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April 7, 2020

Fishermen rejoice early arrival of freshwater in Indus delta


April 7, 2020

HYDERABAD: Coastal communities living at the Indus Delta in Thatta District are celebrating the early arrival of Indus River stream after many years.

The river met the sea in the first week of April after several years, according to community activists. Gulab Shah, a community activist from Keti Bunder, said this year the river has received water earlier due to heavy rainfall in the upper parts of the country, which has benefited the river, the lifeline of the entire country.

He could not remember the last time the sea received river water during March and April, but said it was a long time ago. Whenever the river flows to the sea, the communities heave a sigh of relief. This downstream flow replenishes freshwater for the island residents as well. Otherwise, the islanders spend a large part of their earnings on buying freshwater for domestic use from various jetties, Gulab said.

People living in the deltaic region depend on the river for livelihood. They engage in agriculture, livestock rearing, and fishing activities. The arrival of freshwater has spread a wave of optimism in the coastal community.

It will replenish the artificial ponds, improve fish catch, and benefit the farmers and fishermen, both. When the river does not reach the sea, the coastal area runs dry and mangrove forests shrink, affecting the biodiversity of the region as well.

Reports gathered from the community activists from different areas said that whenever the sea receives water earlier in March-April, palla (hilsa) moves to the river as it travels upstream for breeding in the freshwater of the river.

Palla is a marine species, but it lays eggs in the river water. It is a favourite locally, and the demand is high during June, July and August. Activists near Kotri neighbourhood said the river flow has brought happiness among fishermen, who as the river brings more fish seeds. About palla, they said it would take two months to begin travelling downstream, as usually it moves from the sea to the river in June, July and August.

Palla lives in river water till September as it cannot survive in cold water and returns back to the sea before October. Usually, palla travels 150 kilometres to reach Kotri downstream. At least 300,000 families reside along both the sides of the river from Kotri downstream to Kharo Chhan, the tail-end area where river water falls in to the sea.

For many years, due to unavailability of river water in the sea, this commercial and delicious species did not move upstream, depriving fishermen, who used to depend on fish catch, mainly palla.

Fishermen said there are 62 local jetties Kotri downstream to Kharo Chhan. Earlier, each jetty possessed 40 to 50 small fishing boats, but now many have left this traditional ancestral work due to uncertain flow in the river.

Only a few fishermen families possess small boats, deriving fish from small streams of the river there. In 2019, the river flowed to downstream Kotri during June and within one month it receded, leaving the people in a helpless situation.

However, this year the early arrival of river flow will benefit palla and other commercial species, like shrimps, which breed under mangroves.

Coastal villages located along the river have artificial ponds for storing water for domestic use. They either store water during the flow of the river or rain water.

About agriculture, elderly people said in the past there were main crops like red rice, wheat, banana and a variety of vegetables. There are still a few families who cultivate red rice to keep the tradition alive. Otherwise, water scarcity has changed the cultivation mechanism. Due to persistent closure of the river, sea intrusion has also wreaked havoc, forcing many families to migrate in search of safer places and livelihood. Many have lost their fertile lands to slanity.

Water activists and environmentalists, earlier had proposed to the government to release at least 27 million acre feet (maf) water downstream to save the Indus delta ecosystem, considering it will not only benefit the coastal communities, but also save the mangrove forest and diverse marine life.

Community activists said the river used to reach the sea earlier in March—April long ago but now after diversions and mega projects it has changed its natural course and mostly does not meet the sea. Only floods in the river benefit the sea, which helps maintains the ecosystem.

Previous reports suggested that the Indus delta covered around 300sq km area with 6,000 hectare mangrove forests. But after the changes and clearing of mangroves by the timber mafia it has depleted to less than 1,000 hectares.

Migration from the deltaic area has devastated flourishing towns and villages. Keti Bunder, being a port town was a busy trading centre of the area, with a population of 35,000 at that time. After ups and downs in the sea and receding river, economic activities have declined drastically in the area.

Increasing sea intrusion has destroyed quality of underground as well as surface water. Due to this, people have lost natural sources of drinking water in the entire deltaic region.

These ecological changes have impacted negatively on social as well economic life of the communities, who, finding no alternative have either migrated to other safer areas or live in a vulnerable situation, often facing disasters and loss of natural resources.