By Carlotta Gall
New York Times, September 15, 2010
THATTA, Pakistan - Despite being flooded out of their homes and forced
to camp on embankments, there is one community that is happy about
worst floods in living memory. They are the fishermen of the Indus River
delta, whose livelihoods have diminished over the years from a lack of
water, and who welcome the sudden abundance.
"It is a blessing," said Yar Ali Mallah, 21, who comes from a long line
of fishermen living in the delta, at the southern end of Pakistan. "When
good water comes, our livelihoods will improve, fish will come," he said.
Yet even as the fishermen rejoice at the floodwaters, other, more
powerful figures are calling for more dams and irrigation projects
upstream to contain the water flow and prevent such wide-scale
destruction in the future. The "superflood" has reopened longstanding
disputes over water management all along the Indus River, which runs the
length of Pakistan, and many of the poorer victims fear that they will
once again be ignored in favor of rich and powerful interests.
Pakistan's government will have to grapple not only with the needs of
millions of people who suddenly lost homes, crops and livelihoods, but
also with the explosive political repercussions over water distribution
and how to spend reconstruction assistance fairly.
"Unless there is a radical break from the past, new measures are likely
to favor large World Bank
projects that sequester still more of the resources of this river into
the hands of the powerful, rather than focusing on the long-term
survival of marginalized communities such as delta fisherpeople or
smallholders in the upper reaches of the valley," Alice Albinia, author
of a book on the Indus, "Empires of the Indus," wrote in an e-mailed
reply to questions.
The damage done to the Indus delta by nearly 100 years of extensive
irrigation upstream — perhaps the largest in the world — is well
documented. It has made Pakistan a food and cotton exporter and helped
enrich landowners the length of the river. But so much water is used up
that the Indus, one of Asia's greatest rivers, runs virtually dry before
reaching the delta, where the river empties into the Arabian Sea.
The lack of river water has allowed sea water to inundate some two
million acres of the delta, destroying once fertile paddy fields and
killing off coastal mangroves, which are the natural breeding ground for
fish, say leaders of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a nongovernmental
organization that works to support the rights of the fishermen communities.
Floodwaters, with their nutrient-rich silt deposits, are critical to the
survival of life on the delta and of fish stocks, said Gulab Shah, a
social worker and district president of the Fisherfolk Forum in Thatta.
"The River Indus has so many canals, dams and barrages that water does
not come into the
river, and because of the shortage of fresh water, the fish catch has
gradually decreased," he said.
The fishermen say their fathers and grandfathers recall netting far
larger catches in their day. The famous Palla fish, a saltwater fish and
delicacy here in Sindh Province that would swim up the Indus to breed,
has not been seen for years, said Allah Dino, 30, another fisherman.
The fishermen live a precarious life in wooden shacks on islands in the
river delta and fish in the small freshwater lakes created by the
meandering river. A group camped on an embankment just outside Thatta, a
river town about 70 miles east of the southern port of Karachi, said
that over the last 40 years they lost their homes four times because of
floods and once because of a cyclone. Each time they rebuilt their
houses without any help from the government, and will do so again, they
They are more concerned about better regulation of the river that would
allow the natural flood cycle to replenish the delta, they said. "The
permanent solution is continuous water in the Indus and for it to flow
into the sea," said Mr. Mallah, the fisherman who welcomed the
floodwaters. Yet they have powerful competitors for the water upstream
who say the floods show that Pakistan must build more dams to collect
the monsoon rains and produce more badly needed electricity.
The Nation, a Punjab Province-based daily newspaper, began a campaign
this month for one of the most controversial dam projects, the Kalabagh
dam, which is opposed by communities in the northwest of Pakistan whose
land would be flooded, and also in this southern province, where people
fear it would cause even greater water shortages in the delta.
The case for the Kalabagh dam has long been deadlocked by fierce
disagreements between Pakistan's four provinces, and in particular by
the most powerful and populous province, Punjab, against the other three
— Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and Sindh — which complain they have
always been shortchanged in the decisions over natural resources.
Even the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf
failed to push the project through during his nine years in power
because of resistance in the provinces. The governor of Punjab, Salman
Taseer, a strong advocate of the dam who has done a study on the issue,
said it was necessary to meet pressing electricity and water demands of
Pakistan's growing middle class. Pakistan does not have a dam to catch
the heavy monsoon rains, and if Kalabagh had been built it would have
prevented the recent flood damage in northwestern Pakistan, he contended.
Yet the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, formerly called the North-West
Frontier Province, who have long opposed the dam because it would deluge
their lands, said the floods had proved their long-held position that
towns like Nowshera, which suffered badly in the flooding, would be
harmed more by a dam below the town at Kalabagh.
In Sindh, the fishermen, and also many farmers, oppose plans for more
dams and irrigation projects on the Indus, and advocate turning to coal
power rather than hydropower for Pakistan's electricity needs, Mr. Shah,
the Fisherfolk Forum representative, said. For the fishermen, it is
simple. "We want to continue our fishing," Mr. Mallah said. "It is our
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