Alarm sounded as water levels in Indus drop once again

Published May 21, 2022
On the dry Indus riverbed, even this herd of cows can’t find anything to graze on.—PPI
On the dry Indus riverbed, even this herd of cows can’t find anything to graze on.—PPI

HYDERABAD: Although Sindh has recently shown a marginal improvement in the overall availability of water at three barrages, the latest figures for downstream flows at the Tarbela dam and the Chashma barrage have set alarm bells ringing once again.

An advisory released by the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) on Friday painted a gloomy outlook for the province, advising high-ups “to utilise available surface water in the river system efficiently and cautiously by placing carefully estimated rationalised indents without any wastage till such time as the situation improves”.

The biggest worry for the authorities concerned was that two controversial link canals in Punjab — Chashma-Jhelum (CJ) and Taunsa-Panjnad (TP) — were still in operation amidst severe shortage in Sindh.

The canals have been drawing increased inflows from the Indus River.

Figures showed that a major dip in the Indus of 10,000 cusecs (an outflow of 105,000 cusecs on May 19 and 95,000 on May 20) occurred at Tarbela dam on Friday, raising fears the dam might hit the dead level.

Canals in Punjab still drawing water from Indus despite severe crisis in Sindh

Its inflows plunged to 77,900 cusecs on Friday from 98,000 cusecs on May 14. These flows are to be used Taunsa upstream in Punjab and in Sindh.

The dam’s level stood at 1,406 feet on May 20 against 1,414 feet on May 16.

The temperature in Skardu indicates unpredictability, dropping from 27 degree Celsius (on Thursday) to 21 degrees on Friday. The fall forced Irsa to issue an alert for provinces on the emerging situation.

The dam remained at dead level from Feb 22 to May 1 after its storages were depleted in February for repairs at its two tunnels. Now Wapda, as per Irsa’s document, has revised its dead level mark at 1.398 feet.

“Upward revision of dead level at Tarbela makes the situation more alarming,” said an irrigation official.

Irsa’s announcement said “it is apprehended another dip at rim stations water inflows will grip the country in the next 24-48 hours as Tarbela may again touch dead level of 1,398 feet.

“Reduction will further spread to provinces with respect to a time-lag of four to five days to Punjab and 10-12 days to Sindh”, said the Irsa advisory.

Two dips were observed in the Indus river system at Tarbela dam and Chashma barra­ge. “Moreover, inflows in Kabul river that augment flows at Indus also recorded a drop in discharge,” said Aziz Soomro, who looks after the Sukkur barrage control room, on Friday.

The barrage is a lifeline for the province’s agriculture as it feeds seven major canals.

The advisory noted that the “storage component available at Tarbela, Chashma and Mangla is only 0.344MAF. This is not sufficient to augment the dropping river inflows at rim stations”. It was 0.995MAF last year while the 10-year average is 3.195MAF.

The impact on Sindh of the dip at Chashma will be clear within a week. The flows at Chashma barrage, which works as a reservoir, have registered a worrisome drop. The flow downstream was recorded at 122,000 cusecs on May 18 while it was 115,000 on May 20.

Chashma barrage is the point where Sindh places the indent for its barrages. The flows then head to Taunsa, before reaching Guddu barrage upstream.

The inflows in Kabul river — largely considered supporting flows for Indus — dropped to 29,400 cusecs on May 20, after hovering around the 30,000 mark over the past week.

Kabul’s maximum discharge was recorded at 52,700 cusecs on May 6.

These statistics don’t bode well for Sindh. An overall shortage of 62.2pc was seen at the three barrages in the province till May 11, but the figure dropped to 43pc on Friday. Kotri showed a shortfall of 66.5pc and Guddu 51.8pc. Sukkur’s percentage stood at 32pc.

Punjab faces lesser shortage

The scenario for water availability looks bleak.

Link canals kept drawing water from the Indus river despite Sindh’s protests. The CJ link canal opened on May 10 and a flow of 958 cusecs was released into it from the Indus.

These flows shot up to 2,000 cusecs the next day with the opening of TP, which had a flow of 2,404 cusecs.

Since then the discharge by the two canals has kept rising so that Punjab’s Jhelum-Chenab zone can be fed.

The two canals kept receiving a flow of over 2,000 consistently until May 13 while on May 14 the TP link canal was provided 8,757 cusecs and the CJ 3,094 cusecs. On May 16, the CJ withdrew 9,220 cusecs and the TP 9,054 cusecs. The reading for the two canals rose to 12,000 cusecs and 9,196 cusecs, respectively, on May 17. On May 20, the CJ drew 9,318 cusecs and TP 11,828.

The operation prompted Sindh to write to the Irsa chairman once again for an equitable distribution of water.

“Irsa has failed to perform its duties. The fact that Sindh utilised much less water from April 1 to May 10 than its share speaks for itself,” wrote an official of the irrigation department in a letter to Irsa.

According to him, the shortfall in Sindh was as high as 45pc, while it was just 7pc in Punjab.

The canals in Punjab were utilising 93,774 cusecs against a Water Accord allocation of 100,800 cusecs.

The Sindh government has urged Irsa chairman to ensure that the province got its share of water, calling upon him to see to it that no transfer of water takes place from the Indus to the Jhelum-Chenab (JC) system.

No water for Karachi, too?

Through another letter, the Sindh government informed the Irsa chief that the indent of Sindh with effect from May 16 was 100,000 cusecs, but it received only 85,000 cusec downstream Chashma on May 18.

It said the shortage has sparked an uproar from farmers and in most channels water was unavailable even for drinking purposes. “The level at Keenjhar lake, which feeds Karachi Metropolitan, is falling very fast and if this trend continues, there will be no water in the lake to supply to Karachi. This could lead to unrest in the near future,” the letter warned.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2022

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