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Taunsa Barrage a Lifeline for Millions

September 8, 2012


Mehboob Ahmed and Fida Hussain collect fish at Taunsa Barrage on the Indus River. Completed in 1958, it required urgent rehabilitation to avoid severe economic and social impacts on the lives of millions of poor farmers.

Muzammil Pasha/World Bank

  • The 1,325-meter-long Taunsa Barrage spans the Indus in central Pakistan, diverting it to a vast irrigation network that serves 6 million farmers. It also provides a crucial source of drinking water.
  • Built in 1958, the barrage was in urgent need of rehabilitation, which the government of Pakistan undertook beginning in 2005. The World Bank provided a $123 million loan.
  • Local residents are thankful for the barrage and the new homes and facilities they received during the relocation effort. “We feel very lucky to have this new place, this new life,” says one.


MUZAFFARGARH DISTRICT, Pakistan – Each time Fida Hussain casts his nets, he feels blessed, not only because he catches plenty of plump, brown fish but also because the massive concrete structure at his back tames his part of the mighty Indus River.

Called Taunsa Barrage, the 1,325-meter-long barrier spans the Indus as it passes through central Pakistan, diverting its water to three major canals that, in turn, feed a vast irrigation network that represents a lifeline for 6 million farmers. It also provides a crucial source of drinking water to people in rural areas of southern Punjab.

Down one of these canals lies the wheat and sugar cane farm of Imam Bakhsh, 75, who says he no longer faces a five-month dry spell in winter when he was forced to draw water from costly tube wells for his crops. “Canal water is better available than before. This is very good for us,” says Bakhsh.

Because of arid conditions – annual rainfall is just 150 mm – about 80 percent of Pakistan’s arable lands and 90 percent of its agriculture depend on irrigation for crops in wheat fields and rice paddies, small vegetable patches and flower gardens.

As a part of this irrigation network, Taunsa Barrage was built in 1958 to divert water to 2 million acres of farmland. But in recent years, the structure was showing signs of decay and severe damage. In fact, it was feared if severe flooding occurred, the entire structure might collapse, causing massive devastation to agricultural lands, along with loss of countless lives and livelihoods.

The government of Pakistan decided to refurbish the barrage at a cost of $134 million, with support from a World Bank loan worth $123 million, and launched the Taunsa Barrage Emergency Rehabilitation and Modernization Project in 2005.

" Without this work being done, maybe we would have been swept away from our old houses. "

Izzat Bibi

Local resident

Refurbishment brings new life

Before construction and repairs could begin, about 160 fishing families, including Hussain, his wife, and two daughters, had to move. The families were living in two squatters’ communities on either side of the river next to the old barrage. At the time, many protested, because they feared losing a way of life they had become accustomed to.

“Initially, we were very worried. It was a real crisis for us and many families were upset,” recalls Hussain, 36, who lived on the left bank in a crude clay hut.

But their concerns were eventually laid to rest when the government resettled Hussain, his seven brothers, their families, and neighbors in newly built brick homes just 500 meters inland from the river. They were equipped with toilets, electricity, kitchen areas, and other features that most had never experienced before.

The community also received two new schools, two mosques, and a medical center. Many people were employed as laborers or security workers during construction. Families were given financial compensation for their resettlement that most used to buy new fishing boats.

“It was like winning a big prize for us,” Hussain says now. “We feel very lucky to have this new place, this new life.”

At his father’s side, Hussain’s son, Niaz, 8, continues the family fishing tradition but also attends school with his seven siblings. Niaz loves to be on the river where he sometimes catches a giant devil catfish or sees rare Indus dolphins, and during winter, thousands of birds from Siberia and elsewhere migrate to an island sanctuary preserved during the barrage rehabilitation project.

“This is a beautiful and special place to be with my family,” says Niaz. His newly married sister, Asma, 18, agrees, saying their ongoing proximity to numerous aunts and female cousins allows her to remain in a joint family, that does elaborate quilting and traditional basket weaving from river reeds.

Their change in fortune came just in time, says Hussain’s mother, Izzat Bibi, 65. Not long after the barrage’s rehabilitation came the severe floods of 2010. While the renovated barrage stood firm, thousands of acres of surrounding land were inundated by smaller channels that couldn’t handle the flow. But Bibi’s new brick home wasn’t touched.

“Without this work being done, maybe we would have been swept away from our old houses. We would only be fish food somewhere in the water now, with all the family destroyed,” she says.

Fellow fisherman and neighbor Mahboob Ahmed, 35, agrees. “Here we are much better than before, where we lived in danger on the river,” says Ahmed. “Without this help, we would now be even poorer, or maybe dead.”

Other challenges remain

All is not perfect, however. Experts at the barrage, like sub-divisional officer Faisal Mushtaq, say the repaired barrage can now withstand severe water pressure, but research indicates outlying canals could still flood if water levels rise rapidly again. 

“The flood season is approaching, and we may have to face these terrible problems once more,” says Mushtaq.

At the community health center built for the barrage project, much of the electronic medical equipment now lies disused and broken since floodwaters climbed almost two meters here in 2010. The government health department responsible for its refurbishment hasn’t supplied the funds, says the center’s doctor, Mohammed Shehran.

Still, Razia Bibi, visiting the clinic with her baby daughter, Aliza, appreciates that doctors and nurses work at the health center around the clock for emergencies and baby deliveries.

“I am walking six kilometers to see that my baby is checked regularly,” explains Razia. “Before, our people would have to go more than 20 km to get medical help. This big wall in the water has made our lives much easier.”