The Indus machine —Majed Akhter

Being powerful does not make us immune to the fact that we do, ultimately, depend on Earth systems for nutrition, survival, and meaning. We should be cognisant of the incredible complexity of the natural systems we are attempting to produce

The main rivers of Pakistan, the Indus and its tributaries, have been intertwined with the region’s economy, geography, and identity since time immemorial. This river has been shaping life directly for over 4000 years, by way of annual flooding, and since the second half of the 19th century has fed the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world.

Aitzaz Ahsan, searching for solid ground in which a distinctive Pakistani identity could take root, named his book exploring the cultural history of the Pakistani people “The Indus Saga”. More recently, Alice Albinia, a British journalist, has explored the cultural and mythic importance of the Indus not only to Pakistan, but to the whole of sub-continental (and indeed, British Imperial) civilisation.

The Indus River System, aloof and indifferent for so long from the petty human empires and armies that roamed its shores, is now under threat from human social and political systems.

Perceptions of the relationship between social and natural systems have long been in flux. Nature has alternately been viewed as something to be worshipped, feared, understood, and exploited. Common to all of these conceptualisations is the idea that natural systems are external and separate from social systems.

In 2000, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and EF Stoermer rocked this scientific paradigm by coining a new term for the geological era in which human influence shapes the Earth as much as (or more than) traditional natural forces; the Anthropocene.

Almost a decade earlier, Marxist geographer Neil Smith wrote a path-breaking book describing contemporary human-nature relations in paradoxical terms as “the production of nature”. Smith argues that virtually the entire surface of the Earth has been produced by human society. Even the so-called remaining “wild” areas are wild by design. The few relatively uninhabited areas left (the Sahara, Central Australia, and Siberia, among others) are under increasing human population pressure, and are in any event not immune to the ecological fallout of heavily populated neighbouring areas.

The “production” of the Indus River System began in earnest after the British annexed the region in the middle of the 19th century, which led to massive modifications to both the physical and human geography of the region. Bringing arid and semi-arid lands under “control” of specialised water engineers and imperial administrators, the British envisioned a peaceful and stable agricultural haven from which they could draw troops and revenue with ease.

Millions of Punjabis from “surplus” regions were relocated to the newly irrigated lands to colonise them. The spatial ordering of new canal towns were carefully planned to provide a model of modernity to the rest of the country. Captain CH Buck, a geographer with the Imperial Administration working in the Punjab, wrote in a 1906 article that “a bolder irrigation scheme has never before been adopted” and unblushingly adds “…I think I may truly state that the eyes of the masses have been opened to the great benefits they are receiving under British rule”. And indeed, the Punjab has conventionally been held to have reaped enormous benefit from the irrigation schemes of the British.

Scholars of the Punjab, notably Imran Ali of LUMS, have however argued that the system left in place by the British administration formed a nexus between watered lands, the Army, and local influence that has to the current day crippled the political and economic development of Pakistan.

Today, the Indus River System is threatening to fall in on itself. The Indus is an allogeneous river, which means that it is fed from wet mountainous regions and flows across arid/semi-arid land. Allogeneous rivers are known for their ecological sensitivity, and vulnerability to a condition physical geographers call “neo-arheism”, which implies reduced, seasonal, or even completely diminished flow.

The irrigation system set in place by the British and expanded by Pakistan greatly exacerbates these vulnerabilities. Water-logging, increased salinity, reduced freezing capacity of glaciers, and the disruption of the nutrient cycle which links the river to the ocean all threaten to demonstrate just how short-lived the prosperity brought by irrigation can be.

While these problems can be characterised as stemming from lack of physical geographical knowledge during the design and implementation of irrigation systems, another class of problems arises out of political considerations of who has rights over the river and where. The dispute between Sindh and the Punjab over water is mirrored on the international level by the tension that has resurfaced between Pakistan and India in recent days over the apparent Indian plan to reduce the flow of the Chenab into Pakistan.

The technical committee of the Indus River System Authority (an agency, incidentally, that Sindhis argue is nothing but a puppet of Punjabi interests) said on the September 23 that a shortage of about 9 million acre-feet of water in the rivers, or 39 percent less than the projected need, will be faced by the Rabi crop.

The Indus River System, which can be seen as a giant concrete machine with gears and knobs that overlays and is embedded into the north-west of the subcontinent, gives humans unimaginable control over the region. This, unlike many environmental issues that unfold at a speed imperceptible to human observation, is an urgent situation. Alarm bells should be ringing very loudly.

As I follow the course of the Indus and its tributaries (and, of course, the canals, barrages, dams and reservoirs that are integral part of the system) across plains and through mountain cracks, I am struck by how powerful human society has become. Even the fact that I can view the system, from thousands of feet above, like an eagle, is testament to our power.

But being powerful does not make us immune to the fact that we do, ultimately, depend on Earth systems for nutrition, survival, and meaning. We should be cognisant of the incredible complexity of the natural systems we are attempting to produce. It is not helpful to say, “irrigation is bad”, because so much of humanity already depends on it. The long-term answer lies in greater flexibility of thought and administration when considering our produced natural systems. Perhaps we should be perceptive to the ways that natural systems can produce us, rather than the other way around.

Majed Akhter is an economist in Karachi. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 25/9/2008

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