LBOD: A development disaster that haunts Badin, two decades after its inception

If there is anything to take away from the lessons it has taught, it is that the people must finally be heard.
Published February 25, 2023

Iqra Bheel scrambled to collect enough money from attendees and organisers to travel 50 kilometres back to her relief camp as soon as the LBOD Conference concluded in Badin on Feb 4.

The 60-year-old was invited to the conference, among scores of other residents of Badin district, as victims who have lost their loved ones, possessions and entire villages to the 2022 floods. At the conference, she spoke of her beloved goats — both a source of pride and financial security — that she had lost.

Badin was among the hardest-struck districts by the floods that inundated almost a third of the country. It not only bore the brunt of rainwater, but also of dewatering attempts that followed in the southern region, on the left bank of River Indus, which bifurcates the province till it reaches the sea.

Enter the LBOD

The Indus river irrigates the lands around it via a network known as the Indus Basin Irrigation System built in colonial times. From its point of origin in the Himalayas, the river travels around 3,000 kilometres, on good days, till it reaches the deltaic region starting at Badin and spreads all the way to Karachi. However, water theft and manipulation have caused the river to shrink, leaving the southern region and the delta almost parched. In Sindh, the river and its tributaries only get water when there is flooding in the plains above.

Even as the canal network irrigated lands in Sindh, there lay two key problems: waterlogging and salinity, as a result of the rising water tables. This ultimately rendered the fertile lands uncultivable and turned the water brackish due to contamination from pesticides and fertilisers.

In the late 20th century, when engineering had already decoded efficient ways to save water and optimise agriculture simultaneously, Pakistan still struggled to find ways to drain out the excess irrigation runoff.

To mitigate the problem, the Government of Pakistan started construction on the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) in 1987, sponsored primarily by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The project was completed, after several delays, in 2002.

Today, the LBOD spans over 1.27 million acres of irrigated land on the left bank of the Indus river. It has four major segments — the Spinal Drain, Kadhan Pateji Outfall Drain (KPOD), Dhoro Puran Outfall Drain (DPOD) and the Tidal Link.

 A map of LBOD water channels — Image: World Bank
A map of LBOD water channels — Image: World Bank

The spinal drain either overran previous stopgap runoff channels, or subdued them into becoming part of its network of nullahs. It was initially conceived to drain runoff from four districts of Sindh (Shaheed Benazirabad, Sanghar, Mirpur Khas and Badin) into the KPOD and DPOD. The KPOD was designed to discharge effluent into the sea via the Shah Samando creek through a tidal link while the DPOD was to flow into the Shakoor Lake which lies in the Rann of Kutch. However, a large part of the lake lies in India.

India objected to the dump of effluent water into the lake. As a result, a weir [a low dam] was constructed to restrict water flow into the Shakoor Lake. Instead, the load was diverted to the KPOD, which then flowed into a 41km long canal, referred to as the Tidal Link.

Though the Tidal Link resolved the issue of effluent flowing into the lake on the Indian side, it gave rise to another problem. The sea remains at high tide at the Tidal Link, restricting the drainage water from being disposed of into the sea and causing overspilling at various points. Coupled with heavy rainfall, this creates an even more disastrous situation.

According to Badin resident and environmental writer, Abu Baker Sheikh, “India’s objections on dumping run-off into Shakoor Lake, a Ramsar Site, was justified, because LBOD would contaminate the lake in its entirety. But instead of finding a way around it, Pakistani authorities allowed the drain to lay destruction on our own lands and our people. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

The faulty link

The Tidal Link was charted out through Badin, running through agrarian and fisherfolk communities, causing unimaginable damage to the land and its people since soon after its inception. This link opposed the natural gradient and defied the natural flows of water. It also allowed the sea to intrude into the link.

The shortcomings of the project began manifesting just weeks into completion as the Tidal Link’s embankments began to erode. While the gradual erosion may have eventually led to breakages, the 1999 cyclone caused massive destruction all at once.

During the cyclone, the Tidal Link provided a channel for seawater to encroach upon the lands of Badin into settlements and freshwater lakes. As water overflowed from the canal, it also exposed faults in the design of the Tidal Link, creating 65 breaches in the link alone and causing saline water to spread across Badin.

The cyclone, along with heavy monsoons in 1998 and 1999, also destroyed the Cholri Weir — a small dam built to protect freshwater lakes from saline and contaminated water. This caused severe damage to the biodiversity of the region and subsequently, fisherfolk communities.

 A map showing the Cholri Weir — Image courtesy: POE Drainage Master Plan
A map showing the Cholri Weir — Image courtesy: POE Drainage Master Plan

Similar issues have resurfaced time and again during high tides or natural disasters such as the floods of 2003, 2007, 2011, and again, 2022. Coupled with climate change-induced unprecedented rains, the man-made canal exacerbates the effects of natural disasters across the lower region of the LBOD.

With a heavy heart, Sheikh recalled: “I grew up in Badin with vast stretches of land producing a variety of crops. I bear witness to how pleasing its fields were to an onlooker. Now since the LBOD has done the damage locals had warned of, it’s just wasteland with no produce, no potable water and a looming threat of flooding from rain, breaches or high tides at any given time.”

Adding fuel to fire, a man-made tragedy

According to a report compiled by the Badin District Commissioner, by October 2022, around 50,000 families had been displaced by the latest floods.

