The Death of the Indus Delta

This is not a technical paper. It consists primarily of observations regarding the changes that have occurred in the physical and social environment of the delta region in my life time. As a child and a young man I visited the delta regularly as my father had a fascination for the archaeological remains of the old delta port cities that managed the trade between Sindh on the one hand and the Gulf, African and the Indian peninsular ports on the other. History tells us that this trade was extensive and the Indus delta region was a major exporter of timber, camels, rice and textiles.

In 1960, I left Pakistan to study abroad and did not visit the Indus delta again till 1989 when the UNESCAP asked me to prepare an environmental profile of coastal communities for the government of Pakistan’s Coastal Environmental Management Plan. In the twenty nine years that I had not visited the delta, the delta had changed. What I saw was a devastation horrific both in its nature and scale. The report that I prepared and my subsequent writings have documented this change both in socio-economic and physical terms. What I have observed and gathered from surveys forms part of my more recent book “The Unplanned Revolution”.

When I visited the delta in 1989, after an absence of twenty nine years, what struck me most was that the mud flats between the creeks were no longer green. The rich grasses on them had died and as such there were no animals grazing on them. The entire landscape had been transformed from one of greenery, to one of complete barrenness except for the mangrove bushes. We were told that agriculture that was carried out as a result of the annual flooding of the river was not longer possible as the sea had crept in. The share croppers on these lands had moved to other areas where many of them have been reduced to being day-wage labour.

It was November and at this time in the past, hundreds of little hamlets of fishermen of the Dabla clans would have developed on the sea shore at the extremities of the creeks. However, no such hamlets were visible. Investigations showed that since there was no sweet water flushing the creeks, the grasses could no longer grow. For the same reason, the seasonal fishing hamlets could also not be established. Hamlets, however, still existed in those locations where water could be acquired. In most cases, this was acquired by boat from distances varying between five to ten kilometres whereas previously it was available in the creeks themselves. On further investigations it was discovered that the herders had migrated to the northern parts of the Sakro taluka and that the majority of the Dabla clans had migrated to the Karachi coastal villages.

Our study included a survey of the coastal villages of the Karachi region. In five out of eight villages we found Dabla clan migrants from the delta. They were living on the fringes of the villages in extremely poor conditions. Permission to build a shack (not a pucca house) on the village lands had been granted to them and for this they paid by working as hired labour for fishing trips at half or even less than half of the normal wage. This permission to occupy land is given by the powerful bayparis who control the economic activities of these villages. The older generation was of the view that they were much better off in the delta where they could trade fish for other necessary commodities of life which were available with other delta communities such as the Khaskhelis (who were agriculturists) and Jats (who were herders). Here in the Karachi villages, all dealings were in cash, and this had resulted in their being exploited and in debt. They saw little hope for the future. It was estimated in 1989 that there were over fifteen thousand extended Dabla families in Karachi’s coastal villages. Elders also spoke of a major migration to the riverine areas of the Indus. This migration and its repercussions have never been researched and documented.

During this visit we also visited Kotri Allahrakhio Shah. In 1960, there were dense forests on either side of the river. These were all gone and instead the river banks were nothing more than silt and dust for miles on end. Charcoal making that was carried out here by the Jats had also almost disappeared and the extensive mat and kanna lattice making workshops had also ceased to exist. There was no demand for them. No houses were being built or renovated. The settlements had diminished or vanished. There were also very few animals on the lower reaches of Hajamro and almost no boats when previously there used to be hundreds of them.

We tried to visit Achu and Wasain at the mouth of the Khar creek. I had known these settlements as a young man. We could not get to them because the sea had almost swallowed them up and we were told that in any case, there were only a few houses left in these once large and prosperous villages. Both the settlements, which once had access to potable river water, now acquire water by boat. Locals were of the opinion, that it was just a matter of time before the sea would wash out the settlements completely. Similarly, we visited the two Shah Buder sites (one on the left and the other on the right bank of the river) and Juno. It was difficult to get to them and the archaeological sites had been damaged irreparably. The ruins of abandoned settlements littered the landscape.

We spent two nights at Keti Bunder and its surrounding areas. The settlement was a shadow of its former self. Its impressive public buildings were in ruins and unoccupied. Some of its beautiful cast iron street lamp posts were still visible but they were not linked to any energy system. The port itself, which at any given time used to have a large number of dowhs anchored in it, now only had a few fishing boats. At the Bunder embankment we met Iqbal Memon, a baypairi which whom I have kept in touch since then. He explained that the dowhs used to carry rice, timber, charcoal camels and other delta products to the coastal regions of Balochistan and the Gulf. However, this was no longer possible since the delta region produce no rice; timber was almost non-existent and due to the shortage of potable water the producers of charcoal and the herders had migrated further north and now used the road system for transporting their goods. We met with them at Gharo and Sakro, most of them had given up their traditional occupations and become day wage construction or agricultural labour.

This devastation is not limited to the delta region alone. Anyone who has travelled on the Thatta-Sajawal road over the last thirty years as I have and has crossed the Indus in the process has seen the slow disappearance of the riverine forests on either side. This is not only because of felling but more so because in the absence of river water, the forests cannot regenerate.

The study also generated some statistics which are now out of date. It is necessary to update them and I have attempted to do this below.

