A lifetime spent in a houseboat may seem extraordinary to many, but for 101-year old Haji Wali Mohammad it is the only way of life he knows. Mohammed and his family of 500 people live on 48 houseboats that form a village– also known by his name–  on Manchar Lake in Pakistan’s Sindh province.Manchar is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes, spread over 200 square kilometres it expands to as much as 500 square kilometres during the monsoon rains. The average depth is between 2.5 to 3.75 metres.

Mohammad belongs to the Mohana indigenous fishing community, who have lived on Manchar lake for as long as he can remember. “My father, my grandfather and even his father all lived and died here,” the fisherman gestured to the vast lake. “And I will too,” said the centenarian resolutely, as his gnarled fingers moved over rosary beads.
In contrast, Mohammad’s eleven-year-old grandson, Allah Wasaya, does not want to live on the boat when he grows up. “There’s nothing to do here after dark,” he said. He has had a taste of life on the land where his movement isn’t restricted and he can play without getting wet.

His grandfather is worried about the family’s future. Barrages and dams have reduced the flow of fresh water into the lake on the one hand, and wastewater from industry and agriculture in the north on the other has led to the slow ecological demise of the lake.

The polluted and increasingly saline water has made it difficult for fish to survive. “We had a good life; we caught so many fish that there were not enough buyers,”Mohammad said. “Today, we cannot catch enough fish for three square meals for our own children”.

His beautifully hand-carved wooden houseboat is now dilapidated and barely able to accommodate his eldest son’s rapidly expanding family of 12. His other two sons also live on boats next door with their own large families.

Saying goodbye to traditional occupation

Annual fish catch on the lake has dropped dramatically from 2,300 metric tonnes in 1944, to 700 metric tonnes in the 1980s, said Mustafa Mirani, vice chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, an NGO working to promote the rights of the local fishing community. “Today, it is no more than 75 metric tonnes,” he estimated.

Fourteen of the 200 species of fish found in the lake back in 1930 have become extinct, according to a 1999 survey conducted by Sindh Education Foundation.

The Mohana are now fighting for their survival. “The commercially profitable fish have all but gone,” said Mirani. The remaining fish, locally known as ‘dhayya’, is sold for Rs 5/kilogramme (US$0.47) and is dried and pounded into a powder to be used as chicken feed, he said.

The narrow wooden boat is called ‘batelo’ and the punter propels the boat by pushing against the river bed with a pole [image by Danial Shah]

The narrow wooden boat is called ‘batelo’ and the punter propels the boat by pushing against the river bed with a pole [image by Danial Shah]

Many boat people have been forced to sever their ties with the lake and move onto the embankments. With no education or way to earn a living apart from fishing, the once prosperous and proud community now lives in poverty with no clean water for drinking or washing.

Maula Baksh Mallah, 60, moved to the land some 30 years ago.  “There just wasn’t enough catch,” he said. He recalled the time when the fishermen caught so much fish that there was always enough left over to give to passersbys.Naseer Memon, chief executive of the Islamabad-based Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO), grew up in the city of Dadu in Sindh. He recalled Bubak town on the edge of the lake in the 1990s: “The railway station was a small but lively where fishermen would quickly load fish to be taken to cities as far as Lahore in Punjab province.” Today, the same station is a forlorn sight and trains whistle by without stopping.

Forced exodus

There are now only 4,000 to 5,000 people living on the lake, compared to 20,000 back in the 1980s when the “water was sweet” Mustafa Mirani estimates, though Pakistan has not carried out a census since 1998.

“Many fishermen go to Gwadar and Pasni in Balochistan province to fish in the sea now,” said Yusuf Mallah, Wassaya’s father who works at the Karachi Fisheries Harbor Authority. “Fishing in the sea is more difficult as it means going into deep water and being able to survive the strong winds and storms,” he said.

Mohanas used to migrate temporarily to nearby land when the lake swelled, said Mirani, who has been carrying out research on Manchar for over 20 years. As the fish catch declined these temporary shelters became more permanent.

Manchar [image by Danial Shah]

Manchar [image by Danial Shah]

Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink
Children and women are always falling sick because of the toxic concoction surrounding them which is used for bathing, washing clothes and utensils. Tuberculosis, skin diseases and eye infections leading to blindness are now common according to Mirani.Wasaya says he will become a doctor. “Somebody or the other in my family is always sick. It’s either high fever, headache or some stomach bug,” he said and added: “It takes a long time to get to the doctor.”Wasaya’s father says they get 60 litres of water every day from the 20 filter plants installed by the government on the mainland some five years ago. He has to pay Rs 15 (US$ 0.14) for a donkey cart to carry each 30-litre jerry can onto his boat. “But it has to be used frugally and is used strictly for drinking and for cooking purposes only,” he said.

Bad engineering: the Right Bank Outfall Drain

The problems began in 1982 when the government decided to build a network of channels, known as the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD), to tackle the water logging and salinity that was destroying large tracts of arable land along the Indus River near Dadu and Larkana.

