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The view from Pakistan: Encountering the deadly Indus floods head on

Correspondent Ian Packham sees for himself the extensive flooding of the Indus River, home to the endangered Indus river dolphin, in the latest report from his series exploring how the climate crisis is affecting the country. 

In certain cities in Pakistan I am required to have a police escort for security reasons, though I’ve felt nothing but friendliness. ‘Come,’ my escort in central Sukkur says, ‘you’ve seen enough now.’ I nod silently, taken aback by what I’ve encountered.

If we can get caught up in our own endeavours, be that a hard day’s trekking or trying to remember everything we need in the supermarket, it’s moments like these when the illusion that big smiles or warm handshakes mean that everything is fine is torn to shreds.

Sukkur’s Leb-e-Mehran Park, on the banks of the Indus, is where I was told local boatmen take people out to look for the river’s dolphins, an endangered species. It’s now a relief camp for those displaced by the Pakistan’s floods, providing a place to stay for rural families who fled to the city in order to escape the rising waters.

These people, the women in polyester saris, the men in simple shalwar kameez, didn’t have a lot to begin with. They now find themselves with even less – a platform of branches raised off the dirt to lie on, the cover of a tarpaulin, a few donated outdoor children’s toys. They don’t even know when they might be able to return to their homes.

Even when sitting within its banks, as it does now, the Indus stretches for more than a mile in breadth at Sukkur. It appears gargantuan to me, but in a combination of English and hand gestures I’m told ‘now it’s low. Before it was up above the level of the bridge’ – which crosses the river just downstream of Sukkur Barrage. Built before independence, the barrage (a sort of low dam) was one of several constructed to aid irrigation, by controlling the Indus’ flow, in a region which sees ten times more evaporation than rainfall.

Outside of the city, unclean flood water still lies in the fields. It could be mistaken for the irrigation canals (some of the most comprehensive in the world) which slice across the fertile agricultural landscape of this part of Pakistan.

It could be mistaken for its paddy fields too, were it not for its enormity. Even now, weeks on from the peak of the flooding, I’m passing areas of what should be dry land shimmering with still water: tall grasses poking through, banana plantations made islands, date palms with submerged roots appearing to hover in the afternoon air like part of a magic trick. I use roads raised up several feet from ground level, so that from a distance the fields of fully-grown banana plants take on the appearance of a lawn.

The consequences of deciding to chop up one of Asia’s largest rivers into ‘controllable’ segments through damming was not the cause of this year’s floods – the worst Pakistan has ever seen. Even the immediate data has shown that climate change made them significantly more likely. But it has been catastrophic for the river’s ecosystem.

Not only does the mighty Indus sometimes run dry before it reaches the Arabian Sea, but it has also split the Indus river dolphin into six disparate populations which in total still only number around 1,800 animals.

Limited to around 20% of their natural range, the dams have stopped the migrations these dolphins used to undertake, and are creating a gene pool as stagnant as some of Islamabad’s sewers. These blind, air-breathing creatures are also at risk from noise pollution, competition for catch from fishermen and urban waste. The Indus carries some of the largest quantities of plastic of any Asian river.

Roughly one hundred years on from the construction of the Sukkur Barrage, we now understand the consequences of such decisions much better, yet governments in both Pakistan and the wider region continue to look at damming as a quick fix for growing energy demands.

However, saving the Indus river dolphin from the fate of its cousin in China’s River Yangtze, now believed extinct, would not just be a conservation project, but help improve the lives of those up and down the Indus river basin too.

Several people have told me how the flooding has helped unite Pakistan. The question which remains unanswered is whether international shock at their aftermath will unite world powers into carrying out the actions needed before similar scenes are witnessed much closer to home.

Revisit Ian Packham’s previous dispatches from Pakistan: 
Karakorum – The climate change frontline

New lakes form another risk in Karakorum

Is sustainable development possible?

The environment in Pakistan’s cities

Green shoots in Pakistan’s climate adaptation and resilience

Photos provided by Ian Packham

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