  • Data from 1980-81 to 1997-98 shows that 95 per cent of farmland in Sindh gets water from the irrigation system and 5 per cent from tube wells. In the case of the Punjab, 19.1 per cent cultivation is carried out by tube wells. (Agricultural Statistics of Pakistan 1998-99 and National Water Sector Profile, ADB/GOP 2001)
  • Less than 5 MAF ground water is available in Sindh and it is present in only 28 per cent of the entire area of the province. So the Indus remains the only viable source.
  • 28 per cent of the geographic area of Sindh is cultivated as opposed to 77.4 per cent of Punjab. (Drought South Asia Water Vision 20-25, Country Report Pakistan)
  • More than 50 per cent of the cultivated area in Sindh is severely affected by salinity and water-logging (Rapid Assessment of LBOD, ADB, Manila, 2000).
  • Satellite surveys of the mangrove forests show that they have decreased from 263,000 ha in 1977 to less than 160,000 ha in 1991. They are the sixth largest mangrove forests in the world. (Farah and Meynel, IUCN 1992) This decrease is increasingly because of the absence of fresh water from the Indus for these forests.
  • The Indus delta occupied 2,600 square kilometre area consisting of creeks, mud flats and forests between Karachi and the Runn of Kutch. The active delta is now only 10 per cent of its original area. (Prof. Mushtaq Mirani, Water Resources, unpublished paper, 2002)
  • Due to the decline in the annual inundation from the Indus, the regeneration of riverine forest has declined from 2,617 ha in 1978-79 to 877 ha in 2001-02.
  • Half of Keti Bunder taluka, two tappas and four dehs in Sakro taluka, three tappas in Kharo Chaan taluka have lost their fertility due to sea water intrusion. (Prof. Muhammad Ali Shaikh, Agriculture in Sindh) In 2002, eight talukas of Badin and Thatta districts were subjected to a massive sea intrusion. Approximately 1.23 million acres of land was affected. Over 33 per cent of these districts are subjected to sea intrusion. (Expressed by Secretary of Power and Irrigation, Government of Sindh and quoted in an unpublished paper on Forestry by Lala Fazal Ahmed Baqi, 2002)
  • The volume of silt feeding the delta has reduced from 200 million tonnes per year in 1974 to 63 million tonnes per year in 1991. This silt brought with it nutrients essential for fish and other wildlife in the delta. In the year 2000, 84,693 metric tonnes valued at Rs 7.9 billion fish and fish products were exported from Pakistan. 48 per cent of this was produced in Sindh and much of it from the Indus delta region and the Sindh coast. (Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2000-01) Without water from the Indus, this is bound to fall and eventually disappear.
  • The UN has declared the year 2003 as the International Year for Fresh Water. The Indus delta (472.800 ha) along with two other Sindh sites, have been declared as the new protected sites under the RAMSAR Convention. Wildlife in the mangrove forests of the delta consists of reptiles, 200 species of fish, over 56 species of migratory water fowl, tropical dolphins, porpoises and various forms of reptiles. Due to sea intrusion, most areas have become saline and as such cannot support any form of wildlife. The situation is becoming worse progressively.

The above statistics paint a very grim future for the province of Sindh as a whole and for the area below Kotri in particular. This is not only a grim picture for Sindh but also for Pakistan since Sindh is a major contributor to Pakistan’s economy. It is therefore not out of place to see the extent to which Sindh contributes to the economy and development of Pakistan. Some figures are given below.

  • Sindh contains 54 per cent of the country’s textile units, 45 per cent of its sugar mills, 20 per cent of pulp and paper mills, 34 per cent of total industrial capacity in large scale manufacturing and 25 per cent in small scale manufacturing. In addition, the province produces 35 per cent of all manufactured edible oil in the country.
  • 60 per cent of the country’s oil fields and 44 per cent gas fields are located in Sindh. In addition, 56 per cent oil and 37 per cent gas of Pakistan’s daily production is from Sindh. (Federal Bureau of Statistics)
  • In the agricultural sector again, Sindh is a major producer. 14 per cent wheat, 43 per cent rice, 30 per cent sugar cane, 25 per cent cotton, 40 per cent onions, 81 per cent chillies and 35 per cent tomatoes produced in Pakistan are from Sindh. (Agricultural Statistics of Pakistan, 1997-98 and Development Statistics of Sindh 1998)
  • 48 per cent of fish export from Pakistan is produced in Sindh. 71 per cent of marine fish resources, 65 per cent of fresh water fish resources and 100 per cent of brackish water fish resources are located in Sindh. (Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2000-01, quoted in an unpublished paper by Khursheed Din Syed)
  • Sindh is also home to 28 per cent buffalos, 27 per cent cattle, 24 per cent sheep, 28 per cent camels and 40 per cent poultry in Pakistan. (Livestock Census, Special Report on Pakistan, 1996)
  • Six of the major wetlands in the country are located in Sindh. Another three important Sindh sites have been added to them recently. The province also contains the only substantial large scale mangrove forests in the country.
  • Sindh collects 70 per cent of Pakistan’s income tax and 62 per cent of sales tax. Almost 70 per cent of the national revenues forming the divisible pool are collected from Sindh but its share in revenue transfer is only 23.28 per cent. (Imtiaz Shaikh, Making NFC Award Fair: Daily Dawn, 31 May 2002)

This is an enormous contribution for a province that contains only 23 per cent of Pakistan’s population. Sindh’s contribution to Pakistan’s economy and development should be an integral part of the discussion on the sharing of water resources.

One Comment

  1. ibrahim zia

    nice Article want to Cite in Research paper possible citation of this article available Sir.

    Posted May 29, 2016 at 2:14 am | PermalinkReply

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