Every year, around this time, the canal is closed for desiltation, under the watch of the Irrigation Department of Punjab. There are lessons to be learnt for the common public in the process
A dear friend of mine spent a considerable part of her early life in the New Campus accommodation afforded to her father who worked at the University of the Punjab. It was a place that was quite far away from the city centre. Every time she needed to commute to downtown Lahore, she’d go via the Canal.
I have so many memories of us enjoying long strolls along the canal, especially on foggy winter mornings. But I didn’t know the canal had become such an integral part of her being that it just wouldn’t leave her, even after she went to live abroad. Though, it’s another story that she knows nothing about the canal except that it separates one part of the city from another. God knows, she isn’t the only one; there are many Lahoris who would have no idea about the history of the canal, or even about its actual name; yet they have some sentimental value attached to it.
Over time, the Lahore Canal has acquired a cultural significance. On every local, national, or even religious festival, the canal is beautifully illuminated. Whether it’s the Chaand Raat or Jashn-i-Baharan, the zinda dilaan-i-Lahore converge on the canal. In summers, the cool (albeit muddied) waters of the canal are a relief for many. You can’t miss the sight of young boys and men enjoying a dive. Even families like to sit on the edges and enjoy themselves while making short work of watermelons and mangoes. It’s an informal picnic spot for them.
The flip side to this happy excursion is that no one seems bothered about not littering the canal. People habitually dump food remains as well as plastic wrappings in the canal. Some of their throwaways are later found floating on the surface.
No one seems bothered about not littering the canal. People habitually dump food remains as well as plastic wrappings in the canal. Some of their throwaways are later found floating on the surface.
Apart from its (occasional/regular) visitors, the canal has a large population of Lahore settled along its either side. These are ‘locals’ who consider it their right to wash their dirty laundry in canal water. They obviously have no sense of the water being toxic and containing excessive amounts of sulphates, chlorine, and suspended as well as dissolved solids deposited by the industrial units close by.
Every year, at the end of December, the canal is closed for desiltation, under the watch of the Irrigation Department. The operation continues into January.
There is a reason why desiltation is planned around this time of the year — it’s a lean period, when the canal water is not required for irrigation purposes, as only wheat is grown which does not require much water. The current desiltation began on December 30, 2019. Work was halted for a few days due to rain, but it was resumed on January 8, 2020.
Interesting stories are narrated by those who are part of the desiltation. “It seems [the canal] is our dumping ground,” says Mohammad Ilyas, a labourer. “Here, you can find just about everything, from plastic shoppers to used diapers, to clay pots and lamps. Once I stumbled upon a quilt, while cleaning the canal.
“Within the short distance between one bridge and another, we end up with 15 to 20 trollies of waste,” he claims.
According to Rashid Minhas, the Lahore Division, executive engineer, “Since the Lahore Canal runs through the city, its desiltation also has to do with beautification. We try to make it appear neat. Since there is a lot of plantation on both sides of the canal, leaves fall on the bridges. Also, despite clear instructions, people continue to litter. Due to this, the bridges are often choked, and we’ve to clean them too.”
In the past, school children were also engaged in this annual operation. The children would spend the whole day desilting the canal, as part of ‘Manual Labour Day’. Water courses that are not under the purview of the Irrigation Department are still cleaned by the people on self-help basis. For main channels or canals, the task is contracted to local construction companies.
“Every year, a cost is estimated,” Minhas adds. “After that, applications are invited through tenders, and the contract is granted after thorough scrutiny. This year, the contract has been given to Omar Construction Company and Haji Ramazan Construction Company. However, the work is closely monitored by the Punjab Irrigation Department.
“Our staff remains constantly in touch with the labour deployed by the contractors, and makes sure that work is completed satisfactorily. You will find our SDOs, sub-engineers, and builders all the time on the canal.”
The silt and waste gathered in the process are dumped at designated places. Minhas says that silt does not collect in the main branch of the canal. “We have developed a system wherein all octaves, whether in main channels or canals, have the capacity to carry silt. Therefore, most of the silt gathered in the canal goes into the fields. We just clean the remains.”
The canal desiltation will take up to 15 days.