Artisans and workers carve elaborate boats from Russian diyar wood.—Umair Ali
Artisans and workers carve elaborate boats from Russian diyar wood.—Umair Ali

WHILE the women of the family tend to the children, thirty-something Yaqoob Mallah immerses himself in his ancestral profession. He is building a boat at his makeshift workshop on Sehwan’s Bajara-Jhangara road.

He splices a wooden plank for the 17-feet hull. “The boat will be ready in eight days,” Mallah tells me as other internally displaced persons (IDPs) from villages around Manchhar Lake queue up at a nearby camp for some cooked rice. Yaqoob, however, seems absorbed in his work. “We don’t get any ration from that relief camp. I have been told that I do not qualify for relief as I earn from boat building,” he explains.

Yaqoob hails from the Haji Malook Mallah village near Manchhar. “We left when the lake’s level touched the 122RL (reduced level) mark,” he explains. This was in late August. “Soon after we left, [the authorities] made a relief cut on the lake’s bund, drowning our village in 20ft of water.”

Forced from home, Yaqoob says he decided not to take alms or the relief packages handed out by disaster response teams. Instead, he has chosen to eke out a living from his craft.

Fishermen’s boats were the only source of transportation when the floods hit Manchhar’s adjoining districts. A seven to 10-feet boat can, when used for fishing purposes, bear four passengers. The 17ft vessels — called ‘batelo’ in local parlance — are able to carry more. According to the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum’s Mustafa Mirani, these boats were in high demand in inundated areas.

A batelo sells for around Rs50,000. After costs, Yaqoob makes at least Rs10,000 per boat. “After we got some orders, four other labourers and I bought wood in Hyderabad and moved it here in vans.” Pinewood is usually the material of choice for boat builders, but it has become too expensive due to increased demand. Russian diyar is now being used for boatbuilding, a trader in Hyderabad’s timber market explains.

“I have so far prepared five boats. With the money, we will buy our own rations and make ends meet,” Yaqoob says. “I am at least comfortable with what I am doing. Those who have no work are, indeed, in trouble.”

At the moment, Yaqoob is concerned about his sick children, as healthcare assistance has not been forthcoming. His 20-member family is living, like many others, under the open sky on Bajara Road.

Once the water levels at Manchhar drop to safe levels — they have already declined quite substantially from the peak — the displaced fishermen, along with their boats, will return to their boathouses. “The quality of the lake’s water will be good. It’s mostly rainwater now — no toxic effluent, at least for the time being,” Yaqoob says. Yaqoob himself does not fish in the lake. He makes his living with boat building and repairs. But his fortunes remain tied to the fisherfolk, whose activities keep his work going.

“Manchhar has plenty of fresh water, so there is more fish spawn entering it. But much more of it is also being washed into the Indus due to cuts given to the lake’s embankment,” complains Maula Bux Mallah, leader of the Manchar Bahayo Ittihad.

“The lake is healthy and clean now,” Bux acknowledges. All of the filth that has traditionally drained into it has been flushed out — “but the present flows will not stay long,” he says, explaining that the lake’s level will be reduced to enable landowners to cultivate the land around the lake come winter.

As of Sept 26, the lake’s level had declined to 118.75RL gauge from 123.25RL on Sept 5. The first relief cut was made on Sept 4, followed by a second on Sept 5. The first cut is now being plugged.

“We believe that the 114RL mark is safe insofar as our livelihood is concerned. There are growers who want the level to remain around 112RL so that their lands get more water. When the floodwater recedes, they will cultivate wheat or mustard in the winter on the strength of the soil moisture,” Bux explains. A level lower than 114RL would not be good for fisherfolk, according to him.

The fishermen who re-settled on the banks of the lake and near the flood protective bund have remained engaged in fishing activities. Bux thinks that they should be stopped from catching the smaller fish. “It will wipe out different species,” he worries.

His friend, Ghulam Hyder Mallah, concurs but adds that the water should also not exceed 115RL. “Once the winter sowing season ends, the level in the lake should be maintained between 110-112RL till next summer; to enable the lake to receive water from upper Sindh if such a need emerges,” he argues.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2022

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