows are needed to preserve the Indus and its civilisations.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2021