Kashif Hafeez Siddiqui

A Memory Flows By

In pakistan on April 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm
A Memory Flows By
The river that gave India its name and Pakistan its lifeline is bone-dry

By Huma Imtiaz

Historical accounts often describe the Indus as ‘mighty’. And mighty it has mostly been, defeating Alexander the Great and his rampaging army and spawning the ancient civilisations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. The British successfully tamed the Indus, building the world’s largest canal-based irrigation system and providing succour to millions.

But the once-mighty Indus is now shrinking rapidly, courtesy climate change, bad irrigation practices and an exponential increase in population. In addition, Islamabad accuses India of curtailing the flow of rivers into Pakistan. Whatever the cause, the sight of the river today wrenches you, as my two friends and I experienced on our road-trip cutting through a wide swathe of Sindh and Punjab. On our first stop at Sehwan, Sindh, where the Sufi saint Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is buried, we climbed a hillock. Down there was the Indus, an apology for the river of our memory, a thin strip of water snaking across the dark brown landscape, the riverbed shallow and muddy. Amidst sighs of disbelief, a glance at the map confirmed to us: yes, it was indeed the Indus.

he picture in Punjab was equally dismal, as the western tributaries of the Indus—Chenab and Jhelum—are also shrinking rapidly. Lower Punjab, like neighbouring Sindh, is arid, and agriculture here is primarily dependent on rainfall and water supplied from the rivers to the canal irrigation system. En route to Bahawalpur, one could see fields being prepared for sowing, but no water in sight. A spring drizzle was enough to bring smiles on the faces of local residents, who bemoaned the progressive decline in precipitation. And now aid workers use the F-word to predict what lies ahead in 2010: “Famine”. Tahir Qureshi, senior advisor on coastal ecosystems at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Pakistan, says global warming has affected the region. “In the past, there were regular rains in the summer but these are becoming erratic. In the future we may become a drier nation and experience scanty rainfall.”

This is why Maqbool Anjum, a farmer in south Punjab with a landholding of 12.5 acres, is worried. He has seen the rainfall decline, and the gushing irrigation canals reduced to a trickle. About this year, Anjum said, “Farmers had prepared the fields to sow crops, but there was less water from the canals and we have to rely on groundwater from tubewells to make up for the shortage. There’s been less rain this year. Obviously we’re worried.”

Environmental lawyer Rafay Alam says the depletion in Pakistan’s water resources is linked to the population boom and bad irrigation practices. According to Alam, in 1947 Pakistan had 5,000 cubic meters of water/person/ year. A 2007 report by the Asian Development Bank says Pakistan is nearly at the water scarcity threshold of a 1,000 cubic meters/person/year; a 2008 World Bank report dubs Pakistan as “one of the most water-stressed countries in the world”. Alam believes this figure will fall in the next decade, because the population is multiplying even as resources are decreasing.

According to Alam, “Nearly 95 per cent of Pakistan’s water is used for agriculture. The irrigation water is put into canals. It’s an inefficient system designed in the 1860s. The canal is not lined and is just a trench; imagine the seepage that occurs. We’re losing up to 40 per cent of water to seepage, evaporation and theft.” Alam says farmers should switch to drip irrigation instead of the current flood irrigation system, which would help save water.

The Pakistan government blames India for the acute shortage. According to the Indus Basin Water Treaty of 1960, the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi were handed over to India; Pakistan controlled the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. In Multan, we saw what the Sutlej had been reduced to—mounds of sand and a dry, cracked riverbed. Pakistan claims India is building barrages and dams that violate the treaty. India denies any violations. Pakistan Indus Water Commissioner Jamaat Ali Shah says, “The treaty must be implemented in letter and spirit.” But even Shah agrees that the Pakistani government must implement efficient water storage and conservation systems. “The water level falls due to seasonal variations, and then we don’t have water storage facilities. We have to work towards the conservation and management of water.”

t’s not just India and Pakistan who are fighting over water. Pakistan’s provincial governments regularly allege that the 1991 Water Accord stipulating the distribution of water resources is not being implemented adequately, with Punjab often being accused by other provinces of usurping their share of water. Amidst this battle of words, the World Food Programme noted, “The current wheat crop in the rain-fed areas will give less production due to crop failure during sowing season because of late rains.” It further says the Pakistan government must address the water security issue, which is “intrinsically linked with food security and rural livelihoods”.

The Food Security Risk Index ranking of 2009 puts Pakistan at number 11, an “extreme risk” country. If the current scenario prevails, the lack of water may be the final push that sends Pakistan into the abyss.

About Author :

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and likes her cocktails with a dash of sarcasm.  She works for GEO News Pakistan.


  1. It will not tolerrated easily and may result in war between Pakistan and India

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