An article by Jameel Junejo published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PAKISTAN: Destruction of the Indus Delta: A case of human rights

Jamil Junejo

Once the Indus Delta, a magnificent creation of the mighty Indus river, was the most prosperous, fertile and beautiful piece of land characterized by prosperity, agricultural productivity and soil fertility. The delta was such a vibrant and prosperous region where none experienced things like poverty. Livestock mushroomed, agricultural production boomed, fruits farms were plentiful, fresh water gushed and a variety of fish species existed. Thus, life and beauty in everything gleamed overwhelmingly. However, there came an unfortunate man-made turn of events that drastically decreased the flow of water into the delta and subsequently destroyed it. Owing to this stoppage of water into the streams of the Indus, farms were abandoned, crops dried up and salt poisoned the soil. As a result, the once richest area became the poorest, the once happiest became the gloomiest, the once privileged became destitute, and the artisans became artless.

Before the development of an irrigation system on the River Indus, the entire flow passed through Sindh’s plains to the Arabian Sea, culminating into 17 branches called creeks and forming the seventh largest delta of the world. An annual flow of over 180 Million Acre feet (MAF) carrying a silt load of about 440 million tons passed through Indus to the Arabian Sea. This vast flood plain area followed the course of the River Indus, extending 5 to 160 km. on either side.

Unfortunately, the stoppage of the water flow into the Indus changed the landscape of the delta entirely. It created severe human, social, economic, environmental and climatic crises which coupled together deprived the deltaic people of various human rights.

Water Crisis-Deprivation of Right to Water:
The deltaic people depended entirely on the Indus for potable water. The Indus used to fill the channels, creeks and lakes with fresh water which used to last for a long time. Secondly, the continued flow of fresh water kept on recharging ground aquifers enabling residents to draw water from wells. After the decrease in the fresh-water flow to the delta, 14 out of 17 creeks dried up. Channels, lakes as well as creeks have become inundated with seawater. The ground-water aquifers have become saline, thus depriving the deltaic people of their right to water. It is reported that ground aquifers have become salty up to 80 km inland.

One can easily imagine the plight of people without water. Life for deltaic people has subsequently become one of tough survival. A large number of people have been deprived of potable water .They are compelled to leave their homes often weeping with sad countenances. Of note, the Right to Water is a basic human right which needs to be serviced at any cost. The United Nations General Assembly declared water rights as a Human Right in 2010. In addition, The United Nations General Assembly, in December 2003, proclaimed 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action- ‘Water for Life’.

Taking all this into consideration, the deprivation of the deltaic people’s right to water unquestionably stands as a clear violation of a basic human right. Therefore, all concerned Human Rights bodies including the UN should take urgent notice of this issue so that the deltaic people might be helped to enjoy their basic and inherent right to water.

Food Crises-Deprivation of Right to Food:
The livelihood of the deltaic people revolved around the following three areas; fishing, agriculture and raising livestock. All these sources need fresh water to sustain them. In the past, the Reverine flow used to drag 440 Million tones of silt coupled with rich nutrients annually, sustaining agricultural land, including mangrove thickets -the breeding grounds of fish which require fresh water and silt to survive. Currently, the silt load has decreased to 50 Million tones annually. Before the decrease in fresh water flow, the deltaic people lived a prosperous life owing to overwhelming agricultural, live stock and fish production. Thirty- five years ago, the people grew rice, peas, coconuts, and fruits such as mango and guava. The region exported silk, rice and wood to countries along the Persian Gulf and in South-East Asia. Reportedly, the deltaic region despite being 3% of Sindh’s total land area had an agricultural production which accounted for 25% of Pakistan’s economy. But now, the people are living a life of acute poverty without adequate food. Seawater contamination owing to lack of fresh water flow has inundated approximately two million acres of land destroying agricultural land and leaving the deltaic people destitute.

