Polluted waterways

June 18, 2023

The elderly, who know what they have lost, have rich recollections of the times they could take a dip in the Upper Swat Canal

Polluted waterways


pper Swat Canal is contaminated. Water pollution keeps most of the residents away these days but the elderly remember when things were different.

Their eyes light up as they relish memories of the days when they could perch on rocks and sip water directly from the canal and take a dip in it. Most of them sigh as they tell you that the water of the old irrigation canal – drawn from the mighty Swat River in the colonial era – is now too polluted to take a bath in, let alone drink from.

Clad in a grey shalwar kamees and a traditional Pashtun cap, Dost Muhammad, aged 70, had parked his motorbike at his hujra. His face was wrinkled and he looked exhausted. He said he had lived near the Upper Swat Canal for years and had many stories to tell.

Polluted waterways

Muhammad’s brow furrowed as he told the News on Sunday that he was aware of the pollution problem. “Of course, I know about this. I have been noticing it and worrying about it for decades but we (the citizens) cannot find a solution acting alone,” said the old man.

According to Muhammad, about 30 years ago, the water of the canal was clean and clear.

“The community living on the banks of the canal used it for drinking and bathing,” he said. “In summer when the glaciers melted in Swat and Upper Dir, we would have clean cold water right at our doorstep,” he recalled.

“There were no ice factories in the area in those days. Most people could neither afford refrigerators nor felt any need for them,” he added. “There were two ways to cool down; either you bought ice from the trucks that came to Charsadda with ice from Dir and Swat or you drank water from the canal,” said Muhammad.

“…And it is hard to believe this today, given the state of the water body but out of these two ways, most people would prefer the latter because it was free and the canal water was actually cleaner than the ice brought from mountain caps which was sometimes contaminated,” Dost Muhammad told TNS.

“In Ramazan, women would fetch fresh canal water in earthen pots and store it at home,” he recalled. “The people of the area are wonderful swimmers. From taking baths to washing clothes, people had all the excuses in the world for converging around the then-beautiful canal,” he said.

With time, things changed. The population increased and that led to a slew of construction projects. People started building new houses, new streets and villages without paying any heed to the fundamentals of urban planning.

For more than two decades, the villages that sprang up in the upper riparian areas have been missing proper sewage disposal infrastructure. As a result, the villagers resort to dumping their sewage in the canal where it mixes with the water. While the whole community is aware of this, nobody has an alternative to propose. Picking a fight with neighbours is simply not an option. Everyone just avoids contact with canal water.

“No one drinks the canal water. Women have stopped doing laundry and lounging by the canal side. Men avoid swimming in the canal. The water is not fit even for ablutions,” lamented Dost Muhammad.

Bahram Dheri sub-division Tangi chairman, Asim Khan sat in the shade in a chaupal with his peers near the bank of the Upper Swat Canal. Khan, aged 45, had his own memories of the canal. “I remember drinking water from here with my own hands,” he said. “Almost two decades ago, farmers working in the fields nearby used to drink water from here,” he added, pointing towards the canal.

“From Dargai to Dhakki and Dhakki to Mandi, the problem is the same,” said the chairman, “Sewage and trash are dumped into the canal. People also throw the carcasses of their dead cattle in the canal,” he said.

According to the Irrigation Department’s open data source, Upper Swat Canal System is 841 kilometres long. It discharges 3,600 cusec water and irrigates 281,000 acres of farm land.

Dr Imran Khan, who has done post-doctoral research in biomedical engineering in South Korea, says improper utilisation of resources coupled with a rise in population affects the quantity and quality of water. “Domestic sewage, soil erosion and sedimentation and agriculture wastes are the major sources of water pollution,” Imran Khan says.

“Diarrhea, a waterborne disease, is reported as the leading cause of death in infants and children in Pakistan. A fifth of citizens suffer from the illness caused by polluted water,” Khan tells TNS.

“Each year in Pakistan 2.5 million people die from drinking polluted water,” he says. “The harm of water pollution is not just limited to that. It has major impacts on the agricultural and socio-economic system. Vegetables irrigated with polluted water contain the same contaminants, for instance.”

“Over time, this can reslt in degradation of the quality of life. It can even compel people to change the way they live,” he said.

“Proper water management is the need of the hour. We need it so we can mitigate the adverse impacts on the biological system. That is the only way to make this world a safer place,” he said.

According to Jamshed Iqbal Cheema, chairman of the Pakistan Agriculture Scientists’ Association, the per capita water availability in Pakistan at the time of independence was 5,600 cubic metres in 1947. It decreased to 5,260 cubic metres in 1951 and 1,038 cubic metres in 2010.

Daud Khan, the irrigation sub-divisional officer for Charsadda says the Upper Swat Canal and its tributaries are polluted. “Notices have been served to people who throw their sewerage water into the canals. It is the civic responsibility of the citizen to keep the environment and water clean,” said Khan.

According to ICE Virtual Library, a comprehensive online civil engineering resource, Sir John Benton, the inspector-general of irrigation for India, was tasked with the construction of the Upper Swat Canal. Opened in 1914, the canal takes off from the Swat River. It is fed through the two miles long Benton tunnel through the Malakand mountains.

The water then passes down the Dargai nullah, with a fall of 300 feet in five miles and is utilised to generate electric power. The canal splits into two at Dargai. The Upper Swat Canal is carried along slopes cut by ravines and torrents and passes through several minor tunnels aggregating a mile in length.

Dozens of small tunnels and siphons were built by the British to protect the canal from sewage and floods.

The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney 

Polluted waterways