August Issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

The fate of a mega development project, the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) seems to be stuck in limbo as construction work on its final phase has been postponed due to a lack of funds and a controversy between the federal and provincial governments over its design. The double-edged water project, has already turned the Hamal and Manchhar lakes into poisonous cesspools, is also likely to destroy Haleji Lake, a wild-life sanctuary in the coastal areas of Sindh.

In order to alleviate the problem of salinity and water-logging in the command areas of Sukkur and Guddu barrage on the right bank of the River Indus, the federal government began the 273-kilometre-long RBOD project in 1993 at a revised cost of Rs 29.12 billion against its initial estimate of Rs 14 billion. With the passage of time, changes were made in the plan: the redesigned project was expected to drain out 3,500 cusecs of saline water daily into the sea.

The construction work on RBOD-I and III is almost complete. However, work on the major RBOD-II, which will carry the drainage effluents of RBOD I and III into the sea, has been halted due to disagreement over the project design and fiscal policy issues between the centre and the Sindh government.

The RBOD is a classic example of the failure of policy makers over the last 60 years to develop water management models that take cognisance of humanitarian and ecological factors. The controversial RBOD project has been developed without a proper socio-environmental impact assessment. Consequently, it has led to the displacement of thousands of families and polluted fresh water lakes. RBOD-1, originally known as the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD), which was constructed in 1932 by British engineers to carry flood flows from the hill torrents and escape flows from the canal, is the only natural drainage which connects Hamal Lake in the north and Manchhar Lake in the west. In 1981, it was remodelled to carry agricultural effluents by linking it with various drainage canals of Dadu and Larkana districts. Moreover, the additional discharge of saline agricultural water from Balochistan was added to RBOD-I through the construction of RBOD-III. Initially the disposal points of RBOD-I and RBOD- III were Hamal and Manchhar lakes, up until the construction of RBOD-II, which will now dispose the saline water into the sea.

03Manchhar_LakeThe continuous disposal of saline drainage effluents into Hamal and Manchhar lakes has polluted and degraded both lakes immeasurably. Following mass protests against this environmental degradation and the loss of people’s livelihood as a consequence, policy makers were eventually compelled to think of an alternate option for the disposal of drainage effluents. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) was assigned the task of working on a project that sought to dispose off drainage effluents into the River Indus near Sehwan. During the initial study, WAPDA maintained that such a disposal system would not damage the Indus, but environmental experts and the local community called it a deadly project, following which the Sindh government raised objections to the design of the project. After a prolonged debate, Gharo creek in district Thatta was chosen as the final disposal point, and construction work on the RBOD-II was begun in 2003. So far, about 71% work on the overall RBOD project has been completed with financial support from the federal government. But shortage of funds has delayed its completion. In the year 2008-09, as against the allocated amount of Rs 4,000 million, only Rs 1,500 million were released by the government. Following the 18th Constitutional Amendment that led to the devolution of various ministries, the federal government observed that all federally financed public sector development programmes in the four provinces would cease to get funds from the centre and the provinces would have to finance such projects from their own resources. The provincial government, however, maintains that the centre has already received funding for the project from foreign consortiums and hence should transfer the allocated amount. But to no avail. Therefore, work on the RBOD-II has been stalled for the last four years.

A massive displacement of the local fishermen’s community, called the Mohanas, has taken place over the last two decades, since the RBOD project started contaminating the Manchhar Lake. Located west of the Indus River, this lake is one of the largest freshwater bodies of South Asia. The area of the lake fluctuates with the seasons, measuring from as little as 350 square kms to as much as 520 square kms. Though environmental degradation has happened over a long period of time, it is only now that its long-term effects are being taken seriously. Due to the disposal of saline water from the RBOD, the water is contaminated to such an extent that fish, which is the only source of livelihood for the local community, can no longer survive. According to reports, the fish catch declined from 3000 tons per annum in 1950 to 100 tons in 2001. And out of a total population of 100,000 fishermen recorded in 1950, more than 40,000 fishermen have migrated to other parts of the country, and some even to Afghanistan for the sake of earning a livelihood.

