I found this photo online the other day as I was researching the background of the recent flooding in Pakistan. I was interested to discover whether there were any archive photographs available online that showed the construction of the Sukkur Barrage in Pakistan’s Sindh province, one of the early 20th century’s most ambitious civil engineering projects. I found disappointingly few; even this picture is undated, and the only information I was able to find out about it is that it was printed as a postcard.
But my interest in the Sukkur Barrage and photos of it was borne out of both a recent visit to it, and a realisation that the barrage is not only a huge triumph of engineering, but also a huge symbol of the development challenges that Pakistan faces today.
As part of my job, I occasionally get to travel overseas, to document some of the vital humanitarian work that the UK supports in response to natural disasters. It was for this reason that last week I found myself in Sindh, one of the areas most affected by the worst floods in Pakistan’s history. Earlier this summer, the equivalent of three times the annual amount of rain fell in just a few days. The resulting flooding was as inevitable as it was widespread. More than a fifth of the country was inundated, an area the size of England.
While there, we passed through the city of Sukkur, on the banks of the mighty Indus river. It’s a bustling, dusty, sprawl of some half-million people – although that number has almost doubled over the last few months as hundreds of thousands of people, displaced from their homes by the flooding in the surrounding lowland areas, descended on the higher ground of the city. Some 200 vast tent camps sprang up within weeks. Although many people have now returned as the flood waters slowly recede, many thousands still remain, easily visible from the roadside on the outskirts of town.
Sukkur is famous for it’s barrage, a renowned piece of British engineering. I was able to pay a brief visit to it while I was there, and met with one of the engineers that controls it today. Formerly known as the Lloyd Barrage, after the then-Governor of Bombay, it was conceived in the 1890s, although construction didn’t begin until 1923, led by an engineer called Arnold Musto. It was finally completed in 1931. At 5001 feet long, it remains one of the largest barrages and irrigation systems in the world – and it’s importance in both the flooding and the future of Pakistan’s agricultural economy makes it both a symbol of man’s relationship with nature and an icon of development.
The barrage straddles the Indus at one of it’s narrowest points – although this in itself is a bit of a moot point, as the river is still about a mile wide even here. It’s certainly an impressive structure. Each of the 66 stone arches houses a 50-ton gate which can be opened or closed to regulate the flow of water. Upstream of the barrage are a network of smaller gates on either bank of the river. These serve as the entrances to vast canals, through which the river can be diverted, feeding an irrigation system that takes water to over 5 million acres of land. It’s a masterpiece of civil engineering that helped turn the lowlands of northern and western Sindh into the rice-bowl of Pakistan.
Amazingly, the barrage withstood the unprecedented amount of rainfall that poured down the Indus in July and August. There were nervous days though, as the river reached it’s highest ever recorded levels. A water flow rate of over 1.1m cubic feet per second was recorded on 10 August, far exceeding the pressure that the barrage was designed to withstand. In the photograph above, taken on 23rd August, by staff from a German NGO, Medico International (and found on Flickr), the water level is still extraordinarily high.
Of couse, the volume of water in the river over those days and weeks was simply too great. The river breached it’s banks in numerous places upstream of Sukkur. Perhaps these breaches helped to save the Sukkur barrage, but vast areas to the west of the river were flooded, with water reaching up to 20 feet deep in places. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, hundreds of thousands of acres of crops were destroyed.
Much of this land remains underwater even now, some five months on. It truly is a catastrophic disaster for the livelihoods of the rice and wheat farmers of western Sindh. They’ve lost this season’s crop, and possibly will miss the next as well; if the water doesn’t drain within the next few months, they may not be able to plant again for nearly a year. That will mean food shortages and hardship for many without a doubt. Large tracts of land may be unusable for years due the deposits of sand and silt left on top of them even when the water does finally recede.
But if the Sukkur Barrage had failed, the consequences could have been even more dire. If the barrage had collapsed, the only real means of recovering from this flood, of regaining control of the irrigation of the surrounding land would have been washed away with it for years to come.
Millions of people depend on the irrigated land of Sindh for both their livelihoods and their lives. Although the whole concept of artificially diverting this major water course may have had many unconsidered consequences at the times it was being built, the fact is that huge numbers of people have now come to depend on this system in Pakistan.
The Sukkur Barrage was refurbished in the early 1990s, with the intention of extending it’s lifespan by another 60-70 years. This behemoth of Victorian engineering has now so far withstood everything that nature has thrown at it (a detailed structural survey is now being carried out, see if the 2010 super-flood has caused any lasting damage). It’s durability is a testament to the quality of it’s design and workmanship.
But the recovery and sustainability of Sindh’s irrigation system and agricultural economy is crucial to the recovery and the development of Pakistan as a whole. The people of Sindh face a long road ahead of them in recovering from the flood, and they were starting from a fairly tough place in any case. I hope to blog again soon about some of the people I met there, and how they’re facing up to the challenge. But for now I just hope that some lessons can be learned from the 2010 floods, and that Musto’s barrage doesn’t ever have to be tested in quite the same way again.