Home Conservation Field Reports Sutlej: A River Returns

Sutlej: A River Returns

October 2011: It was an amazing sight for me as I reached Kasur District on the Indo-Pak border in late August. After Indo-Pak border in late August. After 15 years the gorgeous Sutlej river had returned, full force, to run in its native course with around eighty thousands cusecs of water flowing in its bed. For most people, this was no more than a memory and they had long given up on it becoming a reality. People had freely inhabited the pond area of the river, cultivating crops and building houses. They simply did not believe that the river could come alive with such force.

But it did after India opened the floodgates of barrages and dams built on the Sutlej following widespread rains in its catchment area and released the water downstream into the Ferozepur Barrage in Pakistan. It was reported in Pakistan as a calculated move by India to divert flood waters to its neighbour but to me it was more like the homecoming of a beloved river.

The Indus Water Treaty

The Sutlej is among the three eastern rivers that were divided between India and Pakistan according to the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960. Under the IWT, all the waters of the eastern tributaries of the Indus river originating in India, i.e. the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers taken together, were made available for the unrestricted use of India.

For almost forty years after the IWT came into implementation, the irrigation canals in the south Punjab were fed by the waters of the river Chanab through Mailsi Siphon. Many new tracts have been brought under cultivation but the water supplies remain static. The small farmers got their water share reduced significantly amidst the rapidly shrinking water table.

A study by the Water and Power Department of Punjab in 2009 included South Punjab among the regions where the ground water, due to heavy pumping and little recharging prospects, had become unfit for human consumption and irrigation purposes.

According to the IWT, the waters of the Sutlej were diverted to irrigation canals in Indian Punjab but the river became more like folklore in Pakistan. People had cultivated cash crops like pulses, gram and wheat and reared livestock on the riverside for centuries but a drying Sutlej pushed them into the realm of extreme poverty. It is worth mentioning that the international law about the utilisation of the rivers says the upper riparian cannot use the waters of a river to the extent that it affects its flow pattern. There has to be a minimum flow in the river to keep it alive and the right of the riverside people has to be safeguarded. But in the case of the Sutlej, it was allowed to die completely and with it, the civilisation that flourished on its banks for centuries.

Rivers cannot be divided nor can they be possessed by anyone. The rivers are the miracle of life itself, the harbingers of true prosperity. The fate of India and her neighbours is intertwined with that of their rivers. We cannot continue to pollute, circumvent and destroy riverine ecosystems if we want to ensure our food, water and climate security.

Rivers cannot be divided nor can they be possessed by anyone. The rivers are the miracle of life itself, the harbingers of true prosperity. The fate of India and her neighbours is intertwined with that of their rivers. We cannot continue to pollute, circumvent and destroy riverine ecosystems if we want to ensure our food, water and climate security.

Flooding – a boon?

Article IV of the same treaty clearly stated that the excess water in the rivers would be diverted in the natural courses, “the use of the natural channels of the rivers for the discharge of flood or other excess waters shall be free and not subject to limitation by either party, or neither party shall have any claim against the other in respect of any damage caused by such use. Each party agrees to communicate to the other party, as far in advance as practicable, any information it may have in regard to such extraordinary discharges of water from reservoirs and flood flows as may affect the other party.”

It was, but natural, for India to discharge flood water in the natural channel of the river, only there was perhaps never too much to spare. This year the unusual rainfalls and consequently the large volume of water in all major rivers flowing from the Himalaya and Himachal Pradesh down to Indian Punjab forced the authorities to release excess water in the Sutlej.

On August 16, 2011, the Punjab government in India cautioned against the possibility of floods in some districts following the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) releasing excess water from the reservoir of the Pong Dam in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh due to heavy rains.

According to the BBMB in view of the forecast of heavy rainfall and excessive high inflows in the Beas, one hundred thousand cusecs of water was released from the Pong Dam in the Beas river. The Beas river is a major tributary of the Sutlej and as such the phenomenal volume of flood water in the Beas fell into the Sutlej, swelling it further.

The irrigation department of India also announced on the same date that because of continuous heavy rainfall in the catchment area of the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh, the water level at the 225-m. high Bhakra Dam markedly increased and touched the 1,658.93 feet (505.64 m.) mark on August 16, against its capacity of 1,680 feet (512.06 m.).

The flood waters were released in the Sutlej consequently and the waters entered Kasur district by mid-August. It is true that due to the flood water in the Sutlej cultivated fields were affected and some villages inundated but that was due to the fact that people had settled in the pond areas and started cultivation on the actual river bed. The dwellings around the river bed that were swept away were mostly traditional mud and straw huts that were used by the farmers and cattle herders in the area for transitory use. The houses in the villages were at a safer distance and built rather well on raised ground and remained safe.