But the misconceived project destroyed Manchar lake and its fish and has brought untold misery to the indigenous fishermen community.

Manchar Lake gets fresh water from torrents in the Kirthar hills and through a channel called the Main Nara Valley Drain, built as an inundation canal in the 1930s, which brings water from Hamal Lake and the Indus River. The drains carried sewerage and saline water from agricultural fields into the lake.

Experts from the state-run Water And Power Development Authority (WAPDA) argued the waste would be diluted and so would not harm the ecosystem lake.

But the construction of Guddu and Sukkur dams on the Indus River had already reduced amount of fresh water flowing into the lake.

After almost two decades, the government realised the damage caused by the drain and decided to build a new channel to carry effluents into the Arabian Sea.

RBODIII_Org_02

This project, known as the RBOD-II, has experienced lengthy delays and cost overruns. It supposed to be completed in four years at a cost of Rs 14 billion (US$ 135 million). Fourteen years on, costs are likely to reach Rs 70 billion (US$672 million), predicted Mohammad Idris Rajput, a former official at the irrigation department.

At the outset, the fishing community questioned experts’ assumptions that waste disposed into the lake would not harm its ecosystem. “Had the experts given the indigenous peoples’ plea any importance then, the irreparable damage to the lake could have been avoided,” said Naseer Memon of the Strengthening Participatory Organization.

A girl on a boat on Manchar lake [image by Danial Shah]

A boatman on Manchar lake [image by Danial Shah]

Timeline of the RBOD1932 –The 111 kilometre long Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD) was constructed to provide drainage for agricultural waste and storm water and connects Hamal lake and Manchar lake.1976 – The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) built the North Dadu surface drain to carry waste from various areas and dispose in the Manchar lake via the MNVD.1992 – The Right Bank Master Plan was designed to provide drainage and boost agriculture across some 4.5 million acres of land irrigated by the right bank canals emanating from the Sukkur and Guddu barrages.1994 – The RBOD-I was designed to divert the effluents from Manchar Lake to the Indus River through the Indus Link Canal, but this stalled because of objections from environmentalists.

2001 – WAPDA began work on RBOD – II to drain saline water from Manchar lake into the Arabian Sea. It was to be finished within four years but is still far from complete.

2004– During Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali’s term, he built another drain – RBOD-III –  to dispose of effluents from Balochistan into the RBOD-I and Manchar Lake.

15 comments

  1. The government’s plans to take sewage and effluents to the Arabian Sea is also flawed. They have destroyed Manchar lake, and will now destroy the Arabian Sea too. Why can’t they think of treating the waste?

    Flawed plans all through; at tremendous cost to the common people. Zofeen has done a great job in highlighting a major issue!

  2. The government’s plans to take sewage and effluents to the Arabian Sea is also flawed. They have destroyed Manchar lake, and will now destroy the Arabian Sea too. Why can’t they think of treating the waste?

    Flawed plans all through; at tremendous cost to the common people. Zofeen has done a great job in highlighting a major issue!

  3. Totally agreed. Same is going to happen with River Indus by so called foolish Inland waterway on River Indus from Nowshera KPK to Daudkhel Mianwali (Phase 1).

  4. Totally agreed. Same is going to happen with River Indus by so called foolish Inland waterway on River Indus from Nowshera KPK to Daudkhel Mianwali (Phase 1).

  5. Pingback: Manchar Lake: Toxic water, dead fish fill Asia’s largest freshwater body | Indus Asia Online Journal (iaoj)

  6. Pingback: Manchar Lake: Toxic water, dead fish fill Asia’s largest freshwater body | Indus Asia Online Journal (iaoj)

  7. Sindh irrigation is responsible to construct RBOD-ii not wapda further more it is pitty that sindh govt is amember of ECNEC where all projects are approved by federal govt with the provincial consent

  8. Sindh irrigation is responsible to construct RBOD-ii not wapda further more it is pitty that sindh govt is amember of ECNEC where all projects are approved by federal govt with the provincial consent

  9. I think the catch was 700 metric tons – it is written as 700 mt often – which can be confused for million tons. 700 million tons will be enough to feed fish to every person on the planet all the year round.

    Apart from the minor quibble, an excellent piece. I first saw it on the Dawn.

  10. I think the catch was 700 metric tons – it is written as 700 mt often – which can be confused for million tons. 700 million tons will be enough to feed fish to every person on the planet all the year round.

    Apart from the minor quibble, an excellent piece. I first saw it on the Dawn.

  11. I don’t think, it was RBOD was constructed in 1982, it was MNV Drain, which was actually a natural water flow formalized later on. Secondly, MNV was also given a bye-pass before entering into Manchar, it is called Indus Link. It purpose was to divert mild saline effeluent to river in dry periods and rice crop fresh water drainage surplus to Manchar. We all miss an intervention from local politician who sealed the gates of Indus Link Canal. Reluctantly all flows were directed towards Manchar. from 1999 Manchar saw drougth period, and populations around used its water through lift pumps, which caused high draw downs and increase in concentration of salts.

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