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In memory of MH Siddiqi

MH Siddiqi, the illustrious campaigner for water rights, is remembered fondly

October 01, 2023
The speakers noted that every citizen of the country ought to work for water rights.— Photos: Supplied


ahore’s bond with the Ravi River is as old as the town itself. Raised on the left or eastern bank of the river, the city in its earliest form is believed to have been a few mud-houses traced back to the 1st Century AD.

The early history of Lahore, according to the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), is mostly vague as it mainly derives from myths and tales. Centuries later, one of the relatively better references is believed to be available in the writings of a Chinese traveller who visited the Indian subcontinent in 630 AD. He reports a settlement where the modern-day Lahore exists.

From a slim settlement, Lahore’s journey through the historical vistas transformed it over the next few hundred years into a cultural and administrative capital. Muslim rulers’ entry in this part of the world, over a thousand years ago, brought stability and prosperity after the destruction from wars.

The Ravi is rightly called the river of Lahore, as Lahore is the largest city located on its banks. There is plenty of water available to the city, for drinking and irrigation from the river and canals taking life out of it. Thriving on an adequate water supply, the flora and fauna lend a distinctive colour to the city and its surroundings, making it truly livable. Also, it’s the perpetual supplies of river water that allowed Lahore to become the City of Gardens. The Lahore canal as well as the BRB Canal have acted as a line of defence besides providing the much needed water to the area and beyond.

Lahore and the entire region’s indispensable reliance on river water echoed at a memorial reference for the late Mahmud-ul Hasan Siddiqi, an eminent water expert who served till the very end in the Irrigation Secretariat for the regulation of the available river flows for optimal use. A number of engineers, public servants, technologists and other stakeholders paid glowing tributes to the seven decades long services of Siddiqi sahib, calling him a true protector of Lahore’s water rights. The reference, which had been organised by the Pakistan Engineering Congress, shed light on MH Siddiqi’s services — from supervising the construction of the Pakistan Military Academy to water distribution at local and national levels, and sharing of water at provincial and international levels.

Speakers on the occasion included several former administrative secretaries of the Punjab Irrigation Department such as Engr Riaz Ahmed Khan, Capt Saif Anjum (retired), and Dr Ahmed Javed; Additional Secretary Habibullah Bodla; the convenor of Water Resource Development Council, Engr Suleman Najib; and Dr Arif Mehmood Siddiqi, the son of the late MH Siddiqi.

The nonagenarian civil engineer, who had been working as a consultant in the provincial Irrigation Department after having served in various key positions, was born in 1927, near Nandipur, Gujranwala, about 100 kilometres from Lahore. He graduated from Aligarh Muslim University in 1946.

MH Siddiqi was very well versed in construction, irrigation engineering and water sharing. He was deemed an important part of the provincial Irrigation Department, the Indus River System Authority and Pakistan’s Permanent Indus Water Commission. He was very vocal about water rights, especially after the 1960 trade-off between Pakistan and India. He was fully aware of the role of water as the lifeline for all. He believed that the trust in water delivery mechanism and endless dependence on the river by the Lahoris was a constant factor in their lives, one way or the other. In countless discussions on the challenges associated with the Ravi’s inflows, MH Siddiqi viewed the river’s paramount role in replenishing the aquifer feeding the city.

MH Siddiqi was very well versed in construction, irrigation engineering and water sharing.

In countless discussions on the challenges associated with the Ravi’s inflows, MH Siddiqi viewed the river’s paramount role in replenishing the aquifer feeding the city.

Lahore is majorly dependent on the Ravi’s seepage for recharging the underground reserves that continues to provide for the water needs of millions. According to a study, the river once contributed 80 percent of the groundwater recharge. However, as it has been reduced almost to a sewer drain after the 1960 Treaty with India, it’s hard to maintain the groundwater levels. Also, it has polluted the aquifer with seepage of highly toxic water. As a result, there is much less water for the citizens than is required.


As the speakers at the memorial reference noted, MH Siddiqi was a strong proponent of providing canal water for meeting the drinking water needs of Lahore. He had also suggested construction of a barrage on the Ravi, at Shahdara, for retaining whatever water was available, with a view to enhancing seepage in the parched land.

He wasn’t satisfied with the river sharing arrangement with India, but at the same time he didn’t want to renegotiate the Indus Water Treaty. An arrangement stopping the flows of three rivers at a political frontier for exclusive use of the upper riparian had never happened before.

The water dispute finally ended after Pakistan gave up its right to use the waters of the three rivers namely, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. This led to virtually shutting these three rivers permanently to the people of Pakistan, being lower riparian, despite the fact that they had to bear the devastating effects of floods emanating from the upstream. Hence, the brimming rivers turned into drains for the people of Lahore.

MH Siddiqi actively participated in implementing a smooth inter-provincial water sharing mechanism in the country. A dynamic mediator in the national dialogue on water, he was formally a part of negotiations that led to the finalisation of 1991’s historic Water Apportionment Accord.

Following the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, a severe water shortage caused by withdrawal of three eastern rivers could have unleashed an unbearable catastrophe for the people living in the Punjab in particular and other parts of the country in general, were it not for MH Siddiqi’s untiring efforts. He was a campaigner for water rights, and believed that every citizen of the country should play their part in protecting water rights as no one would give them their due share without offering great resistance.

The writer is a seniorreporter atThe News International