Ground Zero in the Global Water Crisis

Thursday 6 October 2005, by Alex HILL

Mohammed Ali Shah, Chairperson and inspirational leader of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) and I, sit upon the stage at the Regional Conference on Integrated Water Resource Management in a South Asia conference organised by the PFF this August. As the Sindh Minister of Irrigation addresses the crowd, Shah looks over with a characteristic glint of earnest reflection, and asks how I liked the address he has just made. As I formulate a response, I hear the words of the honourable minister, “President Musharaf has of course set a directive to ensure that all the water needs of the people are met, and I as Minister support his pressures to keep India to its water treaty obligations...”

“Excellent,” is all I can politely muster, which does little justice to Shah’s strong message, set in such contrast to the Minister’s professional politicking taking place on the stage beside us.

Minutes before, Shah had stood tall and firm, bending his sturdy yet slender frame over the microphone, and with an empathetic smirk had repeated the concrete demands of the movement he represents, “We need at least 35 mega-acre feet (MAF) of water released annually into the Indus Delta region to water the agricultural lands, nourish the mangrove stocks, and support the coastal fisheries. The people of Sindh will not sacrifice their livelihoods so that wealthy land owners upstream can irrigate more of their lands.”

Shah explained why the PFF had invited us to Karachi for these two days; “We welcome you here from across South Asia, all over Pakistan, and around the world to understand the significance of the difficulties we are facing in the Indus Delta today.”

The Indus is the Nile

As the world’s twelfth largest river, flowing through five nations, the Indus river’s international significance is clear. As one conference presenter put it, “The Indus is the Nile of South Asia, flowing through the arid lands of Pakistan, where civilisations have relied on its sediment rich annual floods for over 8000 years.”

But today the mighty Indus has all but ceased flowing to the sea, as upstream dams and irrigation withdrawals have reduced it to less than one-half-a-percent of its flow at the start of the 20th century.

The Indus delta has become Ground Zero in the global water crisis. The devastation over the past 20 years is apocalyptic: over 1,2 Million acres of agricultural lands lots to salt intrusion and erosion, a drastic drop in fish coastal catches, and the poisoning of the wells that over 2.7 million people depend on for drinking water.

It might be guessed at this international event that Shah and his movement of over 100,000 fisherfolk were demanding minimum flows to cross the political boundaries between Pakistan and India, Afghanistan or China, the other countries through which the Indus and it tributaries pass. But it’s to its own government that the PFF is speaking.

Treaty over the Sharing

Pakistan and India have a treaty over the sharing of the Indus tributaries that grants Pakistan over 70% of the Indus’ waters. That treaty has been largely respected since the 1960’s, but as another presenter noted, “it is in the fifteen years since the 1991 signing of the Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) between Pakistan’s provinces that we have seen the flows through the Delta dwindle to almost nil.”

Shah and I had discussed this a day earlier; “Why does our government respect its water sharing treaty with adversarial India, but does not respect its own inter-provincial water agreements? What does this say about our nation?”

Under the WAA the province of Sindh is allotted over 45 MAF of the Indus’ flow, but over the past five years, flows through Sindh, as determined by the amount emergent downstream of the Kotri dam, have been on average less than 8 MAF. Instead of releasing these waters, they are withdrawn to irrigate Punjab province, the power base of Pakistan’s military, and the home province of President General Musharaf.

I asked another participant about these domestic obligations, and their apparent contradiction to Pakistan’s message regarding water treaties with India. He asked to remain unnamed, saying, “Shah’s message is very controversial. In Pakistan we cannot compare our government to that in India, our whole country has been built on opposition to India. This is a ridiculous, but very touchy issue.”

Apparently so. There had been five participants invited from India to attend the conference, but despite months of waiting their visa had been denied.

In fact PFF’s “controversial” stance on other issues almost prevented this conference from taking place. This May, Shah and three of his colleagues had been arrested for protesting the contracting systems of distributing fishing rights along the coast, which is tantamount to sharecropping, where wealthy land owners manipulate fisherfolk into selling them their fish at prices drastically below the market rates.

While in jail, the government brought increasingly serious charges against this group who had been picked up while demonstrating peacefully along the arid banks of Indus river near Hyderabad.

Eventually it was the government itself who decided to internationalize the PFF’s message as Sindh Government’s Advisor on Fisheries Mr. Jadam Mangrio openly threatened that he would, “Make an example of Mohammed Shah for the whole world to see.”

Shah and his colleagues are free

Three months later, Shah and his colleagues are free, and despite the example that one official in Sindh had tried to set, the PFF were welcoming not only their international guests to the conference, but a collection of present and former government secretaries, senators and even Sindh’s honourable Minister of Irrigation.

In the end the conference was a great success, where numerous technical presentations presented the anatomy of Sindh’s water crisis. It is this example of regional cooperation, not just at the political, but at the technical, intellectual and community level that the PFF is trying to set.

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