Flood and Sindh politicians

Sindh floods (2)

To breach or not to breach Indus to save Sukkur Barrage

The most controversial issue which is going to haunt the people of Sindh and the federal government is whether the Tori Bund breach was deliberate or natural? And if the breach was a necessity to save the pressure on 78-year old Sukkur Barrage, then why it was not done at Ali Wahan, around 80 km north of Sukkur? Another dispute is that whether the Allah Yar bypass connecting Jacobabad and Balochistan should have been breached to save Jacobabad or not. Prime Minister has said that there will be an inquiry but people have no faith in such inquiries.

Sindh government’s Irrigation Minister Saifullah Dharejo had first admitted that the Tori Bund breach was made to save Sukkur Barrage. But now he has retracted. This statement came after feverish discussion in Sukkur among the politicians and the irrigation experts. One contention was that the breach is necessary as the old barrage would not be able to withstand the roaring water heading towards it. This contention was based on the fact that Sukkur barrage was not designed to take water over 1.2 MCF water. In the 1976 floods when Sukkur barrage was 34 years younger, it withstood the pressure of over one million MCF but only for about 40 hours and then the pressure eased. Experts now say “that this time the pressure of over a million MCF persisted for a good week. Had water not leaked out upstream through the breach the pressure on the barrage would have been more intense.” In spite of the breach some 80-90 km before Sukkur, the water had started leaking out along the houses of Bunder Road.

(As I am originally from Sukkur I can relate to this situation because as a child I have experienced floods in Sukkur in 1957. My family lived at a two minutes walk from the river at the historic Manzilgah Road. When the water table in the river started rising, it started oozing out from various place in our lawn and backyard. We had to run away to a higher place in the early morning hours).

Coming back to the Sukkur Barrage it must be noted it is not that healthy anymore. In 2005 it was found that three gates of the Barrage have developed huge holes under the base because of poor maintenance. An emergency meeting, which was presided by General Musharraf, where Lt. General Zubair Ahmed who was Chief of Military Engineering Corp was asked to make a presentation. He told me on telephone that he had offered to assist the Sindh irrigation department. But the General asked him to lead the repairs and finish in time to allow opening of canals on schedule. Insiders had reported that the army was given full control after the then Chief Secretary Aslam Sanjrani had informed the President that the irrigation department has neither the capability nor the capacity to undertake this work on a war footing. Lt. General Zubair said that as soon he got the go ahead he rushed a brigadier to buy the piles from Belgium. “We had no time to wait for following the normal procedures; the army spent the money from its budget which was later reimbursed by the government.” Now had the civilians tried to cut short the cumbersome procedures because of the emergency,” Aslam says, “we would have landed with the NAB,”

So irrigation experts believe that if Sukkur barrage had to be saved the price of the breach had to be paid. Now here is another contentious issue. The people living on the right bank say that this breach should have been made at Ali Wahan, which is at 80 km on the left bank of river Indus. They claim that the British had left a manual of Sukkur Barrage, which had indicated that in the event of high flood if the river has to be breached to save the barrage, it should have been at Ali Wahan. Now I have not been able to lay my hand on this manual, so it is all hearsay till it is dug out by some irrigation expert. These sources also alleged that Labour Minister Khurshid Shah and Senator Islamuddin Sheikh resisted breaching the embankment at Ali Wahan because they have their agricultural land and a factory, respectively, in that area. Khurshid Shah has defended his stand against breaching the embankment at Ali Wahan. In a television interview, he said that he was not in favour of any breach so it is not the question of choosing between the two. He also claimed that Tori Bund breach was caused by the flood and was not the decision of Sindh government.

PPP government critic MNA Ghaus Baksh Mehar told me that the breach at Ali Wahan would have affected less people and less agricultural land and the water would have flowed down to the desert dividing Pakistan and India. The Kot Diji site is on higher alleviation so the town on that side would not have been affected.

Another Minister Aijaz Jakhrani when contacted said that Tori Bund was not breached by the Sindh government. It was the second defence line of protection which was breached in panic by the irrigation department once the water started hitting it. He said that his main effort was to save Jacobabad, which has the population of around 350,000 and is the biggest city of the region. “It was to save this city that the water was diverted by breaking the Jacobabad-Balochistan bypass in Sindh, he explained. This by-pass was serving as an embankment. The water was already going to the other side by late midnight from above the bypass and from the rain water outlets provided under it. Here again Hobson’s choice was either to save bigger city or divert the water to a less populated area. But this has now become an inter-provincial and inter-tribal conflict point. Aijaz says that the breach of bypass has flooded some Jakhrani villages also. Former Prime Minister Jamali however argues that Sindh government shouldn’t have diverted water to his town to save Jakhrani’s constituency.

But senior journalists in Sindh and some officials say that the major reason for the flood damage to Sindh is the high level of corruption in the irrigation department. One source said that the department employs 16 ‘Baildars’ per 100 km to watch the embankments and report where they are getting weaker. The provincial government provides money for the upkeep of these embankments and de-silting of river and canal beds. But in reality this money is pilfered and that is the reason the irrigation ministry is the most sought after slot in the Sindh cabinet. As such floods, which come once in decades or rather a century their corruption goes unnoticed. Or, may be it is condoned.

The main argument against the Sindh government is that they had a full month between the flood hitting KP and water crossing the Punjab-Sindh boundary. They should have anticipated that before entering Sindh the other major 5 rivers join Indus in Southern Punjab, so the magnitude of the flood would be much bigger. They failed to prepare for taking the brunt of history’s largest flood and when it did it was handled inefficiently. Individual politicians played their role but organizational capability of the Sindh government was found lacking. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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