Feb 28, 2009

Whither political will?

It is high time that the government goes beyond resolutions and fully implements the 1991 water accord
By Nasir Ali Panhwar
The decreasing floodwater from the Indus river and other seasonal rivers is reportedly a major cause of degradation of the mangroves along the Indus Delta. The construction of a series of dams, barrages and other engineering structures has diverted a large quantity of water for irrigational use, with the result that floodwater quantities reaching the mangroves have decreased substantially. Moreover, the silt reaching the mangroves has also decreased. These two interconnected factors affect the mangrove forests the most.
The most severe environmental stress that the mangroves face is the reduction of freshwater flow down the Indus river. While mangroves, especially Avicennia marina, are able to survive in seawater without regular freshwater input, it is unlikely that they can thrive indefinitely. The Indus Delta was formed from the freshwater flow into the sea carrying 400 million tonnes of silt. Over the years, the flow recharging the delta has reduced drastically. The reduced flow in the Indus river means that the already high salinities in creeks and soil will become higher.
In its last session, the Sindh Assembly demanded effective measures to protect the erosion of land by the sea in the coastal areas of Badin and Thatta districts. The demand was made through a resolution adopted unanimously by the house. Dr Sikandar Mandhro of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) moved the resolution regarding the erosion of land by the sea. In the resolution, it was pointed out that the "active process of sea intrusion and ever increasing rate of erosion has already eaten away millions of acres of fertile land, pushing the population into insurmountable socioeconomic hardships."
In his speech, while quoting data, Dr Mandhro expressed concern and highlighted the need for the construction of a coastal highway to protect land from sea erosion. He pointed out that the Indus Water Treaty, which was signed by Ayub Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960, deprived the country of the water of three rivers; while the construction of dams, including Tarbela, resulted in reduced flow of water downstream Kotri.
According to an international research report, the sea is eating away 80 acres of fertile land daily since 1960. Going by this calculation, the sea has already eroded about 1.4 million acres of fertile land. If the Sindh government builds a coastal highway and sets up windmills along the country's coastal belt, Pakistan could overcome the energy crisis. Moreover, the huge amount of water that makes its way into the sea could by used for cash crops during the Kharif season.
The resolution was also supported by MPAs Heer Soho, Anwar Mehar, Syed Sardar Ahmad, Bachal Shah, Humera Alwani, Nuzhat Pathan, Sassui Palejo, Manzoor Wassan, Syed Murad Ali Shah, Jam Madad Ali and Ayaz Soomro. The resolution is a timely initiative of the legislators; however, to curb the sea intrusion, multidimensional interventions are required. There is increasing evidence that many environmental disasters, such as droughts and floods, are caused by the degradation of natural resources, and they contribute to widespread damage and destruction.
Sea intrusion has been classified as one such phenomenon. It constitutes the encroachment of saline seawater inland and up the channels of rivers, because of sea level rise, depletion of freshwater flows in the river channel or both. The 2004 tsunami made it clear that healthy mangroves serve as a natural barrier against natural or human-made disasters, protect infrastructure and save lives. Pakistan has the biggest mangrove forests in the world; however, their significance in terms of ecological and economic value has remained undocumented and poorly understood.
Historically, the abundant freshwater discharges and nutrients-rich sediment load was conducive to a highly productive coastal ecosystem, including mangroves and fish, which form the livelihood basis of local communities around the Indus Delta. Human activities have, however, progressively altered the discharge pattern of the Indus river and, therefore, of the sediments. It is suspected that the most severe environmental stress that the mangroves are facing results from the reduction of freshwater flows down the Indus river, carrying with it reduced loads of silt and nutrients.
The estimated available flow from the Indus river is about 150 million acre feet (maf) per year. Substantial quantities of freshwater have been harnessed through large-scale engineering projects, such as irrigation channels, barrages, embankments, dykes and multipurpose dams. Because of these interventions, the Indus river freshwater discharge in the deltaic region has been reduced to one-fifth of its natural flow and the river has been confined to a single channel almost down to the coastal area.
After the 1991 Indus Water Apportioned Accord, 10 maf per year were allotted down the Kotri barrage for downstream ecosystems and the livelihood of local populations. However, not even the 10 maf water promised under the 1991 water accord has been released down the Kotri barrage in recent years. In 2000-01, the flow reportedly reached the lowest level in Sindh's recorded irrigation history: only 0.72 maf. On the other hand, there are plans to build new dams that will further reduce the freshwater input.
Therefore, desolation can be witnessed in the coastal areas of Karachi, Thatta and Badin districts. The 1991 water accord was a unanimous covenant signed by the federating units as well as the federation, and it was protected under law after being endorsed by the Council of Common Interests (CCI). The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) had also been constituted under this water accord. The coalition partners in the government have been advocating for the implementation of the 1991 water accord. Now, when they are in power, it is high time that they go beyond resolutions and implement the 1991 water accord, as well as decide about the quantum of water for downstream Kotri. In addition to making resolutions in the parliaments, this long outstanding issue can only be addressed through a strong political will.

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