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Mega projects: gainers and losers

July 23, 2007

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Many countries are currently assessing benefits of mega projects so that the advantages and disadvantages of such ventures are made clearly visible. For Pakistan, such a review becomes all the more necessary because billions of dollars have been spent or misspent by successive governments for mega development projects, aimed at alleviating poverty but the outcome have been downright grim.

Barrages, dams and outfall drains have been constructed presumably to benefit people, but they are worse off with more and more people being forced into poverty. Foreign money for mega projects has gone into making some new rich among big bureaucrats, consultants and contractors.

On the other hand, the entire communities in Sindh and Balochistan – a region blessed by nature with rivers, bountiful lakes, large tracks of fertile land, orchids, forests, animal and bird habitats, wetlands, coast and gas and oil reservoirs –face a dire situation. These are hard time for peasants, fishermen, craftsmen and herdsmen of the two provinces. Their means of livelihood have been destroyed, degraded and over-exploited in the name of development.With terminal drought, rising poverty and widespread unemployment, more and more people than ever before have been marginalised.

Official economists may or may not have a good grasp of the dimensions of problems ranging from poverty in rural areas to breakdown of social values, but they have altogether ignored the destruction wrought by mega projects on natural livelihood on which people depended for a living for centuries.

“Dams, barrages and overexploitation of water resources have taken a toll on people and biodiversity as rivers have dried up, lakes poisoned and fertile lands saline,” says Dadu-based writer Aziz Ranjhani. It is not the lack of assets but the destruction and over-exploitation of assets which has caused so much poverty.

According to some figures, out of two people one is extremely poor, who according to the World Bank, can’t eat three times a day or even twice a day, drink clean water, wear new clothes, or participate in social get together . In the words of the WHO, he is chronically under-nourished too.

Thus every poverty-stricken person is striving hard to meet basic human needs like shelter, food, clothes, education and medical.

“Manchhar, the largest fresh-water levee in Asia, is dying a painful death. The dumping of effluents is threatening its ecosystem,” says historian and writer Professor Aziz Kingrani.

The destruction of natural assets has created problems like the breakdown of social values, vanishing culture and profound moral degradation.

How can the government reduce the number of mal-nourished people since two million acres land in Thatta and Badin districts have been swallowed by the sea?

How can you raise per capita income of peasants whose assets have disappeared as a result of government policies-- and fishermen whose natural aquatic resource like the Manchhar lake and the Hamal lake have been made poisonous?

According to Prof Kingrani and Mr Ranjhani dams and outfall drains have permanently rendered two million acres of land barren and millions of people have been dispossessed. The coastal Sindh and Balochistan have been brought to the brink of ecological destruction.

Prof Kingrani and Mr Ranjhani said the dumping of excessive water into the Manchhar lake has brought the entire socio-cultural set up of Mohanas (the fisherman) on the verge of extinction.

Prof Kingrani said the conversion of the sweet-water lake into the saline water has reduced the fish catch from 70 to 80 tonns daily to three maunds (80 to 120 kg) daily.

“It is a battle for the survival for the impoverished fishermen,” they said.

Writer of many dramas on social problems and articles on cultural heritage, Professor Kingrani told Dawn on telephone that: “The entire Manchhar area is sight of malnourished children, men and sick women trying to make a living on dwindling fish stocks”. Almost 80 per cent of women and children suffered from one disease or the other. About 50,000 people had migrated from the Manchhar area to settle in other parts of the province.

Larkana-based social activist and chairman of the Earth Lovers Society, Mr Zulfikar Rajper, said the first right of people on their natural resources of livelihood must be rcognised.

A writer of three books in Sindhi, one on the degradation of Hamal Lake, Mr Rajper says if the Sindh’s rivers, delta and lakes were not rehabilitated, the communities depending on them for their livelihood would face starvation.

“Saline water being dumped into Hamal and Manchhar lakes has not only disturbed the economy but destroyed the cultural heritage,” says Prof Mukhtiar Samo of the Larkana Knowledge Centre.

“Thousands of people and large herds of wildlife depended on resources of the erstwhile life-sustaining and sweet-water Hamal lake and forest surrounding it, but these are being destroyed,” says Mr Rajper.

“The Hamal lake has expanded 150 kilometres long and 60 kilometres wide due to discharge of poisonous water inundating several villages and natural habitat of wildlife,” he added..

Mr Rajper said that about 30 years ago the Hamal lake used to be a large pond of sweet and potable water from where people of the area not only drank water but irrigated their agricultural lands also.

“There was forest-like thick tree plantation along the lake which served as a sanctuary for the wildlife,” he said.

The migratory birds from Siberia would flock in thousands to find a cosy living here during winter.

“Before being turned into poisonous lake by the saline water and effluent of Balochistan brought by Heeraldin Drain into it, the Hamal Lake was a hub of economic activities.”

“People of the Kachho (lap of the mountain), as the area is called, converged at the banks of the lake during their leisure time and enjoyed themselves of the fresh air, watery environment and hectic activities of the fishermen in the water,” said Prof Samo.

The lake was teeming with the fish and fishermen always were seen sailing in the boats on its surface here and there for catching the fish.

“But all these are the stories of bygone times. Now the lake has lost it’s all past splendour and glory due to the step-motherly treatment of the authorities,” says Samo.

He said that the main Nara valley (MNV) drain carries the water of Hamal Lake to the Manchhar as such impure water of Hamal affects the water of Manchhar Lake.

E-mail: manzoor.chandio@dawn.com