By Saleem Shaikh
MANY farmers in Sindh are concerned over the adverse impacts of Rs300 billion Master Drainage Plan — the Right Bank Outfall Drain and the Left Bank Outfall Drain projects — on agriculture and underground water. Their farmlands are getting saline with brackish water. Agriculturists, environmentalists and water experts complain that not a single objective of the World Bank-funded MDP project has been achieved as yet. The plan aimed at draining out saline and polluted water of the other three provinces into the sea through Sindh. But, instead it has damaged thousands of acres of fertile land in upper and lower Sindh.
They said: “When the 273-kilometre-long RBOD project was designed with a discharge capacity of 2,271 cusecs of saline water at a revised cost of Rs29.12 billion against its initial estimate of Rs14 billion, some changes were also made in its design. The redesigned project would drain out 2,500 cusecs of saline water daily to the sea including brackish water from Balochistan and upper areas of Sindh.”
Growers in Kambar-Shahdadkot, Larkana, Dadu and Jamshoro districts in upper Sindh are outraged over their agricultural land turning saline with brackish water because of the RBOD-I.
“Thousands of acres of arable farmland in lower Sindh – particularly in Mirpurkhas, Thatta and Badin – had turned saline because of the project,” complained Bashir Ahmed Chandio, a rice grower in Gadhai Khairo village of Qambar-Shahdadkot district.
The growers suggested that instead of continuing with the present design, the RBOD-I be re-built along the natural course, right from the Heerdin Drain to Hamal Lake in Shahdadkot town to avoid further loss of arable land.
According to Wapda design, the RBOD-I passes alongside Shahdadkot town with a discharge capacity of approximately 1,600 cusecs daily, while its other portion away from the town had a discharge capacity of some 1,200 cusecs, informed a Lahore-based Wapda official on phone.
A grower recalled that the then Sindh irrigation secretary, Mir Mohammad Parhyar, in March 2008 had asked concerned engineers of the irrigation department to prepare a summary on impacts of the RBOD-I, which passed three kilometers on the outskirt of the town, to fix design faults and avoid further damage to cultivable lands but in vain.
On May 9, 2008, confirming fears of the locals on RBOD-I that Shahdadkot town would be affected and its agricultural land destroyed, work on the RBOD’s portion passing near Shahdadkot town was brought to a halt in the light of the preliminary report of a technical committee headed by Bashir Ahmed Dahar, Chairman Irsa, according to officials in Kambar-Shahdadkot district irrigation office.
Later it was announced that an ‘impact evaluation study’ on faulty design of the RBOD by a two-member committee, comprising chief engineer Right Bank and chief engineer RBOD in the district, would be undertaken to assess the design technicalities of the project in light of locals’ complaints, they said.
According to irrigation officials, the Irsa chairman was surprised over approval of such a faulty RBOD project. However, later he had to announce its re-alignment prior to assessment of its financial and technical components, they said.
The RBOD is designed to take care of saline water and channel it into the sea. But the saline water is temporarily being disgorged into the Manchhar Lake through the Main Nara Valley (MNV) Drain.
The RBOD project has also been delayed. It was to be completed on January 1, 2006, but was rescheduled to December 2009 on account of delay in releases of funds and lack of interest of the provincial irrigation department, says an official source.
Growers say that the discharge of polluted water through MNV drain into the Manchhar Lake has proved an ecological disaster turning farmlands around the lake saline and barren.
Zahid Jatoi, a wheat grower in Dadu recalled: “Small growers used to cultivate 300,000 acres around the lake and 60,000 people including fishermen depended on Manchhar water. But, now not a single acre of the land is cultivable due to salinity.”
Aijaz Qureshi, former official of Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (Sida), told this scribe that farmers in Dadu and Hyderabad districts had opposed the design of the RBOD because it passed through their agriculture lands.
But he insisted that the project should not be rolled back, as Manchhar Lake’s revival entirely depended on RBOD that would help dispose of saline water into the sea. “It needs to be successfully constructed in consultation with locals with some changes in its design
The work on RBOD, which has been constructed up to Kotri in portions, should be completed and the drain water disposed of into the sea through Gharo Creek outlet in Badin district, stressed Majeed Nizamani, president Sindh Abadghar Board (SAB).
He said: “While some agriculture land would inevitably be affected by the RBOD, there is no other viable alternative. For, it will at least help avoid any major loss to the province’s cultivable lands. The government could compensate those growers whose lands will be affected by the project.”
But, Murad Ali Shah, Sindh Irrigation Minister, says desalination of the RBOD’s drainage water through treatment plants is not costly because of post-purification benefits for agriculture and Manchhar Lake.
“Treatment of saline water in winter season – some hundreds of cusecs – is financially affordable. On the other hand, treatment of drainage water in summer – around 3,500 cusecs – would cost more. The quality of water in summer is better than that of winter,” he insisted.
When asked to confirm reports if he had asked the federal government to do away with the project in view of public pressure, he replied: “Actually the RBOD project was a misconceived and was approved during Musharraf’s rule.” “However, now efforts are being made at federal level to find an alternative to the project.
Naseer Memon, a water expert, says RBOD does not address some crucial points. “It is really a matter of concern that Environmental Impact Assessment did not mention the possible impacts on drain of the hill torrents at Dadu and Sehwan that turn volatile during monsoon rains”, he said.
The environmentalists resented disposing off RBOD water into the sea through the Gharo Creek outlet in Badin district and said it would destroy the Creek’s ecology and aquifers in the area.
“If toxic water of RBOD is released into Gharo creek in Thatta district, it would flow back up to 10 kilometres during high tide and badly affect the Indus delta, mangroves and coastal ecosystem” said Nasir Panhwar, environmentalist of WWF-P.
He told this scribe that “Nearly 5,000 families are likely to be directly affected by the drain. However, if the land owners are more than compensated for their lands, they will surely surrender their property happily for the project”
The Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD) being in close proximity of the Haleji lake poses a direct threat to the wetland, once called a birdwatchers’ paradise. The lake is already under severe stress owing to inadequate water, he observed.
Mr Panhwar, however, suggested that the government should treat effluents at their source points and ensure prior public consultations to win their confidence and address their fears.