Scrawled on the whiteboard in my home office is the phrase “moving water”. The phrase is Lissa’s. It seemed to capture the set of problems I’m trying to write about.
As the hydrologists among my readership can attest, water is an enormously powerful force that tends to want to do what it wants to do, mostly flow downhill and spread out. It is only diverted from that behavior by a significant investment of human energy. Our problems are often associated with the unintended consequences of moving water from where it wants to be to where we think we need it.
Pakistan’s extreme floods, which have displaced 20 million people and swamped a fifth of the country, have been made far worse by decades of river mismanagement, experts say.
In Pakistan’s wide plains where the bulk of the population lives, the rivers swelled by monsoons have been confined by levees, dams, and canals, in much the same way the Mississippi River has in the United States.
On Pakistan’s glacial-fed Indus River, the British started to build a system of canals and small dams for diverting water onto fields, when Pakistan was part of their Indian colony.
Since Pakistani independence in 1947, river managers have expanded the canal system. Now, instead of the natural flow from the Himalaya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, the Indus is diverted, piecemeal, east or west, wherever it is needed to support farming. Such river diversion is a common sight around the world as populations and food production boom.
These contrived river boundaries and tributaries in essence prevent the Indus River Basin from holding as much water as it once did during heavy and prolonged rains.
This is not to argue that the Indus should not have been managed for agriculture. As Inman points out, the irrigation system “has turned this arid country into an agricultural powerhouse,” and it’s hard to argue against the perfectly understandable motivations of the Pakistanis who made the choices that led to the current situation. But we do have to figure out how to manage these systems going forward, understanding the problems we’ve created for ourselves.
When I was interviewing Terry Fulp at the Bureau of Reclamation in April for my book, he asked me what the title was. I blurted out “Moving Water.” It may stick. It captures a lot.