Marching for water

Earlier this summer, close to 1,500 farmers marched to Thatta to protest against water shortages in their villages. This was not the first march to save the Indus Delta, nor will it be the last.

The sun beat down on the parched marchers as they made their way up to Thatta from Kharo Chan, walking along the banks of the Indus river. When the march began, they were just 50, but as they walked, their numbers swelled, and by the time they reached Thatta, there were a sea of 1500 people — both young and old, carrying handkerchiefs and sheets to shield themselves from the scorching heat, but resolute in their aim to march all the way to Thatta for water.

As the marchers walked, they sang a song of revolution — Utho Sindhu ja warison/Sindhu khe bachayo [Wake up, O’ heirs of Sindhu/Save her/Help us cross on this broken boat to the other side.] 

Hundreds of people from the Indus delta region walked 140 km to Thatta in July this year. They were protesting against worsening water shortages and erosion that was causing land losses in their villages.

As I walked alongside the marchers, I kept thinking back to the Indus civilization’s past — how mighty the Indus river used to be, how it helped different conquerors at various points of history, how the water birthed different cities, and how, now, the people of the delta are dying of thirst.

Usually, people love the sea. They sit by its shore with their family and friends, they find peace and tranquility in its waves, but the marchers I was walking with saw the sea in their nightmares. Roaring waves have invaded their homes, lands, graveyards and memories.

The march began from Kharo Chan, a drowning island on the southern tip of the Indus river delta. Once, Kharo Chan, was a prosperous town; local farmers grew rice, peas, coconuts, mango and guava on its rich soils. Today, Kharo Chan is deserted, and the construction of large dams — such as Tarbela in Northwestern Pakistan — has, to a large degree, contributed to the death of this town. 

Nineteeen barrages, 43 canal systems, 38-take offs, three storage dams and 12 link canals have been constructed along the Indus river since 1947, reducing the river’s volume of water and increasing seawater intrusion into the delta. In 1938 — before the construction of these dams, barrages and canals — the Indus river released 90 million acre-feet of water into the delta. By 2018, this release had dwindled to just 1.7 million acre-feet. One of the largest deltas in the world, the Indus river delta is dying a slow death — the lack of freshwater has rendered the around the region infertile, and rising sea levels have increased salinity and water-logging. There were around 42 union councils in Kharo Chan district, of which 28 have been eroded by sea water.

A July 2019 Reuters report stated that the spread of large-scale irrigation along the Indus river was partially to blame for less water reaching delta. The report cited Simi Kamal, a water expert working at the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, and added that the mismanagement of water — including wasteful flood irrigation and failure to leave enough water in systems to support nature — was far more detrimental and played a much bigger role in the lack of water in the delta, than large-scale irrigation.

“Sea intrusion has engulfed 2.5 million acres of land in Thatta, Badin, and Sujawal. The sea continues to gulp the land since requisite fresh water is not being released from the Kotri downstream,” says Aijaz Jakhro, a lecturer at Government Degree College, Thatta. “When I visited Keti Bandar a few months ago, a resident of village Samoo, told me that even graveyards such as Pir Mohammad are now underwater. Until only 15-20 years ago, these graves could be visited.”

“Paani nahi cho bhalla? [Why there is no water]?” the marchers chanted as they reached Thatta. “Paani tay darho, na manzoor [No to water theft].”

The march coming down from Makli Hill – Makli Tombs can be seen in the background. Photo by Sheeraz Waryu.

“Our delta is at the end, water does not reach us for years because of the Irrigation Department’s mismanagement; due to lack of water, thousands of acres of agriculture land have gone barren,” said Raees Haq Nawaz, a farmer who was marching. With a deep sigh, he added,“Till a few years ago, 35 laborers were working on my land, but today, I am enough for the land since there is no water.” 

At the Indus delta, the river splits and spreads out into 17 creeks before entering the Arabian sea — 15 of the 17 creeks fall into Thatta, Sujawal and Badin. Once, the delta was fertile and famous for its red rice which was exported as far as the Far East and Persian Gulf. The region also produced up to 5000 tonnes of fish in 1951, according to a report by the US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water. Today, it produces only 300. Production of milk and livestock has also lessened due to the shortage of water. 

The Indus river delta, as seen from space with Kori Creek shown at top. Photo: NASA/Wikimedia

“Thirty-five thousand acres of agriculture land have become barren. We have no clean water to drink. Due to mismanagement of water, our areas are not receiving water. We demand that there should be an equal distribution of water and illegal theft of water should be stopped,” saidAyaz Lashari, one of the march organisers. He blamed influential feudals, politicians and powerful landlords for water theft. 

