A recent study by a British university on 258 rivers in 104 countries has ranked the river Ravi among the world’s three most polluted rivers. It has detected high levels of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The active ingredients are emitted during the manufacture and use of pharmaceuticals and disposed of into the river.

Countless small and large industrial units routinely dump their chemical and medical waste into the river that flows through Lahore and other cities of Punjab in Pakistan. This finding highlights the deteriorating quality of life for the city’s over 11 million residents, roughly half of them young boys and girls.

It has not happened overnight. Decades of un­­che­cked discharge of untreated municipal, industrial and agricultural effluents and solid waste have chan­ged the Ravi into a massive sewer. As if this was not enough, a large quantity of untreated toxic waste­water from India enters the river through the Hudiy­a­­­­ra drain, according to the Pakistan Council of Rese­a­­­rch in Water Resources.

Quantity over quality

The effluents from the Pak­istani side have grown exponentially in recent years and are now in excess of 76%. As a major tributary of the Indus, the river Ravi is not a life-sustaining river anymore. Unless this trend is arrested and re­­­versed, there is no guarantee for the life of the Indus either. Pakistan needs to protect its ecosystems for life.

The mainstream discourse in the country on the Indus or the Indus Waters Treaty has always been biased in favour of quantity rather than quality. Pakistan is interested only in water and not in its rivers. Rivers have a right to life. But the country has seldom paid any attention to the ecosystem or environmental services that rivers and other waterbodies perform.

No wonder lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands that once adorned Pakistan from Gilgit-Baltistan to the Arabian Sea are under siege. These were once the mainstay of Pakistan’s freshwater ecosystem. The latter is comprised of three sub-systems – lotic, lentic and wetlands: fast-moving rivers and streams, slow-moving pools and ponds and wetlands or waterbodies where the soil is typically inundated permanently or for longer periods of time.

A well-functioning ecosystem once stretched along the length of the Indus. It served as the first line of defence against floods and had a self-cleansing mechanism through monsoon flooding.

The farmers benefited as floods brought sedimentation, bumper crops and prosperity. Two views have prevailed on floods: farmers welcome them and engineers want to control them through canals, barrages and dams.

The freshwater ecosystems are home to aquatic and other resources, but the wetlands are considered amongst the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems. They host a range of plant and animal species. Wetlands provide several ecosystem services: water purification, flood control and groundwater recharging.

Wetlands also serve as agents of carbon fixation, decomposition and sequestration. They help with climate change adaptation and mitigation. Wetlands are reservoirs of biodiversity and unless they are restored, Pakistan will be adding to its climate vulnerability.

Freshwater ecosystems have changed in Pakistan because of flow modification, overexploitation and destruction and degradation of habitat. Water pollution and untreated discharges from industry and cities, and the introduction of alien and invasive species, have further degraded them.

Rejuvenate the Ravi

Recent trends of extinction of species can be attributed largely to sedimentation, stream fragmentation, chemical and organic pollutants, dams and invasive species. Sindh is famous for many manmade lakes that serve as wetlands. Chemical stresses on freshwater lakes – Keenjhar, Haleji, Manchhar, Hamal and Chitiori – include acidification, eutrophication and pesticide contamination.

The river Ravi is to Pakistan’s Punjab what the Indus is to Sindh. It should not be allowed to die only because the rights over its water were given to India under the Indus Waters Treaty. Several options or tracks are available to policymakers to rejuvenate the Ravi and its ability to recharge groundwater for Lahore.

First, a canal infrastructure exists to flush the Ravi with water through the link canal. This can be done from Punjab’s water share under Irsa, the water regulator. Flushing Ravi can be prioritised instead of making it contingent upon the construction of any new city. Upstream infrastructural development in India has stalled the trickle that was previously available. Let’s wake up to a new reality.

Second, in many countries, artificial wetlands are built to treat municipal and industrial wastes or to divert stormwater run-offs. They also play an important role in water-sensitive urban design. While Punjab still needs to strengthen its environmental governance and curtail the dumping of discharges and effluents into the river, artificial wetlands can be constructed to treat municipal and industrial waste. This can presumably be done under the Punjab Green Development Programme.

Third, the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan has worked thus far because there were no serious challenges except for the highs and lows in political relations. Now both countries are challenged by climate change.

Indus Waters Treaty

It is estimated that there are more than 300 international transboundary water agreements and many of them have begun to climate-proof their treaties and agreements to suit emerging needs. It is in Pakistan’s interest to devise options for climate-proofing the treaty.

This journey can include:

  1. not allowing river systems to die by jointly devising flushing mechanisms,
  2. agreeing on flexible water allocation strategies, rather than sticking to static formulae for high and low seasons,
  3. ensuring flood and drought management to deal with water transactions as the monsoons change their patterns,
  4. Setting up a list of climate-induced water threats to craft shared responses under various extreme weather events such as cloudbursts.

The treaty has the provisions and provides space for proposing mechanisms to raise additional issues to enhance collaboration.

The Indus Waters Treaty is based on the assumption that future water supply and quality will not change. Adapting to climate change means that alterations will be needed in the institutions and policies that have existed since the Indus Waters Treaty was signed.

Given climate change’s implications for water resources, the Indus Waters Treaty should look at how riparian states can adapt to altered timings and the availability of flows. In Ravi’s context, this may be an opportune moment for India and Pakistan to devise a mechanism for flushing the river.

This article first appeared in Dawn.