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Monday 2 May 2005
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PAKISTAN: Focus on the slow death of the River Ravi

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

LAHORE, 2 May 2005 (IRIN) - The River Ravi has wound its way through the western Pakistani city of Lahore for thousands of years. Yet on many days, the only living creatures seen by it are the kites that gracefully swoop down to collect chunks of meat, hurled by people standing on bridges spanning the river.

The meat given to the birds is regarded as a religious ritual by many, just as feeding sparrows or ants are seen as deeds smiled upon by Allah (God). There is also a superstition that anyone feeding the kites and crows at the Ravi will receive good fortune. This brings many to the river and also attracts vendors selling chunks of meat who set up their stalls early every morning.


The wide variety of fish that once swam in the Ravi have vanished as have the tiny minnows and crabs children used to catch in the shallow waters along the banks. Even the reeds that used to line the river have gone. The river is virtually dead even when the normally dry bed carries water, such as after the recent winter rains.

The life that once thrived here has been killed off by the dumping of millions of tons of toxic industrial effluent in the water along with huge amounts of raw sewage. As the river has died, so has a facet of life in the city of Lahore has died too. The hordes of Sunday picnickers, rowing enthusiasts and the amateur fishermen have all gone. So have the boatmen who used to ferry people to the Mughul-age vantage point in the middle of the river known as 'Kamran's Baradari.'

"The extreme pollution of the River Ravi has destroyed most of the 42 species of fish that once lived in the river, as well as the bird life around it, which has migrated to other areas. The survival of small invertebrates, micro fauna and flora is also threatened," a spokesperson for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Lahore told IRIN.


The Ravi is the smallest of the five main eastern tributaries of the River Indus. Throughout the history of the city of Lahore, originally built on the eastern bank of the river, the Ravi has played a central role in the local culture, mythology and traditions.

Under the Indus Water Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, control over the Ravi's waters lies with India. According to official studies, the Ravi is the most polluted river in Pakistan. Most wastewater discharge reaches the river in a 60 km stretch between Balloki and Lahore. The Ravi is currently estimated to receive 47 percent of the total municipal and industrial discharge pumped into all rivers of Pakistan. In addition, industrial and agricultural waste from both India and Pakistan pour into the river through the Hudaira drain, which enters the Ravi on Lahore's outskirts.

As the River has died a slow and painful death, the fishing communities that for generations made a living from its waters have suffered too.


"When my father was a young man, we caught an entire net full of fish every day. It was enough to sell in the market and to cook at home. Now, on many days, even when we travel upstream out of Lahore, sometimes we can gather barely a handful of live fish," said 54-year-old Muhammad Ehsan. He has been fishing since he was ten but is now having to turn to odd jobs as a carpenter to keep his family fed.

"Even then, on some days we can barely put any kind of meal on our table," he said. None of his three sons intend to become fishermen. The eldest has already moved away from the family home on the river bank to the industrial town of Gujranwala, some 150 km northwest of Lahore.

"He had bought a boat and tried to earn a living by taking people along the river for rides but now fewer and fewer people come to the river. There is too little water, and even that stinks," explained Ehsan. Other families have suffered a similar fate.

"The people from the city have killed this river that provided us with our livelihood for so many years," another fisherman called Qayyum told IRIN. Aged nearly 70, Qayyum travels three times a week upstream of Balloki to catch his haul of fish.

"Even this is declining as more and more raw sewage is poured into the water all along the river's length," Qayyum added.


The results of the pollution are clearly visible. Most children who swim, dive and play daily in the waters of the river, bear skin lesions, boils, rashes and infections caused by the water. The children add to the meagre incomes of their families by diving down to collect coins thrown into the water by passers-by.

One of the many superstitions surrounding the Ravi is the legend that anyone throwing money into the river will receive ten thousand times that amount. Judging by the glittering coins the children bring up from the river bed, especially after rains when the river is full, a great many in the city still believe the myth.

"Look at my son's back, " said Aziza, pointing to her ten-year-old son, Fareed, whose back and arms are covered in angry-looking pimples oozing pus.

"My father was a fisherman, and I married a fisherman. We played in these waters for years, swimming like fish and never had so much as a mark across our bodies. Look what happens to these children now," she exclaimed.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Pakistan, estimates there is an annual loss of 5,000 mt of fish caught from the river as a direct consequence of pollution. It has also found no life exists in the putrid water for more than 10 km downstream of Lahore. The discharges pouring into the river are almost triple the permissible limits set by the National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS).

"This river is probably now among the world's most polluted waterways," said Rehan Munir, a young UK-educated environmental scientist told IRIN. He grew up in an area adjacent to the Ravi, on the Multan Road in Lahore.

"Even in the 30 years or so of my lifetime, the water quality has deteriorated sharply," Rehan added. He now hopes to begin a project to clean up the Ravi, but admits it's a monumental task and he's trying to find sponsorship to fund the work.

There is also evidence that it is not merely the fishing communities that suffer. Some findings suggest that levels of toxins in fish caught upstream from Lahore are dangerously high. The poisoned fish are then sold in markets across the city particularly during the winter months. Smaller fish are crushed to make poultry meal and now, high levels of chromium, mercury and other toxins have been found in chickens and their eggs. These then enter the human food chain.

The impact on the local community of the pollution of the Ravi is immense. It used to be a source of life to the city that sustained both humans and animal life around it. Today the Ravi has become a river of death.


Other recent PAKISTAN reports:

Afghan census shows three million remain,  2/May/05

Ethnic bias hinders decision to return,  29/Apr/05

Country moves toward polio-free status before year's end,  28/Apr/05

Efforts to assist Afghan repatriation continue,  27/Apr/05

Water deficiency remains key issue,  21/Apr/05

Other recent Economy reports:

MOZAMBIQUE: Workers in the forefront of fight against HIV/AIDS, 2/May/05

UGANDA: Aid withheld over slow political transition, 2/May/05

NAMIBIA: BIG could be beautiful for the poor, 29/Apr/05

ZIMBABWE: Mining decline hits workers hard, 29/Apr/05

ZIMBABWE: Labour movement has little to celebrate on May Day, 29/Apr/05

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