Ignoring science.

Byline: Hassan Abbas-Asghar Hussain

STARTING in the 1850s, the development of the Indus river basin, primarily for large-scale irrigated agriculture, was motivated by colonial interests. After independence, the basin's development involving damming, diverting and dividing the rivers, were motivated by political prejudices emerging from Partition, Cold War politics, and the interests of global financial/ construction businesses.

Post-independence water sector development interests overwhelmed science, society and the environment. The stage of unscientific buildout was set by David E. Lilienthal, who hypothesised that 'rivers of the Indus Basin flow to the Arabian Sea unused' and suggested that the 'urgent problem is how to store up ... wasted waters ... rather than permitted to flow to the sea unused'. This scientifically flawed hypothesis, was accepted by Pakistan and India; both began undertaking one mega project after another. The rivers dried up and water stopped flowing to the sea. On the one hand, it was a death sentence for the environment, but on the other, it created lucrative projects for financial and business interest groups at taxpayers' expense; rulers on both sides gained political mileage and Cold War alliances flourished.

Until today, however, the countries sharing the basin had never been at peace with each other. Provinces within the countries still fight over water rights; water feuds among farmers are routine; irrigated areas are drowning in water logging and salinity; and, despite billions of projects, the majority of people within the irrigated areas live below the poverty line; while the basin remains in a state of malaise.

With colonialism gone, the prejudices of Partition fading, and the Cold War over, it's time to rethink the system. For that we need to analyse, first, the scientific shortcomings in the earlier development, which began with Lilienthal's idea. Flowing river waters carry dissolved salts and suspended silt. If the river is not permitted to enter the sea, water, salts and silt start accumulating in the landscape with devastating consequences.

Water: The water that is not allowed to flow into the sea evaporates but the rest seeps into the soil's pores. Over decades of seepage, pore space in many areas was completely filled and water started oozing to the surface - this is called waterlogging. Today, around 43 per cent of the irrigated basin is classified as waterlogged. The problem is worst in Sindh.


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