Cost of Inaction

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Danish Bhutto

Change is constant, said the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, yet here it often takes a significant disruption or disaster for us to take a meaningful action. This tendency to wait for something to break before addressing the underlying issue is aptly evident in the case of the Sukkur Barrage. Originally known as the Lloyd Barrage when it was completed in 1932, this engineering marvel has been crucial for Pakistan’s agriculture, with the capability of discharging 1.4 million cubic meters of water per second. Despite its critical importance, it has faced numerous issues over the decades, often addressed only after severe damage has occurred.
The Sukkur Barrage is world’s largest single irrigation network of its kind, spanning the Sindh province from the Sukkur district in the north to the western districts. Its network of seven canals extends to 9,923 kilometers and irrigates over 7.63 million acres of land. The barrage’s retaining wall has 66 gates, each 18 meters wide and weighing 50 tons, underscoring its monumental scale and significance. Yet, despite its vital role in supporting agriculture and local economies, the barrage has suffered from neglect and a reactive approach to maintenance.
In 1982, the collapse of Gate No. 32 highlighted the risks of deferred maintenance, prompting the replacement of all gates between 1989 and 1992. However, history repeated itself in 2019 when Gate No. 39 was damaged, necessitating the emergency replacement of six gates yet again. These incidents underscore a troubling pattern: action is taken only when failure is imminent or has already occurred. This reactive approach is not unique to the Sukkur Barrage but reflects a broader societal tendency to wait for disasters before implementing necessary changes.
The financial and human costs of this approach are staggering. The Engineering Council of England, responsible for designing the Sukkur Barrage had already warned in 2014, that any damage to the barrage would not only make 62% of its command area unproductive but also lead to a 3.39% loss in the country’s GDP, totaling more than Rs413 billion loss. Current misplacement of Gate 47 and the damage sustained by other gates will displace thousands of citizens, destroy vast tracts of land, and cost government billions in repair and recovery efforts. Water supply to all canals originating from both the left and right sides of the Sukkur Barrage- namely Nara, Rohri, Khairpur East, Khairpur West, Northern Dadu, Rice, and NW Canal- has already been suspended until the damaged gates are restored. The damage done may never be fully remedied, and billions will be lost– leaving us to question, at what greater cost to our future? Currently, all gates of the Sukkur Barrage are being replaced through rehabilitation and modernization efforts under the Sindh Barrages Improvement Project. While these steps are necessary and welcome, they also highlight the persistent question: why must we wait for a gate to collapse or for a disaster to strike before taking action?
Moreover, it not only causes damage but also diminishes the significance of this critical region. The Indus River, running through Sukkur, holds profound historical and cultural significance. Historically, it flowed through the region known as Aror in upper Sindh before changing its path. Aror, a fertile region, served as the capital of Sindh from the fifth to seventh centuries, prior to Mohammad bin Qasim’s conquest. Remnants of Aror’s forts still exist today. The Indus River’s meandering course eventually led it to flow through the heart of Sukkur, a burgeoning urban hub in upper Sindh along its left bank, accompanied by its twin city of Rohri.
Sukkur’s political significance was evident in the undivided subcontinent too. During British Raj, Sukkur witnessed intense communal tensions when Muslims advocated for the restoration of Masjid Manzilgah, a demand that Hindus opposed due to its proximity to a temple. This disagreement sparked severe communal violence in 1939, resulting in numerous casualties and the collapse of Allah Bux Soomro’s government. With a rich historical backdrop, Sukkur boasts a diverse agricultural landscape, making significant contributions to cash crops, orchards, and vegetable cultivation. Its strategic location facilitates connectivity with approximately eight districts within a 30 to 45-minute radius, positioning it as a pivotal area for industrial development and enhancing the value of agricultural produce. This underscores the potential harm this region could inflict on Sindh and Pakistan as a whole.
The story of Sukkur’s agriculture cannot simply begin sans Sukkur Barrage, the crown of Pakistan’s irrigation network. It is arguably the lifeline of Sindh’s farm sector with 896 miles of canals, 758 miles of branch canals, 1,751.50 miles of distributaries, and 2,050.14 miles of minors. The barrage also feeds its share of water to Balochistan under interprovincial water distribution.
A proactive approach to maintenance and improvement could prevent many of the issues that reactive measures seek to address. Regular inspections, timely repairs, and the modernization of infrastructure can save lives, protect property, and reduce the financial burden on governments and taxpayers. Shifting our mindset from reacting to disasters to preventing them through foresight and proactive planning is essential.
In essence, the Sukkur Barrage is more than just an engineering feat; it is a testament to the region’s historical and agricultural heritage. However, its story is marred by a reactive approach to its maintenance, reflecting a broader societal inclination to delay necessary action until faced with crisis. Why must we always wait for harm to open our eyes? Why do we fail to recognize the ‘expiry dates’ of our critical infrastructure before disaster strikes? The reactive approach leads to unnecessary loss and suffering. By adopting a proactive stance, we can ensure the longevity and reliability of our infrastructure, safeguard our communities, and use our resources more efficiently. It is time to change our course of action and prioritize preventive measures over reactive ones, ensuring that the lifeline of Sindh’s agriculture continues to flow unimpeded and sustainably for generations to come.

The writer is a freelance columnist.