Tracing the glorious past of Thatta makes interesting reading of this ancient district where the mighty Indus River meets the Arabian Sea after originating from the Tibetan plateau to form one of the largest deltas in the world_ the Indus Delta. It has a combination of diversified agriculture and industrial landscape.

The existence of Pakistan’s precious wind energy corridor adds more value to this area. Thatta could emerge as a rich industrial spot in the future to trigger economic activities under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through the Dhabeji Industrial Zone.

Makli necropolis of Thatta is a declared world heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, spreading over 12-15sqkm. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s famous folklore of Sassui Punhun revolved around Bhambore which is also part of Thatta.

The mighty Indus used to flow near Thatta where the river port was beneficial for the navigation, commerce and trade of the business class. Historian Dr Mubarak Ali rates Thatta as a prosperous city of the past which used to brim with economic activities. Ships from different countries would arrive to bring goods.

Its characteristics of economic activities range from a diversified agriculture landscape to a fast-emerging industrial hub, from rich wind energy resources to the cultivation of major crops and high-value minor crops

Shirzai, Memon, Palijo, Jokhio and Soomro families are counted among the political families here, all of whom have agricultural backgrounds to dominate Thatta’s electoral politics. They have major landholdings. The Zardaris also stake their claims in Thatta.

Thatta is part of the Indus delta, said to be the world’s fifth-largest. Once the Indus Delta was rich in resources like species of different animals, fish, honey, orchards and pastures. However, pathetic conditions prevail today primarily for want of adequate water flows. Many families, especially those associated with fishing, have migrated. As the flows of the Indus River were stored upstream, coastal communities were hit hard and natural resources vanished with people facing food deficiencies.

Mangrove cover in the coastal region was resultantly lost. Some studies show 260,000ha of mangroves existed until the 1970s which was reduced to 160,000ha until the 1990s and declined to 80,000ha afterwards.

But, the latest figures, shared by Chief Conservator Mangroves Sindh Riaz Wagan show an encouraging trend. He says 2.2 billion mangroves exist on Sindh’s coastal strip. “Of total mangroves, 60 per cent exist in Thatta,” he says and adds 260,000ha of mangroves existed as per a 1985 study, inclusive of 60,000ha of dense, 80,000ha of medium and 120,000ha of sparse mangroves.

Then Suparco’s 2009 study proved dense forests exist on 107,000ha in Sindh. New mangroves were planted on 113,000ha from 2008 onwards. “About, 1.254bn mangroves inclusive of regenerated plants were planted on 113,000ha in the coastal area of Thatta’s Keti Bundar, Sakro and Shah Bundar besides Karachi’s coastal strip,” he said.

He says 1,100 plants/mangroves were planted on a hectare and 10,000 plants were regenerated in each hectare from planted ones. 107,000ha of mangroves existed till 2007 and were protected. Keeping in mind 10,000 plants per hectare regeneration dynamics, 1.07bn plants were regenerated on 107,000ha as well.

Thatta’s characteristics of economic activities range from a diversified agriculture landscape to a fast-emerging industrial hub, from rich wind energy resources to the cultivation of major crops and high-value minor crops. Still, amidst huge growth potential this tail end district is the victim of unending water shortage and sea intrusion. The intruding sea has devoured a considerable stretch of agricultural land over the last two to three decades.

It is fed by Kotri barrage’s right bank canal where rice cultivation is not banned. Perennial Kalri Baghar (KB) feeder that emanates from Kotri barrage supplies irrigation water with a designed discharge of 9,100 cusecs for Kharif season and 3,300 cusecs in Rabi season. KB also supplies 1,200 cusecs of water to Karachi for drinking purposes daily.

Farmers are adopting changing trends for the cultivation of crops, paying attention to minor high-value crops. The cultivation of oilseed crops, chiefly sunflower, is part of Thatta’s identity but its acreage has dropped. Nadeem Shah, a sunflower grower from the neighbouring Sujawal district attributes the declining acreage in part to seed quality.

Among vegetables, Thatta’s contribution to tomato production is immense. But due to nonexistent market mechanisms, farmers waste the tomato crop if there is surplus production. Quite often they even don’t recover their input costs.

“We suffered a setback in the late 80s when a factory for the value-addition of tomatoes was being set up. Some people had opposed it then and now we are dependent on the market,” regrets Ali Akbar Shah, a grower from Thatta.

The district has a sugar mill since sugarcane cultivation has been popular here. People switched over to rice after getting bogged down in price controversies with millers. Cotton has lost vigour too otherwise a variety of Bt cotton was commonly grown until a decade back.

Thatta historically is a rice-growing area while being famous for banana production as well. The past five years’ figures show rice was sown on 30,000ha to 40,100ha between 2015-2020; cotton between 1,700ha to 2,400ha; banana on 4,000ha to 6,300ha; sugarcane on 13,500ha to 18,000ha. Paan is Thatta’s peculiarity and grown on around 1200ha in 2021. It was cultivated on 850-1,280ha in the last five years.

“Growers show an inclination towards the cultivation of lemon, jujube and falsa as they are small but high-value crops. These crops give us better returns and we don’t need plenty of water either,” says Akbar Shah.

Thatta was once the gateway of banana production but bunchy top disease wiped out this fruit. Some growers still cultivate it and traders from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are still investing in it. “Banana’s finger size is big when compared with fruit from other areas. The sweetness in Thatta’s banana is special. Temperature coupled with humidity remains suitable for it,” argued Mr Shah.

Two more Ramsar sites [a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention] — Keenjhar and Haleji lakes — upgrade the district’s profile. Keenjhar is the primary source of water supply to the Karachi metropolis.

Keenjhar will provide water to the much-trumpeted K-IV (Karachi Greater Water Supply). Sindh government’s planning and development has approved a Rs41bn scheme of KB feeder’s lining to save water for K-IV. “KB provides 1,200 cusecs of water against Karachi’s actual needs of 2,400 cusecs. This lining will save 500 cusecs to take the quantum of water to 1,700 cusecs in the first phase,” said Kotri Barrage Chief Engineer Haji Khan Jamali.

Nature has blessed Thatta with abundant wind energy resources. Around two dozen projects — installed between 2006-and 2021 — are currently contributing 1,235MW of clean energy to the national grid. Another 12 projects of 600MW will contribute clean energy while 27 projects of 1,875MW capacity are at different stages.

Thatta is all set to emerge as a rich industrial base in the future. Dhabeji Special Economic Zone of Thatta is being described as a top priority project under CPEC to attract around $3bn with direct/indirect employment opportunities for 100,000 people. It stretches over 1,530 acres and is just 50km away from the metropolis.

Thatta has 1.89m animals out of Sindh’s estimated population of livestock of 48.12m as per the 2006 livestock census. No census has been held since then. Under the World Bank funded Sindh Agriculture Growth Project, nine chillers were established in Thatta to preserve milk. Each chiller stores 260 to 350 litres. According to the livestock’s technical officer, 50pc milk is consumed by the market, 30pc goes for processing and 20pc is used domestically.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 2nd, 2022

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