April issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

The massive presence of law enforcement agencies around Bilawal House in Karachi and the arrest of scores of PPP workers and leaders signalled a protest against yet another major water project that was seen to threaten the interests of Sindh province.

This was the first show of protest organised by the PPP in Karachi, but the scene in the interior of Sindh is altogether different.  From small-time NGOs to the vernacular press to political parties to the newly elected nazims in every district headquarters of the province, there has been condemnation all around of the plan to construct the Thal flood water canal, a project recently sanctioned by the government. “Allowing the Punjab to construct the Thal canal would mean allowing it to seal our fate forever,” says a resolution passed by one of the district assemblies, opposing the construction of the canal.  Meanwhile, the leaders of the nationalist parties in Sindh have threatened they will start a ‘no-cooperation’ movement against WAPDA, the agency executing the project, and stop paying electricity bills if it doesn’t halt the construction work.

The tussle between the Punjab and Sindh over the distribution of water goes back to pre-Partition days, but the latest clash between the two provinces was sparked off when the bill was proposed in the ECNEC (Executive Committee of the National Economic Council) meeting last month, and ECNEC approved the construction of the Thal canal, overruling numerous objections raised by Sindh province.

After the federal government’s failure to develop a consensus amongst the provinces on the controversial Kalabagh Dam proposal, WAPDA proposed a ‘Vision 2025’ plan aimed at developing water resources and hydropower in the country.  According to this plan, the government will construct the Sehwan barrage and Raini Thar canal in Sindh, the greater Thal Canal and Thal dam in the Punjab, Gomal Zam dam in the Frontier and Meerani dam in Balochistan by 2025.

While other schemes have been delayed for various reasons, the Punjab government has started the construction of the Greater Thal, situated between the Indus and Jhelum rivers in Thal Doab.  The project, which envisages 23 miles of a main canal and 223 mile long branch canals to irrigate 1.5 million acres will be completed in two stages in seven years at a cost of around 35 billion rupees.  According to WAPDA, the Thal canal, on completion, will provide non-perennial irrigation supplies to 1.5 million acres out of  1.9 million acres gross area which has no irrigation facility.

The idea behind the Thal canal, which has been made a part of WAPDA’s ‘Vision 2025’, is however, not new.  A version of this project was first proposed in 1873, but it was opposed by the people of Sindh and had to be shelved. In 1901, the then Punjab government, after imposing a land settlement tax, tried to initiate work on the canal, but again the people of Sindh resisted and the mega project had to be abandoned.  After the creation of Pakistan, Ayub Khan also failed to resolve the controversy that arose between the provinces on the water issue.  In 1975, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to revive the issue, but it was politicised and shelved.  Likewise, in 1979, General Ziaul Haq started the paperwork to launch the project, but it never got off the ground because of opposition from Sindh and NWFP.  No subsequent government tried to resume work on the Thal canal until Musharraf’s inauguration of the project ignited huge protests in the province of Sindh.

This time around, the WAPDA authorities have named the project the ‘Thal Flood Water Canal Project,’ instead of the Greater Thal canal, hoping to avoid controversy by suggesting the canal would only operate on flood water diverted during the flood season.  The actual plans, however, include the provision of water from Punjab’s regular share, as well as some quantity of flood water.

Experts in Sindh are not ready to accept the assurances of WAPDA or the federal government authorities that water from the Indus would be diverted in the Thal canal only during the flood season.  They fear that once the canal is constructed, water from Punjab’s share may not be adequate and if flood water is not forthcoming, the canal may end up diverting precious water from Sindh.  They cite the example of the Chashma-Jhelum link canal in the Punjab, built in the early ’70s on the assurance that it would only be run in the flood season, but contrary to the agreement, Punjab continues to operate the canal throughout the year.

WAPDA officials and the provincial irrigation department of the Punjab defend the project, saying that there should be no objection to a plan for conserving water during the flood season.  “Why should anybody object if water is used for irrigation purposes rather than allowed to flow unutilised into the sea,” asks one of these officials.

Irrigation experts in Sindh believe that the Thal project poses a serious threat, not just to water needs for agriculture, but to the entire coastal environment.  Professor M. H. Panhwar, an expert on the subject, says, “The Indus river has already been reduced to a swathe of dry land with swirling dust storms well before the termination of its journey to the Arabian Sea.  Sea water has started encroaching into agricultural lands in the coastal belt, and constructing any such project to divert more waters from the Indus would be tantamount to its death.”  According to him, the degradation is entirely a fallout of the construction of a host of dams, barrages and canals along the Indus.