And these migrant families have been forced to live in miserable conditions. It is estimated that more than 5000 families have moved to the Chashma, Tarbela and Jhelum areas of the Punjab province where they are constantly subjected to harassment and violence to force them to leave. In February 2012, Rahimdad, a 13-year-old fisherman was killed by the Punjab police in Jhelum. “We have faced continuous pressure from local fisheries contractors who, with the support of the police, want to us to work on their terms and conditions,” says Shaukat Ali, the local leader of the migrant fishermen’s community. “When we started a campaign for securing fishing rights for our community, local contractors lodged false cases against us and the police has killed at least three of our people in fake encounters.” Additionally, local influentials are trying to force fisherman to migrate from the Dera Ismail Khan area. In April, 2012, Bilqees, the 14-year-old daughter of Nazar Muhammad, a representative of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum in Dera Ismail Khan, was kidnapped by four armed persons from his house and further threatened to “be ready for more such incidents until you quit organising fishermen.”

Additionally, some displaced families that chose to stay on in Sindh, have had to give up fishing and opt for alternate means to earn their livelihood. “Many Mohana families are working in agriculture farms and are now virtual slaves to local landlords in the Shahdadkot district of Sindh. Lacking the necessary agricultural skills, a majority of them are entrapped in a cycle of debt from which there is no escape; their vulnerability is exploited by the local landlords,” says Ghulam Mustafa Gurgaze, a staff member the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

02Manchhar_LakeThe trail of tragedy wrought by the RBOD has yet to hit the already shrinking riverine forests of Sindh. These forests are situated inside the flood protection bunds of the River Indus, which are, in general, not exposed to artificial drainage. These forest areas receive water during the flood season in River Indus. After agriculture, these riverine forests are the second major source of livelihood of hundreds of thousands of families. “The super engineering scheme of the RBOD-II is going to disturb that historical link between the River Indus and the forest. It is feared that thousands of families will lose their sources of livelihood after the construction of hundreds of kilometres-long RBOD-II,” says Mustafa Talpur, the South Asian regional head of Water Aid.

The proposed mega drainage scheme poses a threat to the Haleji Lake as well, which is located 80 kilometres away from Karachi, off the National Highway. Haleji Lake has been declared a wildlife sanctuary and the construction of RBOD-II within the limits of the lake amounts to a violation of rules. “The RBOD-II is being constructed roughly 50 to 100 kms away from the lake. The seepage of drainage will ultimately destroy the lake. We have already witnessed the destruction of major wetlands in the Sanghar and Badin districts by the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD). Despite concerns raised by the World Wildlife Fund, no environmental impact assessment has been carried out by the authorities concerned,” says Sindh Wildlife Conservator, Hussain Buksh Bhagat.

However, supporters of the RBOD scheme argue that disposal of drainage into the sea at Gharo creek is the only viable option to save Manchhar Lake and land productivity. “We need a drainage that could help reduce water-logging on the right bank of the River Indus. The current design of the RBOD-II would certainly cause displacement and environmental problems, but these issues can be resolved and the project should not be abandoned for that reason,” says Idrees Rajput, a former irrigation secretary of Sindh.

But the local communities in the coastal belt have serious apprehensions about the proposed scheme. They argue that disposing saline and toxic effluents in the sea will not only pose a threat to their livelihood but could also lead to the sea inundating villages. “The discharge of RBOD in the Gharo creek will channelise the sea water in the reverse direction. We have experienced the same in Badin district, where the LBOD led to disastrous consequences, inundating hundreds of villages and submerging thousands of acres of land under sea water” says Muhammad Ali Shah, chairman of the Pakistan Fishefolk Forum.

Taking suo moto notice of the contamination of Manchhar Lake, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in August 2011 directed the federal government to take necessary action for the diversion of saline water which was being disposed off in Manchhar Lake. The three-member bench also directed the federal government to provide safe drinking water to the Mohana community living in Manchhar Lake and instal desalination plants. Responding to court orders, the government has managed to provide safe drinking water for 5000 persons daily. But, the total population of Manchhar Lake is more than 50,000.

The local communities have suggested moving the construction of RBOD-II further west, between the Indus highway and the Kirthar mountain range. The local communities are of the view that if the drainage is excavated far west from the Indus River in the Kirthar range instead, it will not affect the population living between the River Indus and the Kirthar range and the proposed project will also not cause damage to the riverine forest. But this proposal was not accepted by engineers because of the heavy cost of drainage excavation in the mountains.

In the past 20 years, hundreds of people have died due to the contamination of Manchhar Lake. The floating houses have virtually disappeared and the hapless Mohanas are leaving their abodes for destinations unknown. “We have knocked on every door and asked to be saved from this destruction, but we have been asked to keep our fingers-crossed until the next decision is made. We are literally being pushed towards sure death and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel,” says Mustafa Mirani, chairman of the Manchhar Bachao (Save Manchhar) Committee.

This article was originally published in the August issue of Newsline under the headline “Fate Unknown.”