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July 5, 2019

Recognising more heroes


July 5, 2019

In my article on June 22, 2019 (‘Water heroes’), I listed out a few people who can be called water heroes for Pakistan. Heroes emerge when vision meets courage. Without vision courage is of little value, while the absence of courage often produces daydreamers.

The British imperial officials dealing with water matters in what is now Pakistan were bold and dynamic and left lasting monuments in proof. Amongst their earlier ventures were the irrigation barrages built in the colony districts of Punjab. Sir John Benton, the inspector general of irrigation will long be remembered for the Triple Canals project in Punjab – namely, the Upper Jhelum, Upper Chenab, and Lower Bari Doab which were a ‘miracle of engineering’.

These canals were 400 miles in length with 3000 miles of distributaries; and they cost eight million pound sterling at that time. It was ‘the largest irrigation work completed in India, and ranked as one of the boldest engineering works in the world. It irrigated 1.75 million acres, of which 1.57 million acres was previously waste land’. (The other imperialists in the region, the Mughals, who ruled even longer bequeathed us little more than tombs and domes).

From central Punjab, the British moved north. The Munda headworks was constructed in 1885. It enabled the irrigation of 135,000 acres of land in the Peshawar valley. Then a mere decade after occupying the Malakand Pass in 1897, the British undertook the construction of Amandara Headworks to divert 2200 cusecs water from Swat river through the three-mile Benton tunnel to irrigate 120,000 acres of the Yusafzai plains in Malakand and Mardan.

A mining engineer, G L Bill, will remain an inspiration for his efforts in boring this tunnel. Unbelievable as it may sound, the British engineers in 1884 undertook the preliminary designing of the Gomalzam dam in Waziristan; for the record, let it be known that over a century later in 2001 Pakistan was able to re-initiate this project.

While the Amandara irrigation system was being developed, officials from the finance and planning department in New Delhi reportedly expressed to the then viceroy serious reservations about the high costs and limited economic viability of this irrigation system. The viceroy’s observations were astute. He rejected their advice, stating that what was more important than money was tying the Pakhtuns to the land for economic gain so that their energies were not spent fighting. This is called social cost-benefit analysis today – policymakers kindly note.

The British then built the Sukkur Barrage, the biggest irrigation project of all. This barrage, completed in 1931, irrigates nearly eight million acres through seven main canals. What would Sindh look like without it? The fact is that today the provincial irrigation authorities cannot even maintain the flow gates, resulting in heavily silting the barrage. This incompetence causes repeated grief.

Fortunately for Pakistan, the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) produced a number of reputable engineers some of whom have been mentioned in the previous article. There were top water-sector professionals like Asif Qazi, S S Kirmani and Shamsul Mulk who were associated with the earlier projects built under the Indus Basin Treaty.

Following them were engineers of the caliber of Ahmad Hasan, Saeed Akhtar Niazi, Khalid Mohtadullah and Sardar Tariq who contributed towards developing newer ventures including the Tarbela Five irrigation tunnel, Ghazi Barotha and Neelum Jhelum hydro-projects. Amongst the quality engineers Wapda produced were Dr Izharul Haq, Khaliq Khan and Chaudhry Mushtaq because of whom hundreds of billions of rupees are earned by the country today.

One foreigner who deserves a mention was the late Dr John Briscoe from the World Bank and Harvard University for his deep commitment towards the conservation and pricing of water. Needless to say, his recommendations did not find favour with the politicians and agriculturists who dominate the legislative assemblies.

For recognizing heroes, mention must be made of the 1991 Water Accord signed unanimously by the four provinces on the distribution of waters. The then Muslim League governments in Islamabad and the four provinces deserve credit for this monumental achievement. Such consensus is rare in Pakistan.

Finally, it is important to recall the water heroes of Wapda for their success in battling the biblical floods of 2010. For the Chashma Barrage everyone including the engineers, drivers, security staff, office boys and hired labour, led by Nazir Afridi, valiantly and successfully fought and saved the barrage from damage. Owing to Chashma’s high-quality maintenance and the availability of pitching stone and equipment, the structure was able to safely pass more than the designed discharge forty years after its construction. An even greater challenge awaited Hazrat Umar, the general manager of Tarbela, and his engineers. Their technical brilliance and dedication need appreciation as they skillfully raised and lowered water levels to pass the super floods of nearly 800,000 cusecs. That was a real close call.

Alongside the flood heroes were the anti-heroes responsible for the losses. Many politicians and bureaucrats were responsible for failing to build reservoirs which could have checked such floods. The failure in managing the massive floods of 2010 in Sindh should also stigmatize one politician and a technocrat. The damages from these floods could have been contained if the decision-makers had heeded the advice of Wapda’s engineer Amer Mughal to cut the left bank embankment of Sukkur barrage to reduce water pressure. As prime minister, Z A Bhutto did so in 1976 but this time ‘nature was allowed to take its course’.

The result was that the Thori bund soon collapsed causing material losses of billions of dollars to lower Sindh. Over a thousand people died as a result. Not that the Punjab water bureaucracy fared any better. The Kalabagh and Taunsa Barrages were so poorly maintained that fuse-plug demolitions were ordered to save the structures but at great cost to the province. Yet no one was punished for this dereliction of duty.

The writer has served as the chiefsecretary of GB, AJK, KP and Sindhand was the chairman of Wapda and the Pakistan Railways.

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