Sometime in 1974, a World Bank official visited villages in Sindh to get feedback from people on a multi-million dollar water drainage project. He met an elderly farmer wrapped in tattered clothes and laughed madly after a brief conversation with him.
The farmer insisted that the construction of artificial drains and canals would one day drown his house. He even went on to predict floods submerging entire villages, with only rooftops remaining for people to save their lives.
But the American World Bank official kept laughing. Water will flow from the highlands in Sindh to hundreds of feet below in a gradual descent, making inundation nearly impossible, was his expert assessment.
“That old man was right. After the 1999 cyclone caused flooding, women gave birth on rooftops and only people who were able to get to the rooftops survived. That’s how bad the flooding was,” said Dr Sikandar Ali Mandhro, a Pakistan Peoples Party leader.
He shared this small tale at a consultative meeting at a hotel on Saturday where people had met to highlight the complex nature of the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD), which is supposed to collect saline water from the left side of the River Indus and dump it into the sea.
Now another $175 million World Bank-funded Sindh water improvement project is in the pipeline.
Delegates, including officials from the Sindh irrigation department, irrigation and drainage authority, politicians and environmentalists had gathered to share their thoughts on it.
Mandhro said no project would succeed unless it involved the villagers who are dependent on the water system. “They might not be educated and seem intelligent but these people have the power of observation,” he remarked.
The unprecedented devastation caused by the floods in 2010 has already made Sindhis skeptical of heavily funded development projects. “I wonder why floods are getting more and more severe every year,” asked Mandhro. “Maybe, it’s because we are the changing the natural flow of water and nature doesn’t like that.”
Most people present said that consultations were useless unless the feedback from the locals was incorporated in the project. They criticised the use of English to publish papers on the subject.
The inconvenient truth
Sindh Irrigation Minister Saifullah Khan Dharejo said his opinion had changed after he watched the critically acclaimed 2006 documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming.
“I was shocked and realised why we are seeing so much devastation in Sindh now that has not been witnessed in the last 200 years,” he said. “We all need to wake up and get ready for even harsher calamities.” To start with, the Sindh irrigation and drainage authority should immediately get to work on removing the build-up of silt at the LBOD, he said.
Over the years natural drains have been encroached upon, blocking the flow of water when it rains, he said. “Not many people know that we have passed a law, making it punishable to occupy the drains.”
Share the pain, please
The LBOD collects saline and floodwater from a catchment area spread over 2.5 million hectares in Nawabshah, Sanghar, Mirphurkhas and Hyderabad districts.
Naseer Memon, a bureaucrat, regretted that presentations are prepared without taking into account the ground realities. “New projects are discussed but no one talks of improving the LBOD,” he said.
Political will is needed to remove the settlements built on the waterways, he said. “Do we have that kind of political commitment?”
The river that flows from parts of Punjab brings impurities and salinity into Sindh, depositing it on the land and leaving it uncultivable. The province contributes 34% of the country’s total agricultural output.
“I seriously believe it is time to have a drainage accord between the provinces just like the water accord,” said Memon.
It was the British who helped design Pakistan’s irrigation system and provide a way to carrying saline water down to the sea. But attempts by successive governments since independence have failed to come up with a modern replacement, officials say.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2012.