The waters of the Indus which used to flow freely into the Arabian Sea have, over the years, receded to such an extent that over the last three years they have not reached the sea at all.  Since1994 the Indus Basin has been undergoing a dry cycle and very little run-off is generated in the Indus catchments, which has resulted in severe drought.  A shortage of water has not only limited agricultural output but it has also resulted in a scarcity of drinking water and an outbreak of disease due to the inadequate or contaminated water supplies in lower Sindh.

According to one estimate, over 50 per cent of the fishermen who have lived for generations along the Indus, especially downstream from Kotri in Sindh have migrated elsewhere, some giving up their trade altogether.  Others have moved to fishing areas such as the Arabian sea coast.  Those who stay on have no other marketable skills and end up depending on intermittent short-term jobs for their survival.

Regular fresh water inflows from the river are required to abate the tidal impact of the sea, since the tide causes considerable damage to the land and fresh water aquifers in areas close to the coast.  The spring tides, particularly, result in a hazardous accumulation of chlorides in the soil and render it vulnerable.  Soil erosion is caused by the regular tidal impact, which results in an increased tidal vector.  Many areas around the coast have already become a part of the sea as a result of such encroachment and the boundaries of Shah Bunder, Keti Bunder, Kharo Chaan, Gharo town, Jati and Ghora Bari have been shifting for several years, without prompting remedial action by any official agency.

The Sindh government has, however, divulged details of the disaster that has played out in the Indus delta over the few years.  In an eye-opening disclosure, the department revealed that the seawater intrusion has resulted in a tidal infringement of over 12,20,360 acres of land in the Indus delta, making up about 33 per cent of the total land (37,69,078 acres) in the districts of Badin and Thatta in southern Sindh. Official estimates cite the complete devastation of more than 450,000 acres of farmland in 72 dehs (villages) spread over eight tehsils in Thatta and Badin.  The report also warned the government that a shortage of water released to the Arabian Sea could even affect the city of Karachi.

Experts on the subject say that the completion of the Thal canal project would mean precisely such further reduction in the floodwater and this would obviously cripple the riverine agriculture of Sindh. “The Indus been already been short of requisite irrigation water for many years; how can another project be started on the same river, which is the main source of water supply to the province,” asks A.G.N. Abbasi, former Sindh irrigation secretary.

The 1991 water accord clearly stressed the need for a certain minimum escapade to the Arabian sea, below Kotri, to check sea intrusion, but unfortunately no water has been released over the last few years.  Instead, work on the canal has been started with the intent to conserve floodwater in the canal and prevent it flowing into the sea.

The approval of the Central Development Working Party (CDWP), the Planning and Development Division and the ECNEC is mandatory before executing any major project, but the prescribed procedure has not been followed in seeking approval from these bodies before the execution of the plan.  In fact, work on the canal commenced without the completion of a proper feasibility report and a year in advance of project approval. “They started work on the canal project and didn’t seek approval from any of these forums prior to its execution.  We cannot comprehend the urgency for starting the work,” says Abrar Qazi, another expert on the water from Sindh.

When the bill was finally produced in the ECNEC on February 28 for the approval of the project, it was passed by over-ruling at least nineteen objections raised by the province of Sindh.  Experts in Sindh believe that the ECNEC violated its own laws by accepting the bill for the construction of the Thal canal.  The Sindh government has complained that it received the project document three days after it had been cleared by the CDWP. It received the project summary from ECNEC only two days before consideration and as such was not given ample time for consultation.

Before approval by the ECNEC, preparation of a feasibility report is mandatory for any project worth 15 million rupees and above.  But in this case the bill was cleared by the ECNEC without the preparation of a feasibility report for a project worth 35 billion rupees and without assessing its critical impact on the Indus delta.

All the political parties in Sindh that have launched a protest against the construction of the Thal canal have demanded that WAPDA, IRSA and other federal bodies responsible for equitable distribution of water respect the rights of smaller provinces instead of supporting the Punjab.  These political parties allege that WAPDA and IRSA have always violated agreements between the provinces and never acknowledged the inherent, human, constitutional and economic rights of the federating units. As a result, Sindh had always been deprived of its national, economic and basic rights.  In the words of one politician, if WAPDA does not change its highly partisan role, “the country’s very integrity could be at stake.”