By Saeed Akhtar Niazi
Wapda may certainly boast of a fairly creditable record in meeting environmental standard. Exceptions, however, prove the rule. This exception is the Chashma Barrage Project located on river Indus in district Mianwali.
Built between 1967 to 1971, it is one of the many major engineering works that form part of Indus basin Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan.
From the environmental point of view, this project was far from ideal. The barrage, with its pond level at 649 SPD, submerged 137 sq miles (355 sq km) of beautiful farmland. The affected area is far in excess because of land acquisition up to 650 SPD. According to project reports, 29 (in fact, 34) villages) were displaced with a population of 22400 people (in fact, far more) in mid 60’s. Various aspects of the adverse environmental impact are discussed below.
The fact that the barrage was located in plain area, it inundated a very large fertile land that was a granary for the entire district. There used to be abundance of livestock, supply of dairy and poultry products was plentiful. The number of persons displaced was high and in tribal setting, the displacement amounted to amputation of an arm of the tribe, inhabiting the area. There were other damages that unfolded after the commissioning of the barrage.
The ever-changing lake level provided an ideal location for the mosquitoes to breed. This resulted in making the life miserable for the population dwelling along the lake. It is literally impossible for the people to sleep in the open in sweltering summer months. They have to readjust their entire life style with limited relief. During pollen period, air gets studied with spores which cause allergic reactions like sneezing, asthma, bronchitis etc. Life is equally hard for livestock.
The warble fly is found in plenty. It lays eggs at certain locations on the body of the cattle perforating the skin with fatal consequences. The vast wasteland difficult to normal access, provide sanctuary to outlaws and bandits. Kidnapping for ransom at one time became frequent. Above all, it provides a conduit for traffic of arms and narcotics.
The original owners of the land having been displaced and lately, professional bandits thinning out, the area has entered yet another era. It is now free-for-all. It is getting converted into a sort of ‘micro fiefdoms’. Its role as a source of food grain and livestock seems to be returning but still remaining a lawless area.
During pre-barrage period when the wetland was inhabited, there were a large number of trees. After the formation of the lake, trees disappeared.
The most important aspect of any development of the like nature where large-sale displacement is involved is that the resettlement gets the top priority. Affected persons after leaving their hearths and homes, expect to get a fair deal.
Uprooting people and throwing them out in wilderness of the Thal desert, in state land already in unauthorized occupation of the local people and without providing the promised infrastructure, is height of injustice to the affected people.
Many of the displaced persons are facing long drawn litigations, reportedly several hundreds in number, till now, after this displacement and supposed resettlement. Struggle for survival of these families continues after 35 years.
The downstream of the barrage suffered even bigger disaster. he barrage has been located on the left bank. This has drastically changed the historic course of the river, shifting the mainstream to the left bank. Thousand of acres of well cultivated wetland has been destroyed. The ancient towns on the left bank highlands aree seriously affected. To name only the bigger and historic towns along the 99 ft. wide historic Sher Shah Soori road, downstream of he barrage upto Kalurkot, a stretch of 60 km are, Alloali, Doaba, Moosiwala, Piplan, Kalurkot. Nobody cared to construct guide works and spurs to prevent the onslaught of the river that later caused destruction.
As a result, town of Tiba Mehrban Shah including its railway station went completely out of existence. Sixteen km of railway track that was washed away, had to be relocated. Hurriedly constructed remedial works at a later stage are hardly enough to control the havoc that the river plays year after year.
The government of Punjab and Flood Commission of Pakistan has belatedly constructed guide works and spurs but such works are not quite satisfactory to withstand the onslaught of the rivers in spate. More spurs are believed to be under consideration for construction in due course. It is only to be hoped that further works are properly planned, designed and robustly constructed to perform the required function.
Another serious issue that has cropped up after the construction of the barrage is the disposal of sewerage into the lake. Waste of more than 2,50.000 humans is dumped directly into the lake by indiscreet municipal authorities who have not cared to treat it before disposal. Impact of this might have perhaps been somewhat less if it was still running river rather than an oft fluctuating lake. Environmental monitoring could bring out this glaring source of environmental degradation and tell the concerned authorities to see, sense and take appropriate steps.
Development works including the construction of dams and barrages must continue as and where needed in the national interest. However, only those projects, which are environmentally benign or those which significantly enhance the lifestyle of the affected persons, should be preferred. National and international environmental standards must be met not only in theory and as a lip service but in practice.
The periodic inspections of the engineering works by the project authorities must include inspection and report on environmental issues. The inspection team may include experts from national environment organization or their approved consultant. The project environmental directorate should remain in existence long after, to monitor any adverse impact after the commissioning of the project. The owner must remain committed to fund any remedial works that may be identified and required in due course.
Chashma barrage is delivering the benefits expected out of it. It still has a much needed live storage of 0.3 maf. C-J Link canal is serving the desired purpose. It continues to divert Indus waters to Jhelum. It shall feed Greater Thal Flood Canal in due course. The right bank high level irrigation canal is also serving the desired objective. The benefits of Chashma have considerably increased by the addition of 184 MW hydro electric power plant. It is only regrettable that it was not built according to its optimized capacity of 285 MW.
Chashma project however, suffers from multifarious deficiencies on the environmental side. The permanent damages are irretrievable. Further damages and some impacts of non-permanent in nature can be redressed or at least mitigated. For this end in view, the following suggestions are offered by way of illustration, for the eyes and ears of experts.
i) The environmental component of Chashma project must be revisited. The review team should include environmental experts if not for a lead role, at least as important members of the group. It should identify the deficiencies and prepare action plan to remove these. Realistic cost estimates should be prepared and funds arranged. Wapda should bear the major brunt as it defaulted in the first instance. Moreover, it has now the benefit of a continuous cash stream from its hydroelectric project.
ii) Resettlement issue be reopened and it should be ensured that the displaced persons get the facilities promised and committed at the time of eviction e.g. hospitals, schools and organized townships. As a matter of fact, the facilities might be upgraded to meet the current standards.
iii) A bridge should be built across the lake (river Indus) so as to make the lake area more accessible. This will greatly help in establishing rule of law, particularly, to interrupt and mitigate the arms and drug trafficking.
iv) Leasing or auctioning of the land in the lake area should be done in an orderly and organized manner in consultation with the political leadership of the districts involved.
v) A comprehensive plan should be prepared to rein in the river to prevent its onslaught on the towns in the reach between the barrage to the town of Kalorkot and beyond if necessary.
vi) Identification of damages should be carried out in C.J. Link and Chashma right bank canal area and remedial actions taken as and where necessary.
vii) National environmental agency should take notice of the disposal of human waste into the lake and issue suitable directive to the concerned municipal authorities to take steps to provide sewerage treatment plants before disposing of waste into the lake.