Labourers reinforce the embankment of Manchhar Lake.—Umair Ali
Labourers reinforce the embankment of Manchhar Lake.—Umair Ali

Ghulam Hyder Mallah told me he would try and ‘drown his sorrows’ in the Pakistan-India Asia Cup clash on Sunday.

“I may watch the match to get my mind off things. What else is there to do these days?” he remarked. The match turned out to be quite the thriller; one hopes it helped him forget — if only for a short while — the constant fear gnawing at his insides these days.

As his name indicates, the elderly Ghulam Hyder is a fisherman. He relies on Manchhar Lake for sustenance. He has much to worry about if its swelling waters don’t subside soon.

“I pray this night passes safely,” Ghulam Hyder said when we met on Saturday evening, before he excused himself to take a call. On the other end, someone was inquiring about the state of the lake’s embankments.

I was visiting the zero point of the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD) and the flood protective bund when we met. A considerable length of the drain’s right bank was submerged at the lake’s zero point and multiple breaches in the drain and bund were also visible.

The MNVD usually brings effluent from upper Sindh and parts of Balochistan and dumps it into the lake. Torrential rains have changed that and it is now brimming with floodwater.

Ghulam Hyder did not yet know how he felt about the change.

“Should I rejoice over freshwater replenishing the lake or should I be worried that it just won’t stop?” he wondered.

“The fish are getting healthier, but anything can happen.” He didn’t hide his fear as he noticed a rise in the water level against the markings on one of the embankments. He fretted about the vulnerable points along the lake’s embankment.

A fellow fisherman, Ghulam Shabbir Shaikh, said he had put his faith in God.

“We have faith in Allah, the em­­b­ankment will be spared,” he told me, but the profession of faith masked his fear. He pointed to a part of the bank about three feet lower than the rest. “It’s all weak,” he fretted.

By Saturday night, law enforcers, irrigation officials and policemen who had been milling about earlier in the day, had packed up their camps and withdrawn to safer locations. They had spent the day dumping stones and soil to bolster the lake’s most vulnerable points.

Manchhar was given a manmade breach on Sunday morning to allow some of its rising waters a channel out. On Monday morning, the government allowed another breach.

“This unwanted decision had to be taken,” Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had said. Both the chief minister’s village and Manchhar lie in the same constituency — his constituency — which was to be flooded by the water let out from this breach.

But breaches are necessary if the lake is to be allowed to absorb the pressure of more water flowing in from upper Sindh and hill torrents from Balochistan. It has already taken water for around a fortnight, which has raised its level to a point that it was now undermining its embankments.

Manchhar has so far withstood the pressure. The banks haven’t burst, but the lake can no longer take the continuously heavy inflows, which were threatening to completely inundate Dadu, a senior official explained. He said more breaches might be inevitable.

Manchhar, often called Pakistan’s largest natural freshwater lake, is lo­­­cated in Jamshoro. The actual size of the lake varies, depending on an­­nual monsoon rainfall. Some put its area at 250-350 square kilometres after rainfall. It also ranks among the largest such lakes in Asia.

The lake has long been contaminated by an unending stream of toxic waste, which continued to flow untreated. But with influx of fresh water, it has now vomited up all that filth and toxic water that had poisoned its ecology over the years.

The lake is expected to return to safer levels once the Indus starts accepting flows from it, which are released through Aral Wah at a point located downstream from the Sukkur Barrage and upstream from the Kotri Barrage. The mighty Indus has been swollen for the last several days, however, due to back-to-back peaks from high floods.

There is something for the locals to look forward to once the danger subsides. There are reports that fish spawn has been swept into the lake after fish farms in Shahdadkot, reportedly owned by a feudal lords, was destroyed by floods. “There will be plenty of fish in the lake. Raoo, Murakhi and Malhi will be in abundance,” a local official said.

As I leave, the waves are still crashing against Manchhar’s banks. There are some fisherfolk who seem undeterred by the danger roiling under them; they were still working their nets to catch what they can.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

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