by Saher Baloch

image003As he was going about his daily chore of cutting grass for his livestock, 25-year-old Ghulam Nabi discovered “hundreds of dead fish” floating on the left side of the Manchhar lake near a wide patch of wild plants. Soon afterwards, he picked up 440 kilograms of the dead fish called daya in Sindhi.

On seeing him pull up his boat near the embankment with a heavy catch, many other fishermen also went forth to gather a large number of daya to sell in Hyderabad. The fish is dried, mixed with corn, rice and lentils, and then used as chicken feed. As they put it, “dead fish is better than having none at all”.

Eventually, reports started filtering in from the three union councils surrounding the lake — Shah Hassan, Chhinni and Jhangara — of the discovery of the same dead fish in similar numbers.

Three kilometres away from the shore, the lake seems lifeless.

The patch from where the daya were caught in bulk by the fishermen ten days ago still has a few remnants of the fish caught in between wild plants. After floating for a few more days, the dead fish will sink. The place reeks of their rotting remains.

Fishermen are the prime suspects. It is said they use chemicals to catch fish. But why would they bother when the entire lake is dying a natural death?

Eighteen kilometres away from Sehwan, the Manchhar lake gets its source of water from the Danister canal and the Aral Wah canal.

Pollution concerns were raised in the 1920s when the Main Nara Valley, or MNV, drain was remodelled to transport raw sewage from upper Sindh and parts of Punjab.

The lake is now a sad reminder of its past glory.

The main cause of its decline now is the drainage water from the surrounding Shikarpur and Larkana districts that goes straight into the lake making it unfit for drinking. The Right Bank Outfall Drainage project is also believed to be responsible for the ecological destruction of the lake.

However, a recently wrapped-up oil exploration project is considered responsible for the death of the fish in such large numbers. A spokesperson for the oil company working as a contractor for Pakistan Petroleum Ltd says they had “acquired the necessary approval from the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] before starting the seismic survey around the Manchhar lake. We didn’t drill in the lake. For three months we surveyed the west side of the lake covering 300 square kilometres”.

The EPA spokesperson, Munir Abbasi, says that although “oil exploration is going on in some areas of Sindh, a conditional approval is always required from the EPA before beginning a project. The approval was acquired in this case too”.

The irrigation and the fisheries department in their findings blame the death of the fish on the rising temperatures in the area — a claim refuted by the fishermen. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) spokesman says the daya fish was introduced in the Manchhar lake 15 years ago. It is usually found in the north of Sindh and survives in extreme weather conditions. “Based on that, this finding is on weak ground, otherwise there would have been reports from the north too.”

In an earlier project on the same issue, it was found that organic compound used to catch fish can be one of the causes of the deaths in bulk. But looking at the condition of Manchhar, it seems unlikely that people from the squatter settlements would use chemicals to catch fish, because in their case, the daya is their only source of livelihood.

General secretary of the Friends of Indus Forum Nasir Ali Panhwar says there needs to be a proper scientific investigation. Manchhar has experienced overall degradation for years. Fishermen are migrating in hordes. Local community or those not in the territory of the PFF are using illegal means to catch fish. It is still too early to assume and a scientific investigation is the only way out.

Meanwhile, Abro of the Sindh livestock and fisheries department says that according to their findings, “the water quality is okay and as for oil exploration we don’t know which company came in and drilled at the Manchhar lake”.