 The Badin District Commissioner’s report on damages incurred by the floods in 2022
The Badin District Commissioner’s report on damages incurred by the floods in 2022

With a designed capacity of 4,600 cusecs, 12,000 cusecs gushed through the LBOD during the floods. Thrice its capacity.

“I saw how people from villages ran for their lives as their dead buffaloes floated in torrents,” said Professor Ismail Kumbhar, an agriculture and irrigation expert. He stressed on the cost of buffaloes — about Rs100,000 to 200,000 each — to highlight the scale of losses incurred to the livelihoods of locals.

However, inherent flaws with the LBOD design may not be solely responsible for the level of destruction caused in Badin. On Aug 27, 2022, the LBOD developed two massive breaches at the Puran Dhoro dyke. Locals pointed out that the breach was deliberately created to protect villages belonging to influential families further down the canal. Prior to the breach, locals had made attempts at strengthening the wall and plugging breaches in the Puran Dhoro.

“These lords keep their illegal estates safe and reroute floods to other villages and districts by breaching the banks,” said Professor Kumbhar.

Estranged PPP leader and incumbent MNA Fehmida Mirza of Badin insisted that “both [breaches] were cuts made to provide relief to the constituency of Mir Munawar Talpur, MNA and brother-in-law of PPP co-chairman (Asif Ali Zardari), in Mirpurkhas.” She added that she and her son were present when the locals worked to erect a fence, but later “some people cut in the drain’s bank.”

The people’s voices

Despite being the most affected by decisions pertaining to the drain and Tidal Link, residents’ concerns and indigenous knowledge have been dismissed since the planning phase of the LBOD.

Veerji Kolhi, Special Assistant to CM Sindh for Human Rights, acknowledged that “one of the admitted faults in the LBOD design is that locals who had inhabited these lands shared their concerns and recommendations which were largely ignored by the engineers who were outsiders. Undoubtedly, local wisdom of fisherfolk who have inherited knowledge about the sea and are aware of the region holds weight, but it was not considered to be valuable.”

Local activists and residents have made several efforts by holding protests and conferences to be heard by the powers that be, yet largely remain left out of the decision-making process.

Even now, a collective budget of over $505m has been worked out by Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah for the repair, rehab and restoration of the LBOD, in the ‘Resilient Sindh: from Pledges to Reconstruction’ conference held in Karachi on Feb 8, 2023. In the announced budget, however, the LBOD victims “had no room”, lamented Narain Kolhi, a social activist from the indigenous Hindu community in Badin.

 Budget announced following the “Resilient Sindh: from Pledges to Reconstruction” conference
Budget announced following the “Resilient Sindh: from Pledges to Reconstruction” conference

“They have not even conducted surveys, how are they going to scale damages and provide adequate help?” questioned a resident of the Tando Bago village, whose home was lost due to the LBOD’s shortcomings in September last year.

Is the LBOD overworked?

“It is true that the LBOD malfunctioned, and conditions have become far worse for the locals, but does that mean if the LBOD worked to its full capacity, there would be no floods?” asked water resource expert and engineer Bashir Lakhani. “Absolutely not,” he answered his own question.

“The LBOD itself was never meant to be a storm water drain. It has a limited capacity and purpose for which it was built,” explained Lakhani, adding that at the time it was being designed, Sindh did not experience the high volumes of disastrous rainfalls it experiences today.

Moreover, due to the Indus Basin Irrigation System and infrequent rains, water channels often remain dry for long periods of time. Some channels have naturally closed up while many have been encroached upon by settlements, feudal lords and real estate builders.

“There are villages there now,” said Veerji Kohli. “The government departments are working on reviving the old drains and flood routes, but we can’t do it overnight, razing the settlements”.

Professor Kumbhar argued that most of the encroachment is done by feudal lords with their large estates spreading over nullahs and irrigation department lands. “Despite court orders, the government cannot move them because they command power and votes,” he said.

“The Sindh region is a flat plain which used to have natural rain and flood drains, however, once those drains are invaded, it becomes too tricky to find and chalk out new ones,” said Dr Lakhani.

This has increased pressure on the only remaining water channel that runs through three districts and zigzags through natural waterways of the southwest and finally completes its course to the sea: the LBOD.

 Locals, academics and journalists at the LBOD Conference 2023 in Badin — Photo by Leela Ram Kolhi
Locals, academics and journalists at the LBOD Conference 2023 in Badin — Photo by Leela Ram Kolhi

When asked whether the LBOD could have been better designed, Dr Lakhani explained from an engineering perspective that “you don’t easily find natural gradients here to get water out artificially. It could either be too inclined so that instead of emptying into the sea, it will allow sea water to intrude via its channel. Or it would be too flat so that water will not even travel downwards unless there is enough volume and velocity.”

Yet, he believes that there could have been major improvements in the LBOD. “There is always room for improvement,” he said. However, the way forward cannot depend on short-term, band-aid solutions. We must come up with a long-term solution, taking climate change into account and allowing natural water ways to flow simultaneously with the drain.

Only a holistic, well rounded approach can help save the LBOD from causing further destruction. And if there is anything to take away from the lessons it has taught, it is that the people must finally be heard.

Header image: Navy personnel shift flood-affected persons towards a safe place via boat in in Badin in September 2011. — Photo: Asianet-Pakistan/ Shutterstock