The Death of the Indus Delta

Before the development of the Punjab canal colonies at the turn of the century and the construction of barrages for irrigation purposes between 1932 and 1960, the Indus discharged at an average, over 200,000 cusecs of water into the Arabian Sea. This discharge took place through over a dozen distributaries and creeks, whose names form an important part of the political and navigational history of the Indian, Arabian and African coastline, and of the folklore of lower Sindh. The marine currents that developed due to this discharge, affected navigation for over 500 kilometers off the coast, and the muddy waters of the Indus decolourised the blue-grey Arabian Sea for over 60 kilometers from the shore.

This intense tussle between the sea and the river forced the waters of the Indus to spread out into numerous channels at its mouth, thus creating the Indus delta country. This region covered an area of over 3000 square kilometers, and since it received a major part of the one million tons of silt that the Indus waters carry with them daily, it was the most fertile area in the river valley.

The delta region consisted of three distinct areas. In the upper reaches, there were thick lai, or tamarisk forests, sustained by the annual flooding of the river. Below them were the mud flats which were covered with sohand and pal grass and large quantities of the lana shrub. And still further, where the sea and the delta channels met, were the timmar, or mangrove swamps, where almost all marine life in the coastal region is conceived. All three forms of vegetation bound the soil together and made it possible for the delta not only to absorb the silt that the river brought with it, but also to push the delta region into the sea by about three square kilometers every year.

The nature of vegetation in the different parts of the delta region determined the nature of productive activity that was carried out in them. The tamarisk forests were cut for timber in a big way by the Jat tribes that inhabited them. A large part of this timber was converted into charcoal by burning. This activity took place in autumn and winter when the river had receded. Before coal replaced timber as fuel for the railways, ten million cubic feet of timber per year was used in Sindh for the North Western Railways. Most of it came from the delta region.

The sohand and pal grass in the mud flats is excellent feed for buffalo and cows, and the region produced a considerable amount of ghee and butter. Agriculture, consisting entirely of red rice, was carried out almost without ploughing as the river deposited large quantities of silt on the seeds that the farmers scattered on the mud flats between the delta channels. Yields were higher than anywhere else in the Indus valley. The lana shrub and the mangrove are both consumed by camels and so the area adjoining the mangrove marshes was used for breeding the finest camels in Sindh. And finally, in the saline creeks, the Dabla clans carried on a subsistence fishing activity.

Timber, charcoal, ghee, rice and camels were all produced in considerable surplus in the delta region. This surplus was exported through the Indus ports to Muscat, Dwarka, Aden, Gomti and the Persian Gulf ports, most of who depend entirely on delta produce for survival. The ports of Keti Bunder and Shah Bunder on the Haidari and Ochto channels of the Indus, were busy towns and their ports were crowded with Arab dhows and sailors from the Gulf and the western coast of the Indian peninsula. The population of these ports was over 20,000 each, and their Memon and Shidi merchants and Hindu bankers were an affluent and cosmopolitan community that had stronger connections across the seas than with cities in the Indus valley. Keti Bunder had a municipal committee, street lighting, and boasted a large rice husking mill in an era when mechanically operated mills were rare. But all this was to change.

At the turn of the century, the development of the canal colonies in the Punjab commenced and a large part of the water of the five eastern tributaries of the Indus was siphoned away for perennial irrigation in the Punjab doabas. However, this water constituted a very small percentage of total volume of water in the Indus. As such, this development had no major impact on the Indus delta country except that the two western-most seasonal channels on the delta ceased to function altogether and there was a general drop in the extent of inundation. Up to five percent of the tamarisk forests were affected by this drop.

In 1932, the Sukkur barrage was commissioned and as a result, fresh water would disappear from the Indus channels, except for the Haidari and Oshta branches, for four months in the year. During these months, the sea would creep into the mud flats and the mangroves would no longer be flushed by the fresh waters of the river. This caused immense inconvenience to the delta people and curtailed productive activity and trade considerably. However, they adapted to these changes, and along with the land, managed to survive.

