Alice Albinia travelled along the river Indus, tracking it through Pakistan, Ladakh and Tibet for her first book, 'Empires of the Indus'. An extraor
dinary journey, perhaps undertaken by a westerner for the first time, it reveals the many facets of the river. In a conversation with Meenakshi Kumar, she tells how dams are killing the Indus:
How has the river Indus changed over the years?
In major historical texts, the river is central. It keeps recurring in travelogues, historical books, scriptures as the mighty Indus. The British started damming it and later the Pakistanis did the same. As a result, the water has significantly decreased. In Hyderabad, Pakistan, you can walk across the Indus. It resembles a stagnant pool. The eco-system of the Indus delta has altered completely. Even the people who lived around the delta have moved out. There has been a mass migration out of the delta. The British didn't understand the nomadic kind of
agriculture which was practised by the people living in the delta. It didn't fit the British idea of viable trade. The mighty Indus is no more.
Is it a good idea to dam a river?
Not always. Mega dams have big problems associated with them. Among other things, they involve traumatic relocation of people and loss of generations of local irrigation expertise. In the case of Indus, which is a very silt-heavy river, they also do not last long. For example, the Tarbela dam is silting up and will be out of operation before too long.
Small hydroelectricity projects, such as those in Afghanistan and the Kalash valleys in north-west Pakistan, seem to me a very good idea, especially if local people have control both over the working of the dam itself, and the electricity produced. Similarly, irrigation channels, canals and natural irrigation channels are all sensible and practical ways of working with nature.
How has the landscape along the river changed over the centuries?
During my travel further up, i found the forgotten 18th century tombs of the Kalkhoras, who were the rulers of Sindh. They stand in the desert today but the frescoes reveal a different scenario - green fields and river full of fish. So it proves that once there was greenery along the river but the irrigation methods followed by the British changed it all.
Were you ever bored while travelling along the Indus?
One can never get bored of the river. It changes character as it flows, the landscapes change, and what's more, it brings tales, stories and songs along with it.