Scarcity of fresh water has also put mangrove thickets at peril which are breeding grounds for various fish species especially shrimp. The mangroves are always in need of fresh water from the Indus coupled with silt for their survival. In contrast to need, an annual flow of over 180 million acre feet (MAF) carrying a silt load of about 440 million tons have been decreased to a negligible extent resulting in reduced areas of mangroves and extinction of various species of fish. So far, the mangrove area has been reduced to 86,000 hectares from 600,000 hectares, recorded some years back.
Besides, reduction of fresh water coupled with reduction of mangroves has resulted in a drastic decline in the fish catch – a main source of the fisherman’s livelihood. As a result, the deltaic people in general and the fisher-folk in particular are facing severe food crises. Such deprivation is a violation of the Right to Food, ensured in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by Pakistan in 2008, recognize freedom from hunger as a fundamental right. Therefore, the state of Pakistan is bound to take immediate and concrete measures regarding the discharge of 35 MAF of water down-stream to Kotri. It also becomes the responsibility of the UN special Rapporteur of the Right to Food to take notice of this issue.

Internal Displacement:
Internal displacement of deltaic people is another appalling offshoot of the scarcity of water. Ground aquifers have become salty. The residents have been forced into involuntary migration. So far 1.5 million people have been displaced from the areas of Kharochhan,Keti Bandar and Shah Bander to Karachi and other places. Displacement emanating from manmade factors depriving deltaic people from their Right to Shelter is, therefore, an issue of great import for the UN to take notice.

Extinction of Bio-Diversity:
A constant flow of fresh water and the mushrooming of mangroves in the past, provided for bio-diversity in the deltaic areas. But the drastic decrease in fresh water flow has badly harmed bio-diversity and marine resources. As a result, various fish species have become extinct. Notably, the production of Palla, which needs a mixture of fresh Indus water and sea water to breed and grow, has declined to a negligible level. The merciless extinction of fish species is entirely in contrast to the provisions of the UN Convention on Bio-Diversity signed and ratified by Pakistan in 1994. Therefore, it becomes a legal and moral obligation of the state of Pakistan to provide a safe environment for the existence of bio-diversity.

Keeping in mind the depressing picture of the status of the Indus Delta and the subsequent environmental, social and economic repercussions, the following recommendations for various stake holders are proposed:

• 35 MAF of water downstream to Kotri Barrage, as deemed necessary by the IUCN for the existence of bio-diversity, should be ensured;
• No new Dam or cuts on the Indus river should be made;
• Mangrove forests should be provided with immediate protection.
• A plan should be developed for the conservation of mangroves and for the environmental, social and economic development of the Indus Delta Echo-Region. The basis involving initiatives of non-government and government agencies.
• UN Agencies should take serious notice of human rights issues emanating from destruction of the Indus delta in order to make the state of Pakistan responsible with a response towards restoration of the Indus Delta and conservation of bio-diversity;
• Human Rights Organizations such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International should raise this issue at various governmental and non-governmental forums.
• The Government of Pakistan should launch a genuine initiative of planting mangroves along the coast.
• Civil Society Organizations should launch effective campaigns for restoration of the Indus Delta.
• Media houses should highlight the issue of the degradation of the Delta with new spirit and interest;
• Political Parties of Sindh should raise the issue not only on the national level, but also within an environmental and human rights perspective so as to win the support of international stakeholders and UN bodies.

Decrease in fresh flow of water into the Indus Delta has generated multiple crises. It has critically affected human settlements, agriculture, livestock and flora and fauna. All these repercussions together have deprived the Deltaic people of various Human Rights, such as Right to Food, Right to Water, Right to Work, Right to Shelter and above all Right to Life. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the state of Pakistan which has ratified various human Rights frameworks, to ensure the flow of 35 MAF of water downstream to Kotri into the Indus in order to restore life and beauty to the Delta. Besides, the onus lies on civil society organizations, media houses, Human Rights Organizations and UN bodies to pressurize the state of Pakistan. It must accept the demand of an annual discharge of 35 MAF of water downstream to Kotri which is the hope in all human, social, economic and environmental crises of the Indus Delta and its people.


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author:
Jameel Junejo is the Regional Program Manager(South) at Pakistan Fisher Folk. His email address is:

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-023-2011
Countries : Pakistan
Date : 10-06-2011