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Pakistan: Drought stroles as the Indus river slowly dries up
 

Dry earth and an Indus sutra

A drought in Pakistan has brought sectarian tensions in Sindh, Punjab abd Balochistan to the surface. BHAVNA VIJ reports

There's another headache peeping around the corner for General Pervez Musharraf, and it has nothing to do with Kashmir, the US or nuclear weapons. It’s something as basic and unsolved as drought. An Oxfam team which has visited Pakistan had warned that the crisis could deteriorate, plunging the regions of Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab into a civil war, not very different from what had happened in Ethiopia and Somalia a few years ago.

The Pakistan administration did not seem to hear the warning bells till people came out into the streets. Riots and street-level violence soon became common: earlier this month, two persons were killed when police opened fire on people protesting against water shortage in Sindh. Hundreds of others who tried to block the National Highway were arrested. The protestors were led by the Jeay Sindh Quami Mohaz (JSQM) and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

Sindh is one of the worst affected regions. According to reports in the Pakistani media, about 1.4 million acres of agricultural land in Guddu barrage and 3.2 million acres in Sukkur barrage has been damaged. Orchards all over the province and mangrove forests in lower Sindh have been ruined. This was mainly because of drying up of the Indus river.

Pakistan had been received inadequate rainfall since 1998 and as a result 200 nullahs, bringing water into Indus from Kashmir had dried. The fish in the river perished on a large scale, depriving the fishermen of their means of livelihood. The Sindhi nationalist leaders got together to form the ‘Dariya Bachao Committee’ (save the river) to focus on the problem.

What actually shook the government was when the agitation threatened to become provincial — ‘‘Sindh versus Punjab.’’ Sindhis alleged that Punjab was conspiring to turn Sindh into a desert by denying their share of water in the Indus, and that a 1991 agreement on water sharing was violated. The preception in Sindh was that Punjab was diverting water through its three canals.

The administration couldn’t ignore the situation any longer. Especially when Punjab too suffered drastic cuts in water supply. Jhelum and Chenab also had very little water. The result was country’s three main reservoirs — Tarbela, Mangala and Chashma — were left with alarmingly low levels of water.

The media in Pakistan had been highlighting the problem which isn’t too different from what’s happening in parts of Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In addition to food shortage, the next thing feared was a severe power crisis which could affect the industries in Pakistan. The newspapers there had been warning of increased unemployment and a socio-economic chaos.

The drought situation has been made worse by problem of silting and indiscriminate felling of trees. Ecologists in Pakistan have been predicting worse. With the winter crops in Punjab and Sindh receiving 60 per cent less rainfall, it is estimated that food production will go down by 35 per cent, forcing food-grain import. Crops that require a lot of water are being either abandoned or replaced by other crops like beetroot and sugarcane. Sowing of cotton has been delayed.

According to the Sindh Agricultural Forum, the water crisis was so acute that production of Kharif crops had gone down by 30-40 per cent and of Rabi crop between 65 to 70 per cent. Nearly two million people were adversely affected. The military administration of the country had come in for strong criticism for its failure to handle the problem. In the opinion of experts, the shortage was likely to continue for another decade, if not tackled properly.

Commenting that there were certain basic flaws in the way government approached the problem, columnist Colonel (retd) Ghulam Sarwar writing in The Nation said that successive governments had accorded low priority to to this pivotal sector of the country’s economy. From the third five year plan to the eighth, the money accorded to the water sector had dwindled from 46 per cent to barely nine per cent of the country’s budget.

But one outcome of the water crisis that India may be watching with keen interest is a possible standoff between Pakistan and occupied Kashmir. Demands that Pakistan should pay royalty to PoK for power from the Mangla dam had been increasing. And a new situation which had developed was that people of Mirpur were resisting plans for widening of the Mangla reservoir. Their reasons were not very different from those opposing the Narmada dam in India.

Thousands of Mirpuri families were displaced in the 1960s when the construction of Mangla dam started. They did not want a repeat of the situation this time.

   
 
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