A senior activist and Siraiki intellectual (Vice Chairman Pakistan Siraiki Party) took the initiative to organize the ‘First Annual Sutlej Conference’ at a local hotel in Mailsi on 19th September 2021. Collectively attended by various local intellectuals and activists, the prime objective of this conference was to discuss the long term impacts of the post-Partition division of rivers belonging to the Siraiki region.
The complex context of this conference can be understood in the light of the Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan on 19th September 1960. Through the intervention of the World Bank and UN, this Treaty resulted in the bifurcation of waters of the headworks in India and the canals running through Pakistan.
The River Indus runs from mountains in Tibet, flowing through Kashmir, Pakistan and finally into the Arabian sea. Based on this Treaty, the water of the eastern rivers (the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) went completely under the control of India. These rivers primarily impacted Siraiki area in Pakistan because it relied on 23 MAF (Million Acre Feet) of water obtained from these rivers. In order to fulfill this deficiency of water, the Pakistan government worked on the Indus Basin Replacement plan with the World Bank. River Sindh was insufficient to fulfill this deficiency. Nevertheless, the amount of water in River Sindh was more than Jhelum and Chenab. The World Bank proposed a Dam at Mangla (to store nearly 5.4 MAF of water) which would cater to Upper Punjab as a replacement dam. However, the Siraiki region remained deprived of water due to the rivers being given to India which could not be supported only by the Mangla Dam. This is why initially Tarbela Dam was proposed so that it could facilitate 4.2 MAF of water which would cater Siraiki area (including Bahawalpur) via Chashma Jhelum Link (CJ) and Taunsa Panjnad (TP) Links. Thus, the Indus Water Treaty did not completely facilitate the region, nonetheless preventing it from drought and barrenness. These were Replacement Dams; the development Dams (including Kalabagh Dam and Basha Dam) were planned as a later project. Tarbela Dam was created in 1976. When Tarbela Dam was proposed, the World Bank had suggested 9.3MAF (instead of 4.2 MAF) which could largely cater to the Siraiki region. While the rest of the water was planned to be distributed to all the provinces. This additional water could also take care of the maintenance of CJ and TP canals. The non-perennial canals (canals that feed fields only during specific seasons) from Guddu Barrage in Sindh were made perennial (canals running through the year), which increased the utilization of water due to which a large area became impacted by salty (saim zada) land. Hence, this Treaty turned Sindh into the main river of Pakistan. According to international laws, the river running through all the regions belongs to these regions including the upper and lower regions. Due to its name, ‘Sindh River’ a general perception may be that it belongs to those living in Sindh province only; nevertheless, it is a shared resource for all the regions through which the river runs.
Furthermore, the Pakistan Apportionment Accord of Water 1991 was an agreement between provinces which coined a proposal for water distribution amongst provinces (and also for managing Kalabagh and Basha Dams later). Initially perceived as a positive step towards development in Pakistan, it is also criticized for its ambiguity by some observers. Nevertheless, the rules thrashed out through this agreement were not followed, practically creating a rift between the Sindh and Punjab (and primarily the Siriaki region) over the water issues. In this process, the Siraiki region bore the greatest loss being deprived of water as compared to any other area of Pakistan. The Greater Thal Canal project was announced as part of the Indus Waters Treaty planned in 1964 but it was never accomplished.
These facts resulted in the complete neglect by the government, furthering the deprivations of the Siraiki region impacted by lack of water resources.Various governments have neglected this issue which has largely impacted the agriculture-based economy of the Siraiki region. This has impacted the resources for cultivation and the future of the next generation due to the incompetence of the institutions. This lack has also resulted in the cultural responses including literary and creative inputs of Siraiki writers who frequently use the deficiency of water as a key symbol of Siraiki peoples’ deprivations. The conference is a reflection of this cultural and political response and resistance against deliberate marginality.
Siraiki identity, already challenged by the negligence of the established institutions and ruling elite, has been struggling for their political and constitutional rights in a so-called democratic state actively since the 1970s. Part of this effort is also the struggle to fight for their natural resources, including water. In short, the conference organized by Mr. Dahar on 19th September was a positive effort towards demanding a due share of water, the construction of new development dams and the completion of the greater Thal canal.
The lack of Siraiki representation in established institutions, for instance, those dealing with water issues (including, Indus River System Authority, Punjab Water Resources Commission and Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources) has resulted in a lack of empathy towards the residents of this region. This resulted in further marginalization of Siraikis despite their demand for the division of Punjab to carve their own province within the federation of Pakistan. A fifth province based on Siraiki identity and political demands may be the only democratic solution to secure their waters and other natural resources. This conference demanded the renegotiation of the Indus water treaty to be able to save the habitat and wildlife in the areas around Sutlej to save the future generations by dealing with this issue rationally.