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Why Has Pakistan's Mighty But Parched Indus Delta Caught UN's Attention?

CC BY-SA 2.0 / Muzaffar Bukhari / A small stream joining Indus river along KKH in Kohistan District near Dassu.
A small stream joining Indus river along KKH in Kohistan District near Dassu. - Sputnik India, 1920, 17.04.2023
The Indus River, the backbone of Pakistan, runs 3,200 kilometers in total and, if cared for, is capable of providing sustenance to everyone from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea. The river forms the world’s fifth-largest delta in the world, but over the last several decades it has been drying up, resulting in poverty and suffering for its inhabitants.
The shrinking delta of the Indus caught the attention of the United Nations during a recent event at a UN Water conference titled "Integrative Highland to Ocean (H2O) Action for Disappearing Deltas: Towards a UN Convention on Conserving River Deltas."
The need for a UN convention on river deltas arose when a group of international experts, academicians, policymakers, and stakeholders raised their voices for the need for global effort to protect the world's most vulnerable deltas.
During the UN convention, speakers and experts discussed Nigeria's Niger Delta, Pakistan's Indus Delta, as well as the Mekong, Colorado, Nile, and St. Lawrence transboundary river basins. Each one of these deltas support large ecosystems and communities, hence their degradation affects not just nature, but the economy and livelihoods of millions of people living around them.
The UN convention highlighted the urgent need for the world to respond to river delta protection, as some of the world's major deltas are dying due to the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation such as sea intrusion, sea level rise, droughts, depleting water flows, shrinking creeks, and others.

Why Are Deltas Important?

Deltas are wetlands that form when rivers empty their water and sediment into another body of water, such as the ocean or lakes. A river moves more slowly as it nears its mouth or end, causing sediment and solid material carried downstream by currents to fall to the river bottom.
The slowing velocity of the river and the build-up of sediment allows the river to break from its single channel as it nears its mouth, into a distributary network or a series of smaller, shallower channels called distributaries, as they branch off from the mainstream of the river.
A car crosses the Kowardu suspension bridge over the Indus River on the outskirts of Skardu on January 24, 2021. - Sputnik India, 1920, 03.02.2023
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Deltas are incredibly diverse and ecologically important ecosystems, because the sediment and soils around it form silt, which is rich in nutrients. These ecosystems also absorb runoff from river floods and storms (from lakes or the ocean).
Furthermore, deltas filter water as it slowly makes its way through the distributary network, making the water clean and rich in minerals. Not all rivers form deltas, because for a delta to form, the flow of a river must be slow and steady enough for silt to be deposited and build up.

Hence, countries that have a wide delta network have an advantage over those that don't, because deltas play an important role in trade and commerce. One example is the booming city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which sits on the delta of the Fraser River as it empties into the Strait of Georgia, which is a part of the Pacific Ocean. The Fraser Delta makes Vancouver one of the busiest, most cosmopolitan ports in the world, where goods from the interior of Canada are exported, and goods from around the world are imported.

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Similarly, the Pearl River Delta, sometimes called the Delta of Guangdong, is a heavily urbanized river delta in China. It is one of the fastest-growing centers of China's economy, in fact it is growing so fast that it frequently experiences labor shortages. To match this growth, thousands of immigrants from the Chinese interior settle in the delta area, seeking a better life and higher wages.
Deltas have a rich accumulation of silt, so they are usually fertile agricultural areas. The world's largest delta is the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in India and Bangladesh, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh sits almost entirely on this delta and fish, other seafood, and crops such as rice and tea are the leading agricultural products of Bangladesh.
The importance of deltas for an average person can be further highlighted by the fact that there is a type of music genre called "Delta Blues," which was developed by African American artists living and performing in the Mississippi Delta region of the Southern United States. A slide guitar is one of the standard instruments used by Delta Blues musicians, while recurring topics include songs of poverty and injustice. One of the most prominent Delta Blues performers was guitarist Robert Johnson.

