Life of a lake

June 5, 2022

Evaluating future development strategies to protect, safeguard, nurture and restore the Manchhar lake ecology

Life of a lake


anchhar Lake is one of the largest lakes in Asia. Located between Dadu and Jamshoro districts, about 18 kilometres west of Sehwan Sharif, the lake is a natural reserve and an ecological asset. It has been a source of livelihood for communities living around it. Many in the indigenous communities associated with the lake have migrated. However their attachment to the lake is intact and most of them say given a chance they will prefer to return to a life by its side.

Several decisions and measures taken over the past fifty years have brought the region to the brink of an ecological disaster. The Main Nara Valley Drain construction project started in 1921 by the British was meant to be a storm water stream. However, it later developed into a saline water drain. This was converted into a larger Right Bank Outfall drain in 1981. Projects I, II and III, of which most of the work has been completed, were meant initially to take the saline water directly to sea. However, the plan was altered later and the saline water ended up in the lake. This led to significant amounts of agricultural and industrial waste to land untreated in the lake, causing enormous damage to the fish species and migratory birds. The indigenous boat people of the Muhanna community were also forced to explore alternative livelihoods.

Under the ULRP / Indus River Heritage and Communities Project being conducted at the DAP-NED, a Roundtable Webinar Discussion on Manchhar Lake was organised in April 2022, to discuss various solutions proposed by the government and some academics. The opportunities and issues for the environmentally challenged habitat were laid out from the perspectives of various disciplines and stakeholders.

The site has several significant stakeholders. The lake falls under two district jurisdictions: Dadu in the north and Jamshoro in the south. The Muhanna community has been directly affected. Several non-government organisations are supporting and trying to help those who have been forced to migrate. Fishery, Forestry, Agriculture, Irrigation and Wildlife Departments of the provincial government are also interested to the extent of their jurisdictions and mandates.

The discussion started off with a couple of academic research presentations on Manchhar Lake. These brought to the table various viewpoints and practical ways to protect, safeguard, nurture and restore the Manchhar Lake ecology.

The lake receives water from several tributaries including River Indus via the Aral Canal; storm water drains and hill torrents from the Kirthar mountains including the Nai Gaj; and the Main Nara Valley Drain (MNVD or RBOD). The heavy metal content in the MNVD and consequently Manchhar Lake is a major health risk, making the water and the fish unfit for human consumption. The dilution of salts during the monsoon season improves appears to improve the water quality to some extent. However, the improvement is not sustainable. Dr Uzma Imran of the US-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water, based in Jamshoro, shared her PhD thesis on the analysis of the water quality of Manchhar Lake. She also discussed potential solutions under various scenarios. She said the presence of arsenic and chromium in the lake water presented a major hazard making it unfit for drinking. She said the water was tolerable for recreational use, bathing and washing.

Several fish species having a low tolerance for the salts have vanished, Dr Imran reported. She said 23 species of fish were found in Manchar Lake in a recent survey. An earlier study by Mahar (in 1998) had documented 32 species. It was learnt that 16 species have vanished. Some new species have since been introduced by the Fisheries Department. It was pointed out that most of these fish species might carry arsenic and therefore be unhealthy for human consumption.

Dr Uzma Imran simulated nine scenarios to project possible practical solutions for improving water quality in the lake. These scenarios included the current status; diversion of the MNVD into the sea; construction of the Nai Gaj dam; diversion of MNVD and building the Nai Gaj dam; the MNVD diversion to sea and diverting the Rice Canal to the lake; MNVD diversion to sea and diverting the Rice and Dadu Canals to the lake. The Rice and Dadu Canals do not currently fall into Manchar Lake.

The Irrigation Department had a similar proposal. Dr Imran opposed a suggestion to link the canals and the MNVD, saying this would pollute all the water. She proposed that a bridge be built over the MNVD to connect to the Johi Canal to Manchhar Lake. She proposed that the Nai Gaj Dam, once built, should supply 50 cusecs of water to the lake. She advocated the restoration of the lake in two phases. In the first phase, the MNVD should drain into the sea for at least two years and not into the lake. This will allow the lake to naturally recuperate its beds from the chemical overload. The release of the other water sources into the lake from the third year along with the monsoon outflow of the MNVD would then bring up its salt levels to permissible limits for agricultural use and reestablish its ecosystem for fish and other aquatic life.

Presenting an anthropologist’s perspective, Suneel Kumar from Sindh University spoke about the ‘life of the lake’. His study was oriented towards documenting eco-semiotics: reading fish behaviour, bird behaviour, water quality and the use of indigenous knowledge of Muhannas. His work aimed to highlight a change in the relationship between the fishermen and their interaction with nature over time. Prevalence of ethical rationality is a key in this process that drives the behaviour of the community and the habitat and has sustained it for centuries. Myths and folklore tie up within oral stories to create patterns of ethics. For instance, the main pir of Muhannas, Shaikh Daman, is referred to as the guardian of the fish. He instructs them not to catch small fish. Thus, traditionally, the handmade nets of the Muhannas had eye holes that were eight fingers wide, allowing smaller fish to pass through. Migratory birds were not captured for economic purposes, as they were considered to be blessings. These were only caught on special occasions to be presented as gifts. The severity of the environmental conditions has led to changes in these attitudes. The degradation of the lake has pushed the Muhannas into the poverty level.

Mazaar of the Pir of the Mohannas.
Mazaar of the Pir of the Mohannas.