But this wasn’t the first time this year that the people of the Indus river delta marched for their land. In April 2019, farmers from the delta marched 22 km, from Train town to Badin. Towards the end of their march, they were assured by local politicians, that their demands would be met. Five months later, the basin is still parched. 

After they reached Makli, the marchers moved down from the hills, across Maa-Kali, the famous Hindu temple, down a national highway that was river land centuries ago. “Today, where there is road; once, there was a river,” said Salman Jakhro, a Thatta-based poet,  as he marched down. “Now, on that same road, people are protesting an acute water shortage.” 

The marchers reached Thatta on July 3, 2019. Photo by writer.

On July 3, at 2 pm, the protestors reached Thatta Press Club. They had been walking for seven days. But it still took Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah till evening to take notice. Eventually, he sent down officials to meet with organisers and they negotiated late into the night. Despite the talks, in the end, the government had nothing concrete to offer, they asked for 10 days to resolve the marcher’s issues: finish illegal fish ponds, deal with illegal water theft, improve mismanagement of water, and provide water to tail-end areas. 

A fast for water

More than 10 days passed and nothing changed. None of the government’s promises were met. On July 18, the marchers realised they would have to work harder for the state’s attention: this time they staged a 24-hour hunger strike at Thatta Press Club. 

“A few months ago, I went to Hyderabad and crossed over Kotri Barrage, there was only sand, no water,” said a farmer at the hunger strike. He explained that because of the construction of dams and barrages further along the Indus river, not enough fresh water is being let into the delta. This fresh water is necessary to stop the sea from swallowing the land in its path, and for the sustainability of the delta and its inhabitants. 

Also at the hunger strike, Muhammad Saeed, a 40-year-old farmer from Muradanri village, near Ghorabhari complained about acute water shortage. “We have gone to every authority, but they have done nothing,” he said. “We even went to the extent of disallowing polio workers from our villages until the water issue was solved. That worked a bit; the district commissioner of Thatta promised us that if we allow polio workers to do their rounds, our water issues would be solved before Eid. But in the end, this was a false promise.” 

Farmers sitting in hunger strike camp at Thatta Press Club. Photo by Wahid Rind.

“I used to own 72 acres of land but now my agriculture lands have turned to desert. Our village had 400 families, now only 150 are left because others have migrated,” Saeed added. “Water is not potable, it is toxic. We drink it at a great risk to our lives. Ever since the Khanti branch canal was constructed in 2017, we have never seen water reaching us.”. 

The Khanti branch canal was constructed in  Ghorabari tehsil, about 80 km from Thatta, to solve problems affecting the tail end of the Indus delta. Due to poor construction and engineering, however, water in the branch canal fails to travel upwards. To add insult to injury, the branch canal  has also been blocked off at various points by influential people who steal water. All this has caused a severe water scarcity in Ghorabari tehsil and surrounding villages. 

Today, Kharo Chan is deserted, and the construction of large dams — such as Tarbela in Northwestern Pakistan — has, to a large degree, contributed to the death of this town.

The climate crisis has exacerbated the dire situation in the Indus delta, droughts are not helping matters. According to a Third Pole report, by 2050 Thatta will be underwater. Pakistan will then experience climate migration at an unprecedented scale: something the country is least prepared for.

As day turned to night in the hunger camp, a poet in the crowd named Salman Jakhro began chanting — Jar Kharo Thi wayu/Bhar Kharo thi wayu/Hail hawa sa ghuli/Thar kharo thi wayu. [Underneath, the water is salty/Salty is the water over the earth/What the wind has blown/Thar is covered in salt.]

The next day the hunger strike ended as silently as it had begun. No one from the government came to speak to the protestors. One of the organisers of the strike, Lashari, ended the protest by giving the government an ultimatum: “We give the government five days, after which we will hold hunger strikes and protests in different cities, and after that if water issues are not resolved, we will march unto Karachi.” 

The marchers returned to their homes, seasonal rainfall gave them temporary relief as water flowed downwards from Kotri. The government forgot about the people of the Indus and the promises it had made to them. And as government officials sit in air conditioned offices and drink purified, bottled water, the people of the delta will take to the streets once again to rally for a resource many of us take for granted everyday: water. 

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