Par­adise lost: How toxic wa­ter killed Pak­istan’s largest lake

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCI­ENCE -

For gen­er­a­tions the Mo­hanna tribe have lived, loved, worked, and played on Pak­istan’s Man­char Lake; their float­ing set­tle­ment serv­ing their needs from birth to death. But an un­re­lent­ing flow of toxic waste­water is pour­ing into the lake-a byprod­uct of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and ag­gres­sive agri­cul­tural prac­tices up­stream — and has slowly ren­dered it in­hos­pitable, poi­son­ing the wa­ter and al­most ev­ery­thing in it. For fish­er­men such as Mo­hammed Yusuf, life on the lake is be­com­ing in­tol­er­a­ble.

“When we were young, our lives were very good. Ev­ery kind of fish was avail­able. Our earn­ings were good,” he told AFP. “When my fa­ther would go fish­ing he would bring back over a hun­dred ki­los of fish. Now the sit­u­a­tion has changed. The fish is ex­tinct be­cause of the bad wa­ter,” he added. The wooden, flat­bot­tomed barge he lives in with his mother, wife, and their nine chil­dren, has or­nate carv­ings but it has seen bet­ter days.

Now Yusuf barely catches enough fish to feed his fam­ily, let alone be able to save the money he needs to main­tain his boat. He es­ti­mates they have just five years be­fore it is be­yond re­pair, fear­ing he will soon have to leave the place where he was born. And yet their whole life is packed into this float­ing home: Clothes and linen are stacked in the stern, kitchen­ware and food un­der the prow. Cook­ing is done down in the hold, on a lit­tle earthen hearth fed by the stems of aquatic plants. “If it is hot we sleep on the roof, in the win­ter we sleep in­side the boat on the floor,” said Yusuf.

Two cra­dles swing as the breeze soft­ens the heat: the larger for his child born on board some 40 days ago, the smaller one for the Ko­ran, a dig­ni­fied place for the Holy Book to avoid des­e­cra­tion. Neigh­bor­ing boathouses are an­chored a few dozen me­ters away. Chil­dren wade or swim in the shal­lows while adults nav­i­gate the wa­ter in nar­row wooden ca­noes, which they skill­fully push with a pole. “We have been liv­ing this way for gen­er­a­tions,” ex­plained the fish­er­man.

The size of Man­char Lake, one of the largest fresh wa­ter re­serves in Pak­istan, varies de­pend­ing on rain­fall. It can mea­sure more than 250 square kilo­me­ters af­ter the an­nual mon­soon. In the 1970s a se­ries of drains and canals were built to carry sewage to the lake from sev­eral ma­jor cities in Sindh prov­ince, as well as in­dus­trial waste­water, and over­flow from rice pad­dies full of pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers. The sys­tem, known as the Right Bank Out­fall Drain (RBOD), also dumps into the lake vast quan­ti­ties of brack­ish wa­ter drained from the right bank of the In­dus to make the sur­round­ing land arable.

Mean­while, moun­tain tor­rents sup­ply­ing fresh wa­ter have de­clined. So too has the flow of the In­dus it­self into the lake, due to the build­ing of dams and greater ir­ri­ga­tion, ex­plains Mustafa Mi­rani of the Pak­istani Fish­er­men Fo­rum, which cam­paigns for the pro­tec­tion and con­ser­va­tion of the lake.

As far back as the 1990s, as­sess­ments found the land and the wa­ter was be­ing de­stroyed by a toxic mix of saline, chem­i­cals and sewage, ex­plains the ac­tivist, who grew up on the lake. It was then pro­posed to reroute the RBOD to empty into the Ara­bian Sea fur­ther south. But the plan has been sus­pended for years due to lack of funds, and dirty wa­ter con­tin­ues to flow into the lake un­treated and un­abated.

The wa­ter is no longer drink­able. The pol­lu­tion has killed off flora and fauna and it has be­come im­pos­si­ble to grow veg­eta­bles in the toxic silt. Mi­grat­ing birds, which once came in their thou­sands to rest among the reeds on the lake, are now rarely seen. Fish stock has also plum­meted. In the 1970s, more than 15,000 tons were net­ted each year com­pared with 2,000-3,800 tons in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to the Sindh Fish­eries Depart­ment.

The num­ber of the Mo­hanna tribe liv­ing around the lake has halved in the last 25 years, ac­cord­ing to Mi­rani. “When I was grow­ing I saw some 400 boats and that many fam­i­lies on them. All of them, eat­ing, sleep­ing, mar­ry­ing, all would take place on the boats,” he re­called. “Now, be­cause of poverty, they can’t mend or re­pair their boats. So grad­u­ally all th­ese boats are van­ish­ing.” — AFP

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