The natural resources of a region make up its identity and add to its uniqueness. Manchhar Lake is such a place in Sindh. It would be reckless and unwise to lose a natural resource that can still be revived through suitable strategies involving the various stakeholders.

Now their attitude towards the birds is different too. They tie the feet of the captured birds to branch structures floating in the lake to attract other migratory birds to advance to the lake only to be captured by a waiting Muhanna. According to Kumar, the degradation of the lake is more than a livelihood issue. He says the Muhannas can be introduced to alternative livelihoods. He points out that many have already moved on. The degradation of people’s relationship with the lake is a major issue that needs to be considered as a part of the restoration process. The process of lake restoration should be a reversal of degradation such that the ethical relationship of the Muhannas is also restored through it. Can the management and restoration of the lake be undertaken in such a manner? The process of improvement of water quality needs to incorporate simultaneous processes whereby, the community works alongside in nurturing the ecosystem for re-growth.

In a sense, natural resources like Manchar Lake belong to all people. Catering to migratory birds from various countries is a role that reaffirms its status. Lakes and seas should be preserved in their original unpolluted state as far as possible. Draining untreated waste into freshwater lakes can result in negative impacts. Perhaps the pollution should be treated at its source.

Life in Manchhar Lake is getting suffocated by the MNVD which is a perennial source of polluted water while not much fresh water is flowing into the lake. The purpose of the construction of the RBOD was to improve the fertility of adjoining farmlands that had been affected by salinity. The lands mostly belong to rich, powerful and resourceful landlords. The community associated with Manchar Lake is not politically as empowered, remarked Manzoor Thaheem, author of a Sindhi novel titled, Manchar.

Thaheem said the region was a natural wetland that started degrading after the construction of the Sukkur Barrage in 1932. As an ecological system, he said, wetlands ought to be managed by a single organization and not dealt with by several departments. Manchhar is located on the Indus Flyway which is the main route for migratory birds in the region. The upcoming challenge that the region will be facing is severe climate change. Rainfall in the region might decline. This might lead to greater dependence on storm water drains and canals as water sources. There is a need to ensure stricter enforcement of the Sindh Wildlife Act. Local communities should be included in the management of the wetland and helpful plantation arrangements.

Participation and involvement of local communities is essential in ecological interventions as their livelihoods and cultures are associated with geography. Tourism can be an important stakeholder. It can serve to improve the economic situation of the local people. Good management plans are oriented to address varying emerging situations, including loss of livelihoods, biodiversity, food security and rising carbon and methane emissions. Quantity and quality of freshwater inflow is an important factor in wetlands management. A working management plan requires an integrated approach that takes the various important stakeholders on board.

Environmentalist Nasir Panhwar, who belongs to the Manchar region and has previously worked with the WWF highlighted these points.

There are numerous instances in the Pakistani context of structured development processes being in conflict with the environment so that the relationship between development and the natural environment and ecosystem is not addressed. While these development projects achieve their outlined objectives, the significant relationship with the environment is missed. Development works around Lyari and Malir Rivers have faced similar challenges. Their scope has been restricted by the consideration. Corridors of movement created next to rivers and canals sometimes neglect the relationship of people/ communities with the water body through their various activities and needs of access, making them secondary in importance.

Dr Noman Ahmed, dean of architecture and management sciences at the NED University, highlighted the need for a regional land use plan for the area. If and when water quality is improved, the region can be expected to develop following the trend of recent development around towns and infrastructure in the past 10-15 years. Thus a regional land use and management plan can be directed toward guiding this in a sustainable manner. The various lands around Manchar that contribute to its ecosystem and environment need to be mapped and protected to safeguard the natural assets. There is a need to look at alternatives for the various sources of liquid pollution entering Manchar.

Sunset at the Manchar lake.
Sunset at the Manchar lake.

Can low-cost chemical solutions be found to address the adverse nature of the pollution entering the lake?

The presence of the Mohanna community at Manchhar Lake needs to be clearly recognised as a positive element for the lake. It is an indication of the possibility of the revival of the ecosystem. If the community is completely displaced, the lake might turn into a wasteland. A targetted uplift programme for the boat people needs to address their pressing livelihood and social needs so that their quality of life can be improved and their association with the lake can be retained/ revitalised Dr Noman Ahmed said.

Nature-based solutions tend to be low-cost and are often preferred worldwide to nurture ecosystems like lakes. Dr Atif Mustafa, chairman of the Environment Engineering Department, said. Bio-organic material can be introduced into the lake that can improve the sediment absorbing pollution at the base. A small pilot project can be put together to test the approach, by diverting some water from the lake. Plants like halophytes can survive salinity. These can be grown around and in the lake to improve the water quality. These have medicinal and animal fodder value as well and can contribute to the community and the ecosystem.

The cost of destruction of Manchar Lake has been enormous. It has affected not just the flora, fauna and community within the lake, but also agriculture practices around the lake. Ghulam Mustafa Mirani, chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, says the scale of destruction is terrifying. The revival of the lake requires 500 cusecs of freshwater inflow. He says the cost of reviving the lake and safeguarding the Mohannas’ interests is manageable. All it requires is political will. He says the NED and Sindh Universities can put forth proposals for the revival of the lake by connecting research, planning and practice.

The natural resources of a region make up its identity and add to its uniqueness. Manchhar Lake is such a place in Sindh. It will be unwise to lose it while it can still be revived through suitable strategies.

The writer is an   academic, researcher and architect, faculty at the Department of Architecture and Planning, NED
University of Engineering and Technology

Life of a lake