Footprints: Floating to safety

Published September 14, 2022
VILLAGERS wade through neck-deep waters as they make their way out of Johi, on Tuesday.—Umair Ali
VILLAGERS wade through neck-deep waters as they make their way out of Johi, on Tuesday.—Umair Ali

“IT IS a highway for boats ferrying people,” quips my guide, Mukhtiar Ali, as he points towards the boats running in opposite directions, transporting people across waters that have accumulated as far as the eye can see.

The troubled waters, no life jacket and the rickety wooden boat with an outboard motor gave me goosebumps during the 45-minute journey towards Johi city on Monday.

Multiple privately run boats criss-cross each other on the way from Johi to a point near the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD). Fishermen had brought these boats from the raging Manchhar Lake nearby to eke out a living.

One can’t t find a dry patch outside Johi, a small city of Sindh’s right bank Dadu district, located upstream from Manchhar Lake. The invariably 12-13ft deep floodwater reached here from Balochistan and could be seen surrounding the city after a cut was given to the Johi Branch Canal at Kali Mori.

The boat operator used around a 16ft long bamboo stick to measure the depth.

“The cut was inevitable otherwise the situation would have become more dangerous for other areas. Johi’s residents have done a tremendous job,” says senior irrigation officer, Jamal Mangan.

Some buildings such as schools, mosques and homes show signs of the water having receded to some extent after flows were diverted to River Indus through multiple cuts in Manchhar and a breach in MNVD.

“The elevated portion of my house is safe; the rest is submerged. This has necessitated the shifting of my mother and sister, but we’re waiting for any kind of succor,” a young Faraz Ali Panhwar, who lives at one side of the Right Bank Outfall Drain-I/MNVD flowing towards Manchhar Lake, told Dawn.

“All the boats are occupied by men. Should we just keep waiting?” shouted a woman intending to board a boat. She eventually clambered onboard after protesting, while others continued to argue over fares.

Those coming to Johi from the Indus Highway were picked up from the MNVD – that locals call ‘chandhan’, while there is a drop-off point in the city for those returning. Those needing to enter or leave Johi city have to first board a tractor-trolley, motor-rickshaw or a donkey cart to cover the shallow water area, and then get on a boat.

A brief but strong windstorm made the journey even more difficult later in the afternoon, forcing a boatman to signal other operators to wait until the storm settled.

Johi taluka, being a rice-growing area, produces the tasty ‘karnal’ variety of the paddy known for its aroma. “But the entire crop is lost to floodwaters,” adds veteran local rice producer, Umer Jamali.

Johi’s geographical position puts it at a great disadvantage amid such climate change-driven weather patterns that worsen during monsoons. This time around, its inhabitants put up a relentless fight to protect their city. Women joined their men in raising the bank’s height against the gushing hill torrents from Balochistan. These waters spelt disaster in other parts of Dadu and Jamshoro districts, but here, villagers had either raised or strengthened their flood defences, and at places built a ring embankment, stretching over 7.5km to protect the area.

The ring embankment is on the western side of the bank of “naaee shakh” (ninth distributary) that passes through Johi, serving as a line of defence. Various settled areas or villages on the other side of the distributary’s embankment remain flooded, their residents rendered homeless and ending up on banks of the MNVD or the road side.

“This ring dyke was raised during the 2010 super floods by the residents on their own to save Johi,” Farooq Soomro, a senior Karachi-based journalist who hails from Johi, told Dawn. “But now, the government provided us with resources to supplement villagers’ efforts in strengthening the ring embankment.”

Locals have protected the dyke, setting up ‘kiosks’ at vulnerable locations. Many have been camped out near these points so they may keep a vigilant eye on the bank, especially the potential erosion of its soil that could worsen the situation.

Plastic sheets were used at the most vulnerable points to counter the erosion, usually triggered by high velocity winds. Still, those living upstream of Johi tried to drain out water from their villages into the Johi branch. This led to some trouble, but was somehow dealt with.

“Our elders have been fighting the waters for centuries. Floodwaters were approaching us fast after the Johi branch’s bund was cut to save Khairpur Nathan Shah, which eventually drowned. But thank God we succeeded in salvaging so many things,” insists Mukhtiar.

He got overwhelmed with emotion as he narrated how the floodwater affected women who needed to defecate during the night in the absence of a lavatory.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2022

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