Who’s ‘turning off’ river flows in Pakistani Punjab?

The desert is swallowing up the plains of southern Punjab with alarming speed. The brittle stubs of the crops of just two years ago, poking through the sand in Yazman, are the only clues that this was until so recently rich, fertile land. Farmers who used to make a decent living here have quickly been reduced to extreme poverty.

We find Yar Muhammed tending to his clearly undernourished cattle. He tells us that half of his livestock have died since the water stopped coming. He used to grow wheat, but his fields have turned to dust.

“The politicians listen to us when they need our votes; they don’t hear our cries now – nobody does,” he says. “We pray to God for help, but I sometimes think the only solution is to hang ourselves.”

‘Water terrorism’

That this is happening in Punjab, a province famous for the five rivers that cross it, has shocked people here.

But close to Yazman, visiting one of the five, the River Sutlej, we find its vast bed dry and parched.
To the west, is the River Chenab. We find cows grazing along the centre of the route down which it used to run, a cloud of dust lifting around them. This time, at least, we do find some water flowing, albeit at a dramatically lower volume than it used to.

Both these rivers originate across the eastern border, in India. Many accuse India of diverting them.
It is an issue that has been taken up by leading politicians and also radical groups.

“This is water terrorism by India,” says Qari Saifullah Mansoor, from the banned Islamist organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. A group which India has linked to the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
“Our agreements mean India can use as much as it likes of some rivers, like the Sutlej, but not others, like the Chenab,” he says. “India is diverting them all.”

Canal gates shut

Qari Saifullah tells me he thinks negotiations won’t work.
“We need to try different tactics with them,” he threatens. “India will be responsible for the consequences.”

Not everyone blames India for the desertification of Punjab though.
Back in Yazman, we followed the dry, dusty water channel back from the land of Yar Muhammed, the farmer whose land we had found to be barren.

Just 15km (9 miles) away, we did find water, and plenty of it. It was in the form of a fast flowing canal, filled to its optimum level.

The gate to allow water to flow to Yar Muhammed’s land, and the farms of scores of other families, was locked shut, but some channels leading from the canal were open.

Getting desperate

It explained why some areas close by (including farmland owned by some local politicians) were lush and green with crops.

So there is still water coming into Pakistan, but a lot of it feeds the canal system here. That means the authorities can decide which places get water and which don’t.

In a large tent in the desert, we find a protest gathering of men, women and children from all over the area. They have all seen their water turned off, and their land turn to desert.

They don’t blame India for their problems, but the politicians and feudal landlords who they think are helping themselves to Pakistan’s water.

“One day, you will see, these quiet, poor people will rise up,” says Jam Hazzor Baksh, a campaigner leading the protest.

“They will become so desperate, that they will come to the offices of the people who are managing all this water, who are allowing themselves to be bribed and corrupted,” he says.
“They should challenge the people who are giving water to the influential people and not to them.”
The message from those who had gathered in the desert was simple: the Pakistani government should challenge India if indeed it is diverting water, but it also needs look at how it treats its own people.
The way water is distributed here now, they say, is unfair, and it is devastating lives.

Source: (wateen.net)
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