Agriculture: Manchhar lake left to its dismal fate

Published June 20, 2022
Manchhar lake in Sindh.—Photo by Umair Ali
Manchhar lake in Sindh.—Photo by Umair Ali

Sindh government’s decision not to take over administrative control of Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) components I & III has come as a surprise if the revival of Manchhar lake’s ecology is anything to go by. The department says since RBOD-II, a key component of the RBOD series, has a faulty alignment and remains incomplete it is purposeless for Sindh to get control of RBOD-I & III, built by the Water & Power Development Authority (Wapda).

Sindh irrigation minister Jam Khan Shoro conveyed the principled position of the Sindh government at a meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on water resources held on May 11 in Islamabad. It is implied in the decision that the effluent discharge of RBOD-I would continued to be released into Manchhar, located in the Sindh chief minister’s constituency of Jamshoro district.

Sindh minister didn’t explain when RBOD-II would be completed and what is the way forward, even though the Sindh government’s project steering committee in May 2021 had decided to hand over RBOD-II to Wapda for completion and that the “Sindh government will extend full cooperation to the federal government for completion”.

According to the committee’s decision, the irrigation department prepared a summary to be submitted to the chief minister of Sindh for approval. The irrigation minister is said to have proposed in his ‘note’ on the summary that regardless of the executing agency, RBOD-II should/can not be completed with the present alignment. The summary has been pending for the last year.

Fourteen years down the road, the government has not been able to fix RBOD-II that can revive the lake’s dying ecology

While the irrigation minister might be justified in refusing to take over control of RBOD components, the disturbing aspect of this decision is that the rehabilitation of Manchhar lake will keep eluding it because it is directly dependent on RBOD-II’s completion.

The Sindh government has a share of Rs7 billion in the federally funded RBOD-II, which could not be completed after two decades. The present provincial ruling party has been at the helm since Feb 2008, but 14 years down the road it hasn’t come up with a solution on how to go about it if it has reservations over the project’s design. And why didn’t the government object to the second cost revision at Rs62bn in 2017 without first getting RBOD-II’s alignment corrected?

The destiny of Manchhar, therefore, remains unchanged. It is an old story that the lake has lost its biodiversity and fishing families are deprived of their source of livelihood due to the disposal of toxic effluent. Those dependent on the lake’s waters have perhaps also accepted it as fait accompli.

Several fishermen families have left their floating abodes for alternate economic opportunities. The lake has been a source both for fishing and agriculture until it started getting toxic effluent through Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD) or RBOD-I.

Wapda has, lately, completed RBOD-I & III. After synchronisation, RBOD-II would have taken the effluent to the Arabian Sea which was brought by MNVD and released into Manchhar. “RBOD-II has a faulty design. It passes through the riverbed of Indus near Sehwan thus it can’t be completed with present alignment,” said Mr Khan.

Wapda had planned MNVD, the first project on Indus’s right bank, to eradicate the menace of water logging and salinity. MNVD was connected with Manchhar in 1976 amidst serious reservations of the community living there for generations. The community was apprehensive, justifiably so, that it would contaminate the lake’s ecology.

A brief history of RBODs by Wapda indicates that it recommended the construction of RBOD for disposal of the effluent of right bank commands of Sukkur and Guddu barrages in 1992. RBOD-I & RBOD-III were taken up from 1994 to 2004 and Wapda completed them in 2020.

Wapda initially planned to release MNVD’s effluent in the river or Manchhar permanently but Sindh objected to it. Then the 273-km long RBOD-II was conceived during the Musharraf regime to take effluent to sea with 2,271 cusecs discharge. It is to be connected with RBOD-I through the Indus link (already built) in Deh Karampur, Sehwan.

The Rs14bn RBOD-II started in 2001 and was to be completed by June 2005. Then Balochistan component of effluent by way of RBOD-III was connected with this drain in upper Sindh’s now Qambar-Shahdadkot district under the directives of the then prime minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali.

Effluent discharge capacity had to be increased from 2,271 cusecs to 3,525 cusecs. The last cost revision was due to serious damages to the drain’s structure during heavy rains and floods. About 73 per cent of physical progress has been achieved but around 20pc of land is yet to be acquired for the project.

Besides RBOD-II, Nai Gaaj, one of the major hill torrents in the area, is a vital freshwater source that feeds Manchhar lake. Wapda is building a dam on it. Allocations have been prioritised under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) 2022-23 for large dams like Diamer-Bhasha, Mohmand, Nai Gaaj and the fifth extension of Tarbela. Out of the total water sector development programme of Rs95.56bn, Rs60bn is allocated under the next fiscal year — Rs39bn for large dams and Rs21bn for medium and small dams.

The dam’s cost was revised by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council at Rs46.98bn with the Sindh government pitching Rs1.899bn and the federal government Rs45.081bn as per revisions done on March 11, 2021. Furthermore, Rs38m were allocated under PSDP 2022-23.

The dam has a component of 50 cusecs of freshwater feeding into Manchhar lake. However, environmentalists like Nasir Panhwar say the Nai Gaaj dam would block flows otherwise entering the lake to resurrect its dying ecology and biodiversity. “Changes in rainfall pattern will diminish chances of getting water from hill torrents even further,” he says.

In 2018, the irrigation department had planned to feed 600 cusecs of freshwater into the lake through two escape channels, Maado and Rawat, which emanate from the non-perennial rice canal of Sukkur barrage. Each channel was to release 300 cusecs each into MNVD to be taken to Manchhar.

The Supreme Court appointed judicial commission on water and sanitation headed by retired justice Amir Hani Muslim had taken the then chief justice Saqib Nisar to the site of MNVD at RD-323 to show flows from the channel entering MNVD.

Since then not a word has been heard on whether these flows are sustainable or a viable option. Likewise, the Sindh government remained indecisive over the handing ofRBOD-II to Wapda for execution. The provincial government, as per its decision, has also not yet finalised foreign consultants for the study of RBOD-II design and related issues. Does anyone care?

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 20th, 2022

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