As Pakistan’s flood surge travels south down the Indus River, it devours more and more villages, over half-a-million people have been ordered to evacuate their homes in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh. The World’s Jeb Sharp reports on the geography of the Indus River and its importance to Pakistan’s past and future. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: It’s hard to take in the magnitude of Pakistan’s flood, but it may help if you imagine the vast scale of the Indus River. It flows some 2,000 miles. All the way from Tibet down to the Arabian Sea. As The World’s Jeb Sharp reports, the river has shaped the region’s economy and politics for thousands of years.
JEB SHARP: If you look at a map of Pakistan you can’t miss the thick swirl of blue that denotes the mighty Indus flowing right through the country north to south. Geographer Daanish Mustafa of Kings College London likes to point out that it was Alexander the Great who apparently gave the river its name.
DAANISH MUSTAFA: It meant the sea in Greek. The name India is a derivative of the term Indus. India is named after the Indus. And the local name for the river is Sindu. And Sindu is the name that gave the name Hindu which is what the inhabitants of the land of Sindu are called, Hindu. Which came to be identified with a specific religion.
SHARP: It’s not every river that gives its name to a country and a religion. Mustafa says it also spawned one of the great civilizations of the ancient world.
MUSTAFA: Everybody’s heard about the Egyptian civilization, the Nile civilization, and the Tigris and Euphrates, and it had a contemporary civilization in the Indus which according to many archaeologists was just as advanced and sophisticated and as prosperous as the others. And had extensive trading and exchanges with these other civilizations.
SHARP: The river is the lifeblood of the region’s agricultural economy but it is also a source of tension, both inside Pakistan and between Pakistan and India. It’s ironic because without the river, Pakistan would be a much more arid, less populated place says Adil Najam a professor of geography and environment at Boston University.
ADIL NAJAM: So it shouldn’t be an agricultural country. The land in Pakistan is kind of like the land in Arizona. The only reason why it prides itself to being a breadbasket is because the waters of the Indus has given it the ability to irrigate this land. Pakistan has the world’s longest contiguous network of irrigation canals. All based on the river Indus.
SHARP: And while that irrigation system supports hundreds of millions of livelihoods it’s also blamed for exacerbating the floods. The volume of diverted water leads to a build up of silt and that impedes the river’s ability to absorb the heavy monsoon rains Pakistan experienced this year. Daanish Mustafa says human beings are arrogant when it comes to river management.
MUSTAFA: We think that we can tame rivers. We think that we can control rivers. We think that our science is strong enough to subdue the rhythms of great rivers like the Indus and this flood is a reminder that we really cannot.
SHARP: Mustafa and others want to see a major rethinking of how the Indus is managed. Adil Najam would agree management needs to be better but he worries that some critics want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
NAJAM: The irrigation system is in fact one of the great marvels of modern civilization in that region both in India and in Pakistan. The intensity of the flood has largely been, has been not simply because the water was so much, but also because up north we have done so much deforestation that a lot of the natural systems that would have managed this have been denuded and therefore the floodwater collected so much more in the north that by the time it came gushing to the south there was very little that good management could have possibly done.
SHARP: However the river shed is managed, experts say climate change means there will likely to be more of these extreme weather events and therefore more catastrophic floods in the future. For The World, I’m Jeb Sharp.
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