KARACHI: Murad Ali Shah's nomination as the Sindh chief minister (CM) has a special meaning for residents of Manchar Lake, one of Asia's largest freshwater lakes, as the CM's father and grandfather both were born at the edge of the lake.
The lake, which once boasted a unique culture wherein people resided atop the water in 'boat villages', is now completely contaminated due to the apathy of successive governments, compelling locals to migrate after residing on the lake for centuries. Their main source of livelihood - fishing - has been taken away from them due to the water's contamination, along with their ability to use the lake water for washing and cleaning purposes.
"[Murad's father] Abdullah Shah used to call himself a fisherman," said Mustafa Meerani, a local social worker, while recalling the days when the then CM [Abdullah Shah] would visit the lake, situated around two kilometres from their native village of Wahur in Sehwan taluka.
According to Meerani, Murad's ascent to the provincial throne has led people to attach high hopes for the lake's revival and, thus, their source of livelihood. "There are still 20,000 people living on the lake and its embankments," he claimed.
Recalling the lake's deterioration, he said, "It all started in 1996 with the federal government's Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) project, which released effluent from Punjab and Balochistan into the lake."
According to Nasir Panhwar, an environmental expert who has worked on a feasibility report to revive Manchar Lake, the RBOD project was launched to dispose of the sewage from the two provinces into the Arabian Sea. "But the relevant authorities did not complete the project and preferred to release the waste in the lake instead," he explained.
He suggested the completion of the RBOD scheme to stop waste dumping in the lake as well as revival of the Aral and Danstar canals, which used to carry freshwater from the Indus to the lake, as remedial measures. "Both the canals are non-functional and full of silt," he claimed. "Therefore, the flow of freshwater from the Indus into the lake has stopped. It will not cost a lot, what is needed is intent."
The former chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, had taken a suo motu notice of the deteriorating situation at Manchar Lake and ordered steps for its revival in 2010 after a visit to the lake. In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued notices to the federal and provincial secretaries asking if the funds needed to install a treatment plant at Manchar Lake were released. An RDOB official told the court that the completion of the treatment plant was under way and at least Rs8 billion were needed for it. Meanwhile, the Sindh government's counsel had said that the delay in the release of funds was from the federal government, which did not give its share.
Then, Supreme Court Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, who was heading the bench at the Karachi registry, observed that Manchar Lake was losing its beauty and ecology, and life under water was being tarnished due to the release of toxic wastes. He had added that a large number of people who earn their livelihood from the lake were also being affected.
The initial estimated cost of the RBOD project [started in 2001] was Rs14 billion, but the revised cost has now reached Rs34 billion.
'We lived and died here'
Raza Memon resides in Bookab Town, at the corner of Manchar Lake. "Back in the day, the entire social life of people was inside the lake, which spread over 273 square kilometres. They used to be born and die on the lake [while residing in boat houses]," he said. "Only their burial would take place outside." He lamented that with each passing day this culture is dying. Out of hundreds of boats that used to house people on the lake, only around 60 are left now as most people have started living on the embankments due to the unusable water or migrated to other places in search of a better livelihood, he said.
"All eyes are on the chief minister now who is the only hope for the people of Manchar Lake," he stressed.
According to Qurban Mallah, a local fisherman, the CM, who has announced an education and health emergency, should implement this drive from Manchar Lake, where there is no school and dispensary for miles. "Thousands of people's livelihoods are related with this lake, from where no one can even drink a drop of water," he said, dejectedly. "The CM should take notice of the fact that people living at the edge of this great lake are suffering from thirst."
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2016.
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