How to Bring the Indus Delta Back to Life – Give it Water

Farmers on the Indus River Delta. Over the years the water has dried up and sea has ingressed inland. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Aug 21 2019 – Gulab Shah, 45, is having sleepless nights. He and his family are worried about their imminent migration from their village in Jhaloo to a major city in Pakistan, thanks to the continued ingress of sea water inland. 

“That is all that I and my brothers discuss day and night,” he told IPS over telephone from his village which lies near Kharo Chan, in Sindh province’s Thatta district.

He and his family also talk about what it “will mean living among strangers, in a strange place; adopting an unfamiliar lifestyle; losing culture and identity”.

Of the nearly 6,000 acres of land that Shah’s father inherited, over 2,500 acres have slowly been swallowed by the sea over the last 70 years.

And even though they still have enough land to sell to enable them to set up their home in a city, “there are no buyers!” Shah proclaimed.

“Nobody wants to buy land that they know is going to be submerged soon,” he said.

And if they stay, they do not have enough farm hands to work on their land. “Every year more and more people, mostly farmhands, are moving out of here as there is less work for them,” Shah explained.

For millions of years, the River Indus sustained the marshes, the 17 creeks, miles of swamps, mangrove forests and the mudflats along with the various estuarine habitats in the fan-shaped Indus delta, before reaching its final destination and emptying into the Arabian Sea. It marks a journey of 3,000 km from the Himalayas.

Generations of families have lived in the Indus River Delta. But as the flow of the river has reduced drastically over the years many are leaving and making their way to the cities in search of a better way of life. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Today this Ramsar Site, a wetland of international importance, is parched and dying a slow death.

The dams and barrages on the river sucked the fresh river and stopped it from reaching the delta. It also resulted in a reduction of sediment deposition, giving the sea a perfect opportunity to ingress into the land.

Climate change has had an impact too here. The rains are unpredictable now, water levels don’t increase and conversely over the years there has been an increased demand for water for both agricultural activities and a growing population.

If the delta gets 10 million acre feet (MAF) consistently over the 12 months, or 5,000 cubic feet per seconds daily, as promised through the provincial water apportionment Accord of 1991, the delta would thrive.

However, that is not the case. “Along the way, from the mountains to the sea, there is shortage, pilferage  coupled with losses due to an ageing distribution system,” explained Usman Tanveer, the deputy commissioner or principal representative of the provincial government in the district of Thatta.

“We require a well regulated water management system from the time the water leaves the mountains till it reaches the Arabian Sea,” he told IPS.

He pointed out that as a specialised subject, water needs to be looked into more scientifically. For example, said Tanveer, “First and foremost, we need proper research and experts to be able to plan for future water needs and this includes coming up with finding optimal conservation solutions, natural sites if small dams have to be built (instead of frowning upon whenever the D [dam] word is brought up).”

“We need to have a legal framework in place so thefts are deterred, and most importantly, an integrated mechanism to collect water acess from every user,” he concluded.

A 2018 report by United States-Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCASW) at Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET), Jamshoro, using historical maps and field research, noted that back in 1833 the delta spanned some 12,900 square kilometres (sq km); today it was a mere 1,000 sq km.

“The human impact on the environment, the change in the natural flow of the river, resulting in reduction in sediment deposition, and sea-level ingress and climate change have resulted in the contraction of the delta,” said Dr. Altaf Ali Siyal, who heads the Integrated Water Resources Management Department (IWRM) at USPCASW, and is the principal author of the delta report. The study concluded the delta today constitutes just 8 to 10 percent of its original expanse.

But many living in the delta believed it would began to die when man reined in the mighty Indus. The construction of the Sukkur barrage (1923 to 1932) by the British, followed by Kotri barrage in 1955 and Guddu in 1962, squeezed the life out of the once-verdant delta.

Prior to this Sindh province received 150 MAF of water annually, now it is less than one-tenth of this at only 10 MAF annually. “It would be even better if it receives between 25 to 35 MAF water so that it can return to its past grandeur,” Siyal told IPS.

Take the case of the Shah’s land.

“Till 10 years back about 400 acres were still cultivable,” said Shah. However, this year, they were able to cultivate just 150 acres. “Acute water shortages on the one hand and increased salinity on the other, has made it impossible to till all of our land,” he explained.

Until the 1990s his family grew the “sweetest bananas” and the finest vegetables on over 400 acres of land. They had led a prosperous life.

All of that is lost now.

Two years back, because of acute shortage of water, Shah and his brothers decided to grow the heart-shaped green betel leaf, locally called paan, over 12 acres of land.

But Dr. Hassan Abbas, an expert in hydrology and water resources has both long term and short term solutions to revive the delta.

“One would be to rejuvenate the natural course of the river the way United Kingdom, the United States and even Australia are by dismantling dams and adopting the free flowing river model,” he told IPS.

“A free flowing model is one where water, silt, and other natural materials can move along unobstructed. But more importantly, it’s one by which the ecological integrity of the entire river system is maintained as a whole,” explained Abbas.

The other, more imminent, solution is to address the way farmers irrigate. “We need to make agriculture water-efficient without compromising on our yield. The water saved thus can be allowed to flow back into its course and regenerate the delta.”

He  has a pilot in mind that can build the confidence and capacity of the farmers when it comes to water-efficient farming, and at the same time, stopping the supply of water in that area by blocking one canal.

“See if it is socially and economically acceptable to the farmers and the environmental benefits accrued,” he said, adding, “If there is a positive side, more canals can be closed.” 

However, a quick and cost-effective manner of addressing water shortage, in cities like Karachi, said Abbas, was through exploiting the riverine corridors of active floodplains.

“The Indus has 6.5 km of flood plain on either side which has sweet sand under which is the cleanest mineral water you can get. Most of the big cities are not more than 3km away from the river bed. All that needs to be done is to pump that water up from the depth of 300 to 400 feet using, say solar energy, and supply it to the cities through pipes,” explained the hydrologist.

But what about the Shah’s village in the delta?

“It is far, about 200 km from the river,” agreed Abbas, conceding the people in the delta urgently needed to be supplied with drinking water.

“It would require a much longer pipeline, but would still be cheaper to transport the same water that way,” he said.

According to him, there is anywhere from 350 to 380 MAF of water available in the riverine aquifer. “We Pakistanis need at the most 15 or a maximum of 20 MAF/year, (this is excluding water for agriculture) to meet our needs. It is a much cheaper option at two to three billion dollars than a dam costing 17 billion dollars!”