Is Pakistan’s water sector still trapped by colonial legacies?

When floods devastated Pakistan in the summer of 2022, some well-informed commentators argued that many of the problems with the country’s water management sector originated in the 19th century. A year later, others were still making the same point: Pakistan’s flood problem owes a lot to the continuing impacts of British colonisation.

Flooding is just one part of the picture. The legacies of colonial water management still majorly shape the politics, economy and environment of Pakistan. Here’s how.

The colonisers’ ambitions

When colonial officials looked at land in the Indus Basin, they saw huge potential. The wide plains of Punjab and Sindh could support thousands of square kilometres more farmland if only agriculturalists had the water. If cultivators grew more and grew cash crops, they could sell their produce in the British Empire’s agricultural markets and pay higher taxes to the government. So engineers threw barrages across the rivers and dug new canals, aiming to extract more economic value from the land.

Sindh is a good place to understand the lasting influence of colonial irrigation plans. The Sukkur Barrage, when it was completed in 1932, was one of the world’s largest river-control projects. In other parts of South Asia, the colonial state dug canals to prevent famine, but the barrage was supposed to make money. Land sales and agricultural taxes were expected to pay back the cost of construction and then turn a profit.

The Sukkur Barrage project had political aims, too. It was a time of rising anti-colonial nationalism. Sindh’s big landlords owned almost two out of every five acres of the land, which the scheme would irrigate. The provincial administration hoped that they would be too busy getting rich from new, more productive farmlands to think about challenging foreign rule.

The other three-fifths of the land was government-owned. The project’s colonisation officer, Hugh Dow, created a scheme for selling new farmland to favoured groups. He believed that Punjabi peasants, in particular, would be “loyal” to the British.

Pakistan’s leaders are well aware of the ongoing impact of colonial legacies on the global environment. It is time to link this international discourse to the domestic one, where British colonialism built a system designed to exploit the people and environment of the Indus Basin in pursuit of profit and political ends.

But the state’s ambitions were also grander than that. The barrage was linked to visions of modernisation, which saw changes in South Asia’s natural environment as the key to progress. The British had ordered the construction of dams and canals across the country, especially in the Indus Basin. Colonial administrators were so pleased with their ability to transform South Asia’s landscapes that even a technical document like the Punjab Irrigation Manual gushed that canal colonies in that province were “a bold and magnificent conception”. Taming the River Indus, as the Sukkur Barrage’s executive engineer said in 1923, would “convert a desert into a garden”. This belief in the benefits of large-scale irrigation persisted long afterwards.

When independence came, the new Pakistan government had a raft of colonial-era development plans filed away. Sindh’s government pulled out two: for barrages on the Indus at Kotri and Guddu. After making modifications, the government pressed ahead with building them. These new barrages were not only based on colonial plans; they were built for similar reasons, just with a national rather than imperial twist. The projects aimed at economic development, particularly cash crops, which Pakistan now needed to earn foreign exchange.

They also continued the modernist ideology of colonial-era irrigation development. In 1950, Khwaja Nazimuddin, Pakistan’s Governor-General, said that the Kotri barrage would turn hundreds of thousands of acres of “barren land” into “smiling fields”. He imagined “contented peasants reaping a rich and varied harvest”. The barrage would transform the river, the land and the people all at the same time.

The new element in post-independence imaginaries was to recast development as national instead of imperial. As President Iskander Mirza said in 1957, “In the development of any country the Engineers have to play a great part… The task of constructing this new Nation will mainly fall on their shoulders.”

The themes of labour and sacrifice stayed at the forefront of later leaders’ speeches about big construction schemes. When WAPDA constructed the Mangla Dam between the late 1950s and early 1960s, the project’s Chief Engineer praised the “great sacrifice for a pressing national cause” of the 90,000 people of old Mirpur town whose houses disappeared underneath the new reservoir.

Big dams went out of fashion globally during the 1990s-2000s. But enthusiasm for them has resurfaced in influential quarters, with China a new hotspot for supersized dam-building. In Pakistan, senior technocrats, political leaders and even the Supreme Court have recently termed the Diamer-Bhasha dam a national priority.

Unintended consequences

Colonial hydrology had material as well as ideological legacies for Pakistan, including consequences for the local environment. Intensive canal irrigation put far more water onto the land than could easily drain away. Some of the water sank into the soil and made fields too wet. Some water evaporated, leaving behind salt deposits. The crisis became acute by the late 1950s. In Punjab, waterlogging and salinity were so bad that Pakistan had to launch its first major drainage works, the Salinity Control and Reclamation Project, in 1961.

Around the same time, an international research team commissioned by the Government of Pakistan issued the Lower Indus Report. They found that cultivators in Sindh had abandoned one in every six acres of canal-irrigated land. The main causes were waterlogging and salinity.

The destruction of land was partly a result of poor irrigation system design because engineers either ignored the potential problems of drainage or thought the trade-off between irrigating new fields and waterlogging old ones was worthwhile. The drainage circle was also considered a punishment detail by many engineers since it had little professional status or political support.

The government tried various piecemeal approaches to managing waterlogging and salinity during the 1970s-1980s. In the 1990s, it changed tack and constructed the left bank outfall drain. The new drainage scheme successfully lowered the water table in some areas and returned land to agriculture. However, it was expensive to maintain and created serious environmental problems on adjacent lands. Pakistan today is still battling the downsides of an approach to irrigation which the colonial government originally sponsored.

The future

Global heating means that water availability in the Indus Basin will probably become less predictable over the next thirty years. Droughts and floods will become more common and severe. Climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution service found that warming, which has already taken place, most likely contributed to the intensity of rainfall that drove last year’s floods.

The colonial state’s modernist dream of “taming the Indus” will only get harder to execute, but Pakistan’s water planners still often see large dams as the solution to climatic unpredictability.

The future of people and the environment in the Indus Basin needs to be secured. Prominent scholars and activists have called for Pakistan to decolonise its approach to water. Adaptations like better local drainage systems and nature-based solutions, such as reforesting hilly areas, could do more to avert flood disasters than grand new dams. Agriculture must become more water-efficient. In fact, national-scale adaptation to climate change is imperative.

At the international level, Pakistani climate negotiators have played a leading role in arguing that rich countries should compensate poorer ones for the impacts of historical carbon emissions. Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman has condemned the “climate colonialism” of rich, historically carbon-producing nations – often former colonial powers that built their industrial revolutions on raw materials from their empires – which expect poorer countries to bear the brunt of adaptation costs.

These arguments show that Pakistan’s leaders are well aware of the ongoing impact of colonial legacies on the global environment. It is time to link this international discourse to the domestic one, where British colonialism built a system designed to exploit the people and environment of the Indus Basin in pursuit of profit and political ends. In today’s Pakistan, leaders and administrators could take an equally critical look at the legacies of colonial water management at home and go further in correcting some of the problems of the past.

Dr Daniel Haines

Dr Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, UK. He researches the history and politics of earthquakes, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.

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