A nod of respect and awe to river Indus
Pakistan is one of the world’s most water stressed countries, facing a serious water crisis. Experts now believe that in the next few years the country can be classified as 'water scarce’ as its annual water availability falls below 1,000 cubic meters per person. However, that’s not why the country has been in the international news since the past few weeks. It’s being talked of for quite the opposite reasons - apocalyptic floods that have displaced over 30 million people, killing over 1,000 people. The year 2022 will go down in the history of Pakistan as the year where the appetite for political elite with matters related to governance were tested - crippling economy, political insurgency, and a climate emergency. All of these factors highlighted not only the lack of policy infrastructure but also uncovered how the government and state approach matters related to governance in a fragmented manner.
Monsoon rains are a typical feature of summer in Pakistan and the primary source of sustenance for most of the crops that are sown during the summer (Kharif crops also known as monsoon crops or autumn crops such as corn, rice, jowar, maize, onion, potato, etc). Monsoon rains typically last for 2 to 3 days but this year the rain didn’t stop for weeks on end, wreaking havoc throughout the southern provinces of the country; Sindh and Balochistan. For the first time in history, the rainwater from cities has moved towards the rivers, swelling it to its maximum level, which has then entered the low-lying cities and villages; eroding life and livelihoods.
In all of this destruction and relief efforts, the question remains, why was the government not prepared? A pertinent question that was raised by a panel arranged by International Academy for Leadership Gummersbach Alumni Network of FNF Pakistan, FreedomGate Pakistan on River Indus: A Confluence of Economy and Culture. The panel had speakers from Expedition Indus; a team of expeditioners who trailed the mighty Indus river from Skardu to river Indus Basin - observing the many ways in which the river was the main vein connecting the country, and how bad the it had been treated.
One of the speakers, Afia Salam, a journalist and climate activist, talked about how the river remains unchecked and unaccounted for and relies heavily on the monsoon and seasonal rains for its flow; and how there are no checks in place to observe water levels throughout the year. She also highlighted how the government had been warned as early as April to prepare for the impending apocalyptic rains but the government paid no heed to this.
Ms Salam then recounted her time on the expedition trail when the mighty river Indus enters the souther province of Sindh, from where it is nothing but a stream that flows through the entire province, until it drops in the Arabian Sea through Indus Delta, an area thought to be rich in mangroves. The thick mangrove forests have all but vanished, and the delta has died - an important piece of information that remains outside the ambit of public discourse.
This panel discussion on trailing the river that flows through the entire length of the country was aimed at exploring and understanding Pakistan and its myriad challenges through a different perspective; that of the water. What Ms. Salam and her fellow expedition member, Wajahat Malik highlighted how the water at most places, especially around industrial cities is so polluted that it ceases to be a live, fluid moving body of water. This same water is the source for drinking, cooking, agriculture, livestock and industries. Many communities still drink this poisonous water for their daily consumption and numerous kids die each year because of its poisonous effect. If this water is the primary source of sustenance, then it is definitely not serving its purpose.
The panel, which took place almost a month ago, which was a month after the expedition highlighted how there was no water in the Sindh belt of the Indus river. However, now if you look at the news you’ll see that the entire Sindh province has been reduced to a huge lake and there is water everywhere - fetid, foul, malodorous water which still puts the country at risk of water stress and water scarcity. But this is just one manifestation of a much bigger problem associated with water scarcity or flooding when we look at the river Indus.
We should treat our rivers with respect
This river that originates in Tibet and is quintessential for this region, but in Pakistan the lack of advocacy around water bodies and general negligence on the part of the government has rendered the river as a living polity and reduced it to a large and wasteful stream that’s cause for much pollution than sustenance. Ms Salam and Mr Malik highlighted how massive irrigation canals dug out for agriculture have not only flattened the spread of the river but is the reason for why the river dries up in seasons when it isn’t raining, such as winters. But that’s not the only reason; illegal and unchecked marble quarrying, industrial waste and mismanagement of water between Punjab and Sindh are one of the main contributing factors for how the rights of a river are being denied and this water body is being exploited.
Many would think about why the protection of this river is so essential at a time when the country is flooded and is to experience the same in the years to come. The answer outlined in the discussion by Ms Salam and Mr Malik pointed towards an integral fact which is that the river is a continuous renewing body of water which provides food, a fishermen's economy, a means of settlements and the regulated water flow helps agriculture, the backbone of the country’s economy. All of which help us understand; the river must be protected and rehabilitated - no matter the seasonal rain.
For me as a journalist, viewing the director’s cut of the documentary "Expedition Indus 2022" was an eye opener for how far and wide the River Indus flows and with the changing landscape the way it impacts the communities changes too. I could see myself floating in the waves along with the expeditioners and see and understand the local economies, societies, people, and cultural changes that occur. The documentary is a lived experience of a man’s connection with nature and in a subtle way the adventure helps you see how human action or inaction has adversely impacted a living organism that has given this country everything it needs. The recent floods have been an eye opener for me in terms of allowing me to understand how water governance works and should ideally be instituted in the country through an interconnected system of checks and balances. This large body of water is what will determine the future of our country and our people, and so it is important that we serve it well.
FNF Pakistan will showcase the bespoke cut of the documentary by Eybex Films "Expedition Indus 2022" to a select audience in the coming months in Karachi and Islamabad.