Ecological concerns: Indus widening for ferry service worries experts

Government plans to use the waterways for transporting goods and passengers

Shahzad Anwar February 14, 2016
Government plans to use the waterways for transporting goods and passengers.


Despite warnings from ecological experts, the government is carrying on with its plan of widening the Indus river channel to make inland water transport routes.

The Inland Water Transport Development Company (IWTDC), established by the Punjab government, is undertaking a pilot project to exploit the potential of waterways to ferry goods and passengers. The company needs to widen the channel to improve the navigation for cargo boats and small ships between Attock and Daudkhel.

In July last year, the company had invited bids from interested firms.

According to the bidding document, the width of Indus River in this area varies with a rocky bottom, strong downstream flow and sharp bends.

To make navigation safer, the company will have to remove outcrops, which are unconsolidated rocks protruding from the soil level, through appropriate techniques such as drilling or excavating.

Since its inception, ecologists have been urging for an assessment of all ecological and environmental aspects of the project.

“If development is necessary then it should be made environmental-friendly and sustainable, otherwise, be ready for ecological disasters,” natural resource management expert Khan Inamullah said.

“No steps have been taken for the safety of ecology and the current plan of IWTDC will destroy massive rocks underneath Indus,” ecological researcher Malik Ghulam Sarwar said.

This could, according to him, potentially threaten the species, including rare species of fishes; and whole food webs and chains of the Indus.

He said that navigation in Indus from Jinnah Barrage (Daudkhel) to Attock Bridge could result in heavy pollution, similar to that of Karachi seaport while the water quality of the area would also be polluted due to the work that will be done to align the bends of the river.

He also raised concerns about the traffic impact on the downstream dependents – both human and aquatic life.

He warned that disregard of valuable natural resources and blind development could leave Indus in the same state as Ravi.

Former Punjab Irrigation Secretary Javed Majid expressed his doubts over the feasibility of creating a cargo route on the Indus. He said that in the upper reaches where the river bed was rocky, it would be difficult to blast and construct a channel, while in the lower reaches where the floodplain was only 15 kilometres, the main channel could only be a kilometre of less in the winters.

He said that the Indus discharge varies from 250,000 cusecs to 40,000 cusecs in summer and winter, respectively. In its upper reaches, the Indus is narrow and rocky up to Kalabagh and then it spreads out and its floodplain is 15kms wide.

“If the government is serious about transporting cargo by waterways then they should construct a lined canal from Tarbela [KP] to Hyderabad [Sindh] with a capacity of 60,000 cusecs,” he said.

WWF Senior Director Dr Ejaz Ahmed said that there was a dire need to assess aquatic life in Indus before embarking on the project. He said that the river is the habitat of Indus dolphin, which is a very sensitive species. And without prior assessment, any action will be disastrous and the aquatic life in the river including dolphins, turtles and fish will be disturbed.

Naeem Ashraf Raja, director of the biodiversity, ministry of climate change, echoed the same sentiments.

The large-scale disturbance to the river would increase the silt in the water which would consequently pollute the water running downstream, he added.

According to the document, Pakistan’s rivers and canal system spread over approximately 30,000km in both horizontal and vertical reaches in the riparian and physically integrates the country.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th,  2016.


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