The Indian authorities informed Pakistan 48 hours in advance before releasing water which was sufficient time for preparation. Inhabitants of the villages in and around Kasur were informed well in time and requested to evacuate the area, however most opted to stay in their homes as they did not foresee any imminent danger of inundation.

The flood waters full of alluvial soil have been a gift from heaven for the farmers of the area. It has been exceptionally beneficial for districts of Kasur, Okara, Pakpatton, Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Rahimyar Khan in south Punjab as it will not only have a positive effect on the crops and livestock but will also have a significant impact on the environment of the area. The flood would immensely improve the underground sweet water level and bring back the flora and fauna of some of the desert areas of South Punjab.

The release of sufficient water in the Sutlej is perhaps the most important issue in South Punjab. With Sutlej going dry the whole region faced acute water shortage. A case in point is Bahawalpur City in South Punjab where only 15 per cent of the population has access to clean drinking water from the government water supply scheme. Due to the lack of clean drinking water, diseases like hepatitis, tuberculosis, gastro-enteritis, malaria, cholera and other diseases are rampant. The under-five mortality rate is 170 per 1,000 and infant mortality rate is 111 per 1,000, which is the highest in Punjab. The ground water in Bahawalpur has arsenic in it which according to the international standards on drinking water is highly toxic.

It is extremely important for the people and wildlife of the whole region that the minimum amount of water necessary for the healthy ecology of the region be released in the Sutlej river throughout the year even if the IWT gives India the right to its unrestricted use. Priority must be given to the right of life to the river for the sake of the ecology of the whole region and our shared heritage.

Preparing for the future

Pakistan and India are inseparable when it comes to sharing the sea, sun and the skies and climate change affects both countries. Regional cooperation between India and Pakistan is a must for risk reduction due to any eventual floods in the monsoon season. There is still insufficient scientific evidence to determine climate change patterns with certainty but one thing is certain that information sharing, early warnings and preparedness to cope with natural hazards like floods could definitely improve their management.

This year, incredibly, the Sutlej has water flowing in it to the extent that because of the availability of excess water for south Punjab, the Irrigation Regulation Authority (IRA) has actually reduced the water releases in the downstream Tarbela dam from 1,25,000 cusecs to 1,00,000 cusecs and from 15,000 cusecs to 13,000 cusecs in the downstream Mangla dam on the Jhelum. This has enabled the authorities to fill the two reservoirs to their maximum capacity before the monsoon season is over.

For me it is proof of nature’s amazing ability to restore, re-establish and reconnect to the oneness of its being. Rivers cannot be divided nor can they be possessed by anyone. The rivers are the miracle of life itself, the harbingers of true prosperity. All rivers have a right to run in their natural courses and no matter what the strategic relations may be between India and Pakistan one thing is certain that the rivers that run through them will always symbolise harmony and hope.


After decades of conflict, could climate change be the binding factor for India and Pakistan?

With their large, primarily agrarian populations and relatively poor infrastructure systems, both India and Pakistan will be devastated by climate change. Irrespective of political problems, the two countries must work together to tackle this crisis or neither will survive the onslaught of irregular weather patterns, drought and natural disasters. The effective management of key common river systems is the first step in this struggle – ensuring that the “small is beautiful” principle is applied to the construction of hydro projects that benefit both nations. The current Indus Water Treaty should be discussed, contentious issues hammered out and changes pertinent to the new warming crises made as needed. The sharing of flood water data for the Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Tawi done in 2009 must be repeated on a yearly basis and a joint disaster management system would be a good way forward. The upcoming Kishanganga, which is a veritable environmental disaster, would be a good starting point for the two countries to reopen discussions on water usage strategy in the light of climate change. While each country has its own national plan on climate change, an India-Pakistan document, indeed one for India with each of her neighbours, is extremely important so that the issues of common resources, climate refugees and cross-border aid are addressed immediately.

The Sutlej rises on the north slope of the Himalaya in Lake Rakshas Tal in southwestern Tibet, at an elevation above 15,000 feet (4,600 m.). Flowing northwestward and then west-southwestward through Himalayan gorges, it enters and crosses Himachal Pradesh before beginning its flow through the Punjab plain. Continuing southwestward in a broad channel, it is joined by the Beas river for 105 km. at the India-Pakistan border before entering Pakistan and flowing another 350 km. to join the Chenab river west of Bahawalpur.


By Noreen Haider


Subscribe to our Magazines

Subscribe Now!
Please Login to comment