Fishermen in the River Indus delta in southern Pakistan offer rose petals as parts of a ritual for the restoration of Indus, as river water has stopped reaching in most of the creeks, and seawater is flowing upstream. Photo by Amar Guriro/News Lens Pakistan
KARACHI, Pakistan, July 6 (News Lens Pakistan) -- From its start in the Himalayas, the Indus River flows almost 2,000 miles to the Arabian Sea, ensuring there is fertile land for farmers along the way and sustenance for Pakistan's wildlife.
The river is in trouble, though. Its 17 major creeks, which in the past helped push seawater back, have almost dried up, allowing the Arabian Sea to flow upstream, poisoning the Indus River Delta with salt water and fouling farmland.
Meanwhile, sea levels are rising, swamping entire villages along the river and threatening a way of life for thousands of families.
"There were many villages in our area, which are now completely submerged and the residents had moved somewhere else," said Shah Murad, a fisherman in Sajan Wari, who lost his ancestral village four years ago to the rising waters.
Once the fifth-largest in the world, the Indus River delta stretches 130 miles inland and covers 16,000 square miles, according to WWF-Pakistan.
According to the 1929 gazette of the Indian government, which quoted a survey by the Indian Botanical Society, the Indus River Delta in the 1920s was equal to the Sundarbans, another important South Asian delta located in Bangladesh, in terms of area, variety of trees, diversity of fauna and flora and general ecosystem.
Since the 1940s, however, the Indus has changed dramatically, according to the Sindh provincial government's 2011 gazette, dropping in volume by more than half.
The delta has been especially hard hit, with researchers projecting it is only about 10 percent of its original size.
Satellite images from between 1979 and 2015, collected by the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, clearly show that "a vast area in the Indus Delta has been engulfed by sea," said Solangi Sarfraz Hussain, a professor at the Center for Pure and Applied Geology at the University of Sindh.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, which advocates for Pakistani fishing communities, said much of that loss in recent years has been due to rising seas. It found that 2 million acres of fertile land has been inundated with seawater, forcing 800,000 residents of Indus Delta to migrate.
Local residents say that until the early 1970s, the area was famous for bananas, red rice, sugarcane and wheat. Most of these farmers, however, have abandoned their fields and switched to fishing.
"Since the river water reduced, and seawater submerged vast areas, the lands became saline, which destroyed agriculture. We have no other option than to switch to fishing," said Subhan Bakhsh, a fisherman of Sajan Wari, whose father was once a famous grower in the area.
The government has responded to the rising seas with a proposal to build a series of levees to protect the remaining river communities. Local residents, however, say this does not solve the problem or help those already harmed by the seas.
"Levees are not a permanent solution to this problem. We need to restore River Indus," said Muhammad Ali Shah, who heads the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.