Story of Destruction of Indus Delta

The Indus Delta is the fifth largest delta in the world, and just a few centuries ago it used to be over 1,000 kilometers wide, lush green and extremely fertile, nowadays it has somewhat lost its luster.
The delta forms where the Indus River, after completing a journey of over 3,000 kilometers from the peaks of the Himalayas, flows into the Arabian Sea, creating a complex system of swamps, streams, and mangrove forests.
A general view of swollen river Indus is pictured along with residential area in flood hit Sukkur of Sindh province on August 28, 2022. (Photo by Asif HASSAN / AFP) - Sputnik India, 1920, 28.01.2023
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There is an continuous battle in the Indus Delta between the fresh water of the river and the saline water of the Arabian Sea. However, since the late 20th century, following the construction of many dams and barrages, fresh river water has stopped flowing as forcefully as it used to, causing an imbalance in fresh and saline water and disrupting the delta's ecosystems.
In the districts of Thatta and Badin in southern Pakistan, sea water has eaten up almost 2.5 million acres of land, rendering it infertile. It is predicted that by the year 2050, the Indus Delta will be completely submerged.
Reports have suggested that dam construction and mismanagement of water by the government have greatly reduced river flows, causing the delta to shrink, and threatening both human life and its ecology. Due to the absence of flowing freshwater seawater seeps into the delta, destroying the soil and aquifers, making it unfit for humans, animals, and crops.
Last year, it was reported that around 1.2 million people from the Indus delta had already migrated to Karachi. But there is a risk of displacement of ~33 million Pakistanis residing in the delta region, with major livelihood losses, as today there are millions of acres of land where nothing can grow, and people are forced to remain only because they do not have the resources to migrate elsewhere.
A scientific report published by Pakistani and US experts on the Indus Delta in 2018 revealed many shocking discoveries, such as evidence that over the last two centuries, the delta has shrunk by 92%.

The report also highlighted that the Indus delta contains about 95% of the total mangrove forest of Pakistan, which provides shelter for migratory birds coming from Siberia. It also provides habitats and breeding ground for aquatic life such as the Indus pink dolphin, various fish, crab, and prawn. Mangroves are vital for mitigating floods and tsunamis, as they serve as a natural barrier and defense line.

Earlier, people living in the Indus Delta near these forests had multiple sources of income, ranging from catching and trading seafood to cattle rearing, so they were prosperous. Nowadays, mangrove forests are under threat due to a decline in fresh river water flow and seawater intrusion, which has greatly diminished aquatic life and people’s livelihoods.
Foreign Minister of Pakistan Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
 - Sputnik India, 1920, 06.03.2023
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To add to their misery, the groundwater of coastal areas of Sindh is no longer suitable for drinking or washing purposes, as it contains excessive amounts of salt. In the district of Kharo Chan, farmers marched 150 kilometers in a quest for drinking water. The report "Dying of Thirst" raised awareness of their pleas as they demanded the government pay attention to their struggles and find ways to mitigate the destruction of their home, the Indus Delta.
It was pointed out in the report that their demands did not gain any concrete results, because there is little understanding among the public or policymakers about why the flow of the river is important for the sea. Some scientists say that the delta is considered a wasteland among policymakers, hence it is imperative to educate and sensitize everyone about the significance of the Indus Delta.
There are many proposed solutions to the issue. One comes in the form of the construction of dykes and levees as in the Netherlands, where levees have been built to protect against seawater flooding. There should also be promotion of biosaline agriculture, encouraging shrimp and crab farming in natural water bodies, imposing a ban on overgrazing and cutting mangroves for wood. However, the most important solution is to realize the grandeur of the Indus Delta and potentially deconstruct the dams and barrages that prevent the natural flow of the river. The construction of the Sukkur Barrage (1923 to 1932) by the British, followed by the Kotri Barrage in 1955 and Guddu in 1962, squeezed the life out of the once mighty Indus Delta.

As pointed out by Dr. Hassan Abbas, an expert in hydrology and water resources, "One [solution] would be to rejuvenate the natural course of the river the way the United Kingdom, the United States and even Australia are doing by dismantling dams and adopting the free-flowing river model. In that model water, silt and other natural materials can move along unobstructed, but more importantly, it’s one by which the ecological integrity of the entire river system is maintained as a whole."

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