End of the River?
Of the two largest Southasian deltas, one flourishes as the other faces the threat of being overrun by the sea.
At a time when melting glaciers, shrinking coastal lands, depleting freshwater sources and vanishing forests are hot issues across the world, the tidal mangrove forests of the Sundarban constitute an encouraging example of effective conservation. Spread over 10,000 sq km in India and Bangladesh, with some 60 percent falling in the latter, the Sundarban, part of the Ganges delta, the world's largest, takes in the endpoints of the mighty Ganga, Meghna and Brahmaputra rivers. A fusion zone of fresh- and saltwater, constituting a complex network of tidal waterways, vast scattered mudflats and hundreds of small islands filled with salt-tolerant mangroves, and home to a dizzying array of plants and animals, the Sundarban was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Standing in stark contrast, on the other side of Southasia, is the Indus delta, an area that in Sindhi is referred to as Daryah jo Chhor, or End of the River. According to the 1929 gazette of the Indian government, a detailed survey of the delta by the Indian Botanical Society had found it to be equal to the Sundarban in terms of area, variety of trees, diverse presence of fauna and flora and general ecosystem. Although still stretching 350 km from the Rann of Kutch to Karachi and comprising close to 6000 sq km, the Indus delta has lost some 1000 sq km since just the 1960s.
Much of this shrinking is due to the construction of dams in Punjab province, which began in the 1960s. Already constricted by 23 major barrages and the 45 major irrigation canals built by the British, the Pakistani government has since Partition added three major dams to the Indus – the Mangla, Tarbela and Warsak – as well as 80 smaller ones. Furthermore, since the 1980s (first under General Zia ul-Haq), Pakistan Army officials have been allocated about a million acres of land in Punjab, with most subsequently siphoning off Indus waters for irrigation. On the other side of the frontier, India's construction of the Kishanganga and the Baglihar hydropower projects (on the Jhelum and the Chenab rivers, respectively, both tributaries of the Indus) has further impacted downstream flows.
As the accompanying photographs show, the flourishing landscape of the Sundarban today stands in clear contrast to the drab, denuded landscape, and despairing population, of the Indus delta. According to local residents and conservation officials in Pakistan, mass migration has begun from the coastal settlements of Thatta and Badin districts of Sindh for several interlinked reasons: sea intrusion, degradation of coastal land, unavailability of potable water and reduction in fishing opportunities. According to official data, 31 of the 42 dehs, or revenue units, of the Keti Bunder area, comprising 16,137 hectares of Sindh, have now been flooded by seawater, with more land vanishing every day. Years ago, the river drained into the Arabian Sea through about 19 major creeks, which worked to constantly push back the seawater. As the creeks shrank or disappeared entirely, saltwater began flowing through these channels and engulfed the surrounding land. Simultaneously, the reduction in river flow contributed to a decline in the mangrove forests, which had previously helped to stop the sea from moving towards the land. Today, environmentalists fear that some 2.2 million people might eventually be forced to migrate, if the situation continues to deteriorate.
In a bid to restore the Indus delta, many in Pakistan are now demanding that the Islamabad government release at least six percent of the total water available in the Kotri barrage system. According to official data, in 1945 the Indus system was said to have a total of 194 million acre-feet (maf) of water, which is down to just 94 maf today. The smaller delta now requires less water for its survival, and experts have calculated this amount to be at least 10 maf. But with the Punjab government saying that any water released downstream is 'wasted', experts have revised their number down to just six percent needed for the delta to survive.
While the release of greater amounts of water is essential if the Indus delta is to be revitalised, the experience of the Sundarban proves that a turnaround is indeed possible. Though the reduction of water flows in the Ganga, Meghna and the Brahmaputra has also affected the deltaic areas of India and Bangladesh, India and Bangladesh have taken measures to offset these impacts. Bans on the cutting of trees, illegal fishing and the hunting of wildlife in the Sundarban have meant that the magnificent forest will survive on either side of the border. Perhaps, with some vision and some political will, the same could one day be said of the Indus delta.