Ouetta’s oldest residents claim that, prior to the three extreme droughts in Balochistan in 2000, 2004 and 2008, it rained and snowed so much that they didn’t know what summer was, and their homes needed no fans or air conditioning.
Before now, this most populated city of Balochistan had also never experienced, nor foreseen, a water shortage.
Presently, the scarcity of water in Balochistan in general, and Quetta in particular, is arguably the most serious environmental issue. The groundwater level in Quetta has dropped, from around 50 feet to 1,200 feet, according to a May 31, 2021 Dawn report. And, even after digging to that level, one sometimes fails to strike water.
Access to water has become a major issue in Quetta city. A 2019 report in The News points out that the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) of Balochistan could only supply 34.8 million gallons of water, in contrast to Quetta’s demand of over 61 million gallons per day.
While old pipelines are unable to provide water to many areas of Quetta, the contamination of clean water with sewage is also not uncommon, and people rely on delivery of potable water on trucks and tractors. But that latter cheaper option was removed when the Balochistan High Court banned the commercial use of tractors, which often damaged roads. Hence, water (and cement, sand or concrete) could no longer be supplied in and around Quetta via tractors.
One man in Quetta has taken it upon himself to construct a mountain dam to address the shortage of drinking water and environmental degradation in his area. He is showing the government and his community that where there’s a will, there’s a way
Earlier, the federal government’s July 2020 announcement of a subsidy of 1.5 million rupees on tractors to promote the agriculture sector across Pakistan, had prompted many people to purchase tractors for agricultural purposes. And they used to add to their income by using these tractors to also supply water in the city.
In the middle of this burgeoning water scarcity, along came a lone ranger that many considered half-mad. In August 2020, 47-year-old Mazhar Ali, a resident of densely populated Mari Abad, an eastern suburb of Quetta mainly populated by the Hazara community, decided to tackle the water shortage in his area by building a dam, all by himself.
Ali, an automobile parts dealer, often went trekking in Koh-i-Mohardar (the Mohardar mountains) and began to notice that the trees were becoming parched and there were fewer birds to be seen because of the scarcity of water.
“These mountain ranges have seen years of snow and rainfall, and could be a major water source for Quetta, if earth-filled dams had been built here,” says Ali. “But unfortunately, no dams or storage were built by the planning, development and irrigation authorities, and the mountainous area remains unutilised.”
He recalls how, almost two decades ago, the army had constructed a dam in the Mari Abad area and filled it with water for military exercises. “After the military exercise moved on, the dam could have been maintained or restored as a functional dam,” he points out. “But nothing was done.”
So Ali took it upon himself to do something.
Carrying rocks, tools and instruments single-handedly, Ali would climb up the mountains for almost two hours to reach the site he had chosen for a dam. “I would break huge rocks to smaller pieces and often injured my hands and feet,” says Ali. “But I would always carry 20 litres of water up with me for the birds.”
It took Ali almost two years to build the earth-filled dam, which is at 2,100m above sea level. Almost 12 feet high, 40 feet long, and 24 feet wide, it is situated in the Mohardar mountains behind Boko and Ziarat Koh. With the capacity to store 860,000 litres of rain and snow water, the dam will benefit the surrounding areas by storing rainwater and snowmelt. After March, when the snow melts, the dam will fill with water and become functional.
“I have set a precedent with this dam,” says Ali. “The government can now connect it to WASA pipelines or install a new system of pipelines to take water to the surrounding areas. An arrangement can also be made for water tankers to fill from here to supply to Mari Abad.”
For about a year, Ali worked all by himself on the dam. Then the residents of Ali’s area joined him, some out of curiosity and others out of courtesy. After almost two years, with a volunteer force now working with him, Ali plans to increase the length of the dam by 200 feet, and its height by another 12 feet.
“I am not an engineer, but time and experience has taught me a lot about materials such as rocks, cement and sand,” he says.
The residents of Mari Abad assisted Ali on safety and durability issues of the dam. “We worked on seepage issues and how the dam would be able to control the water pressure coming down from the mountains,” he explains.
The dam is a tribute to his father, who also built a dam in Koh-i-Mohardar, in 1990. “Unfortunately, it was flushed out in the torrential rains, during construction,” says Ali. “The distance between these two dams is about one and a half kilometres, but I chose a location with minimum risk.”
Ali now carries gallons of water up the mountains for the herbs and mulberry trees that he has planted on the gentle slopes. He has spotted chakor (partridge) and eagles in these mountains and wishes to see these mountains developed into a sanctuary, such as the Hingol National Park.
Ali’s other projects include a multipurpose tricycle, which is a three-in-one, portable, and less expensive lathe machine for milling and drilling, and a motorbike copter, which is like a manually controlled drone used for monitoring agricultural land, military activities and traffic.
“The purpose of these projects is to help eliminate poverty and unemployment in Mari Abad,” says Ali, who plans to bid for government tenders to take the projects forward. For manufacturing of any of these, he plans to hire his workforce from Mari Abad. “In these areas, people stay confined to their own areas to avoid target killings [of the Hazara community], and often have no source of income.
“Saving water is our responsibility but, by making the dam as a self-help initiative, I wanted to convey to the authorities that the water crisis needs urgent proactive attention and planning before a calamity hits us,” says Ali.
The same hands that work with stones and mortar, also know the skill of calligraphy. Having learnt the basics from prominent calligraphers Khurshid Alam and Gohar Qalam, Ali paints when he gets time off from his self-help projects for the community.
There is obviously much more to this multi-faceted and dedicated artist than just beautiful words.
The writer is a freelance journalist, publicist and digital media strategist
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 16th, 2022