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Fact or fiction?

September 22, 2010


Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, first Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, aka Monty, victorious commander of the Allied forces at the Battle of El Alamein (a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign against the German Afrika Korps) and leader of the Allied ground forces during the invasion of Normandy culminating in the end of the Second World War, observed, “I have spent much of my life fighting the Germans and fighting the politicians. It is much easier to fight the Germans.”

Pouring salt on the wounds of the millions displaced by the floods, arch-politician of Pakistan and accidental head of state, Asif Zardari, has announced that “reports on the alleged breaching of embankments are merely a fiction, and only political actors are talking about breaking of dykes.”

In the 1950s, Pakistan experienced severe floods in the Indus Basin rivers, but it was not until 1977 that the Federal Flood Commission (FFC) was created.

Reportedly up to Rs80bn has been spent so far in order to reduce flood losses; give priority to flood protection to areas of greatest economic risk; provide protection to areas outside the flood plains, i.e. cities and vital infrastructure; and improve existing flood protection/control facilities.

With Asian Development Bank help in pre- and post-millennium decades two flood protection sector projects to strengthen and increase the scope of flood forecasting and warning capability were implemented.

A flood warning manual was prepared which laid out flood-wave routing downstream to avoid flooding in susceptible populated districts and minimise damages to barrages, bridges and hydraulic structures.

Theoretically, the breaching section and decision required the involvement of elected representatives — this is practised in the breach!

The projects, completed in 2008 (six years behind schedule), had the ADB rating the performance of the FFC as ‘partly satisfactory’, the Met department as ‘unsatisfactory’, Wapda (water wing) as ‘highly satisfactory’, and irrigation departments as merely ‘satisfactory’.

My friend, Illahi Bukhsh Soomro, once speaker of the National Assembly, confesses to having an “‘emotional attachment” to Sukkur Barrage, a project that made an economically depressed Sindh into a province, and Karachi into a leading port city of the era.

After obtaining a Masters in civil engineering from Columbia, he joined the irrigation department and was posted as SDO at Sukkur Barrage in 1951, soon becoming XEN (executive engineer).

In 2008, while visiting the area he was appalled to see the severe deterioration in the barrage and its environs. His efforts to convince irrigation department officials and other provincial functionaries to act failed. On Jan 2, 2010, Soomro appealed to Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah:

“Immediate measures required to save the functioning of Sukkur Barrage: (1) While driving over the Barrage Road Bridge, I was alarmed to see the water overflowing the gates of the left bank pocket. It was difficult to believe what I saw. The senior engineers of Sukkur Barrage were immediately contacted, they said that the water level had thus to be raised to meet the indent of Rohri Canal, ignoring the consequence that such a regulation will silt up the approach to the barrage and off-taking canals. I was most disappointed to hear that kind of explanation.

“(2) Your intervention is required because my verbal submission to your government functionaries has failed to obtain any action.

“(3) A few surviving engineers, associated with the regulation and maintenance of Sukkur Barrage in the 1950s are still available to be consulted (Taj Mohamed Shaikh, Rashid Sheikh and myself).

“(4) It was Sukkur Barrage which transformed the Sindh desert into a green valley. We are always available for consultation at Karachi or better still at the site. Please accept this offer seriously.

“(5) It is hoped that you will appreciate the severity and urgency of the problem and initiate immediate and urgent measures…. Your government also enjoys the services of a very able irrigation advisor, Abdul Wahab Shaikh.”

Eight months later, no action having been taken in the interim, the Tori bund upstream of the barrage was breached, allegedly to save the barrage.

This action generated a parallel river through the districts west of the Indus, with various meanderings created by arbitrary additional breaches in canal banks along the way made by feudals trying to save their lands.

This new stream has reached Manchhar Lake and will rejoin the Indus —– but not before inundating more land (on the advice of experts, the chief minister informs us!)

Soomro explained that water flowing over (instead of under) the barrage gates in 2008 showed that the structure had silted up and was not being cleared out by engineers.

This restriction on the throughflow of water and the constriction caused by riverbed encroachments on the inside of the two-mile-long upstream stone guide-walls up to Rohri Bridge (including katchi abadis south of Bunder Road, leased kutcha farmland — surrounded by bunds — on the opposite side, and expansion of the Sadhu Bela and Bukkur islands) have caused a 70 per cent reduction in channel capacity, forcing floodwaters to back up and exert dangerous pressure on the bunds/dykes miles upstream.

Ilahi Bakhsh also feels that the government should have made greater efforts to quickly train and bring back to the Indus the water that had gone through the breach. The gap could have been swiftly repaired with a number of metal 20-foot containers filled with rocks.

Said Altaf Bhai of London Town: “The floodwater course was deliberately changed by breaching the embankments. This act by the influentials caused millions of acres to be inundated. If no action is taken by the authorities concerned then the MQM may appeal to the people to forcefully occupy their properties.”

Who determines fact from fiction?