After the commissioning of the Ghulam Mohammad Barrage in 1956, fresh water ceased to flow in the delta channels altogether, except for a few weeks in the flood season. The sea moved into the lower reaches of the Indus distributaries for good, and the fertile mud flats became saline marshes unfit for cultivation. The rice mills ceased to function and in the absence of the flood waters of this river, large tracts of tamarisk forests died in the upper delta region.

Drinking water, which was acquired entirely from the river, was no longer available except at the Hyderi mouth of the Indus. Hence, it became impossible for animals or humans to survive in the region. Those who could afford it, migrated along with their livestock to the newly colonized lands in Jati, Thatta, Badin and Sujawal. Those who could not, moved to areas where they could work as landless labour. Production, not even for bare subsistence, was possible any longer and so the dhows unfolded their sails and sailed away from the Indus coastline. The Memon and Shidi merchants moved to Karachi, and the towns of Keti Bunder and Shah Bunder became small hamlets with populations of no more than a few hundred each. Their impressive homes and municipal buildings were either washed away by the sea, or survive as pathetic ruins. So the Indus delta died unwept, and with it a four thousand year history of trade and commerce came to an end.

But the story does not end here. While the lower delta country was invaded by the sea, in the upper region perennial canal irrigation from the Ghulam Mohammad Barrage was developed. What little survived of the tamarisk forests was cut or burned to make way for cultivation. Effective drainage through gravity flow for the irrigation system could not be developed as the delta country was far too flat, and mechanical pump requires power and resources that were not available. So water-logging and salinity set in in a big way; traditional food crops could no longer be grown to give even nominal yields, and all the ancient mango orchards perished. They were replaced by coconut palms, sugarcane, bananas and tomatoes, which can withstand saline soil conditions. How these crops will fare in the long run remains to be seen. Nevertheless, their cultivation requires considerable finances and ‘holding power’ on the part of the farmer. Thus, the poor and less affluent cultivators cannot afford to grow them, and have been further marginalized.

New developments have also taken place in the lower delta region. In the early sixties, the fisheries department was activated by the government of Pakistan and loans for boat building, mechanization of boats, and new types of nets, were floated. Karachi entrepreneurs, operating through Memon and Shidi middlemen and bayparis, made use of these facilities and in turn, gave loans and instruction to local fishermen to develop the fish industry. Fishing is now a major occupation in the delta, and not only Dablas but Jats and Khashkhelis, who once thought that this profession was below their dignity, are perforce engaged in it. However, it must be stated that the delta fishermen are heavily in debt to the bayparis, and as a result, are forced to sell their produce to them at less than half its value.

Even though not exploited scientifically or even fully, the fishing industry is the sixth largest foreign exchange earner for the government of Pakistan. In addition, the mangrove swamps in the Indus delta region are a major source not only of fish but also of marine life on our coastline. However, with the siphoning away of 90 percent of the Indus waters for irrigational purposes, this enormous nursery of marine life is threatened with extinction.

Historically, the Indus waters carried to the ocean not only large quantities of fresh water, but also enormous quantities of nutrients and sediments. Together, they helped support the entire mangrove ecosystem in the delta region. Since the disappearance of the delta channels, there has been a sharp decline in fish breeding and a number of important species of marine life, such as the palla, have almost disappeared. In addition, lack of nutrition and fresh water, along with massive erosion of the coastline by the sea, has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of hectares of mangrove forests. This process is continuing, and as the sediment built by the Indus over many millennia is slowly eroded, it will increase sharply.

The Indus delta is dead, and the lower delta region that the great river created, is in the process of dying. Though nothing can be done to reactivate the delta channels, it is possible to rehabilitate the mangrove ecosystem and save the marine and human population of the region from extinction. It is hoped saving the delta region will be a priority with the government of Pakistan, and that apart from an affirmation of intent and the commissioning of studies, some practical work will soon be commenced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

site design by iMedia
Mobile Menu
Responsive Menu Image Responsive Menu Clicked Image