Haleji Lake, a Ramsar site in district Thatta that was once a magnet for migratory birds, is in the process of dying. Already under severe stress due to insufficient water inflows, Haleji’s fate has now been sealed by the Right Bank Outfall Drain which is being excavated less than 100 feet from the lake. Haleji and its surrounding marshy areas keep recharging naturally over time. But since the RBOD is unlined, water seepage from the wildlife sanctuary and the marshland will be carried away forever by the drain.
In clear violation of the law, no environmental impact assessment was conducted for this federal government project and the pleas of the Sindh Wildlife Department, which is strongly opposed to the scheme, have fallen on deaf ears. As this paper noted recently in its report on Haleji, most lakes in Thatta’s neighbor Badin have already dried up because of the Left Bank Outfall Drain. Many water bodies in Sanghar and Larkana are also dying.
Wetlands conservation is a complex environmental challenge. It is multifaceted and must take into account interconnected interests such as land and water use and rights, as well as livelihood security, and for this reason entails a highly integrated level of management. Since our track record has been abysmal in almost every aspect of conservation, it is necessary here to speak in relative terms. For instance, deforestation goes unchecked for the most part but, on paper at least, it is possible to fence off a national park and deploy wardens for its protection.
It would be a stand-alone project, if you will, with all energies focused on the internal threats facing the environmental well-being of a specific area. Wetlands are different. They may have specific locations on the map but are affected by events and activities hundreds of miles away. Freshwater flows may be plugged upstream in another province, and the sources of agricultural run-off and other pollutants may be similarly distant.
Politics comes into it too, for water is a politically charged issue. Wetlands are also difficult to protect through legislation alone. Provincial wildlife laws allow for the designation of protected areas but the focus is on restricting access to and use of resources — fish, wildlife, timber, non-timber forest products — within the protected area.
Wetlands, however, need a coordinated management approach that involves many other sectors including water management, power generation, agriculture and industry.Pakistan’s wetlands will disappear unless a policy is devised that understands the unique nature and requirements of these fragile ecosystems.