Survival of the Indus delta

The survival of Indus Delta is dependent on the silt-laden freshwater discharges from the Indus River

Nasir Ali Panhwar October 01, 2018
The writer is a development professional

It is alarming to note that some specialised organisations and individuals describe the flow of river water into the sea as a waste. All over the world rivers flow into seas and efforts are made to ensure substantial flow is maintained throughout the year to protect ecosystems in deltaic regions.

The situation in Indus Delta is deteriorating due to non-availability of fresh water. The subsoil water has turned brackish, which is unfit for human and livestock consumption. The worst affected Talukas include Ghorabari, Keti Bunder and Kharo Chan, where sea intrusion has significantly affected the land and consequently, people are left with no option but to migrate to various locations.

The export of fisheries resource contributes almost 2% of the total national exports amounting to Rs8.8 billion annually. Of the total export, shrimp contributes 60%. Besides fishing, many people are engaged in agriculture and livestock rearing. The loss of livelihoods has caused a rise in poverty levels, malnutrition and the deterioration of people’s health in general. The scarcity of potable and uncontaminated water is a significant factor that contributes to the increasing incidence of diseases of the skin, eyes and the digestive tract.

The survival of Indus Delta is dependent on the silt-laden freshwater discharges from the Indus River, which has been curtailed due to the diversion of water for agriculture, power generation and other uses in the upper reaches. The freshwater flows into the Delta during the recent years have been inconsistent and mostly below the minimum required quantity. The reduction in the inflow of freshwater has exposed this complex ecosystem to several environmental and social stresses in the form of loss of habitat and biodiversity and a decline in the productive values of the ecosystem.

Competition over water allocation within river basins, especially between upstream and downstream areas, between large-scale and subsistence-level uses, and between commercial and ecosystem uses, is becoming a source of severe economic and political conflict. In many ways the Indus Delta case epitomises a national situation which has already reached a crisis point. For now, national policies have opted to allocate scarce water so as to maximise financial and commercial returns to agriculture often at the cost of natural ecosystems and of some of the country’s poorest communities. Yet there is growing concern that the failure to factor ecological economic values, or economic losses, into the river basin planning is resulting in decisions being made about water allocation that are neither ecologically nor economically optimum. As long as the economic value of ecosystem needs for freshwater flows is marginalised in the national decision-making, these conflicts are likely to escalate.

According to a study conducted by IUCN in 2003, sea water reached up to 54kms in the main course of the Indus River. While in the last 70 years, Keti Bunder town has changed its location three times due to sea intrusion. It is deplorable that there is no dedicated organisation to conduct regular damage assessment caused by sea intrusion.

However, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s statement regarding sea intrusion is commendable. It is high time that both the federal and Sindh governments worked together to revive the Indus Delta through a comprehensive rehabilitation programme with an independent body to implement it. The plan should envisage the revival of threatened species, protection of environment, resettlement of people and long-term coastal zone management. A comprehensive multi-disciplinary study must be conducted to determine the volume of water required for the protection, preservation and revival of the Delta and blocking sea intrusion.

The sea intrusion can only be tackled through a sustained river water flow and bringing more land under mangrove forest, which are natural guardian of the Pakistani coast. The 1991 water accord must be revisited by incorporating environmental flow concept and declare the Indus Delta as the fifth shareholder of water distribution, bedsides the four provinces.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2018.

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Zahid | 3 years ago | Reply As per research, the fresh water flown into the sea is far more than the actual need of the sea hence we are wasting our precious fresh water resources. Reservoirs are build all over the world but we see opposition of dams only in Pakistan. If we carefully analyze the situation, it will be realized that KPK and Sindh will be much beneficiaries of water reservoirs which can be utilized during drought like situation.
UK | 3 years ago | Reply There is enough total water available. However, most of the flow happens in 3 to 4 months, and rest of the year flow is less than minimum threshold. Daming the river to create reservoirs is needed. This will collect water when it is in excess, preventing floods in monsoon season, and ensuring consistent flow for rest of the year. Author's suggestion to make Indus Delta 5th shareholder is a great idea. Building more reservoirs is critical for Pakistan in general and Sindh in particular. But it is unfortunate that Sindhi politicians especially rich land lords from inland areas, who are not directly effected by this, oppose building reservoirs.
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