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 (IPS)

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!”

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

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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
How to Bring the Indus Delta Back to Life – Give it Water