Floods in Pakistan are pushing toxic sea over the brink

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The village of Maula Bakhsh Mala was flooded by Lake Manchar for the third time last week. “What bad luck we have,” said the 68-year-old fisherman. “If the lake has no water, we will starve. If there is a lot of water, we will drown.”

At the end of last month, after weeks of heavy rain and flooding, Pakistan declared a state of emergency. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the rain as a “monsoon on steroids”. Earlier this month, satellite images showed a third of the country was hit by severe flooding.

Record monsoon rains and melting glaciers have led to flooding that has affected 33 million people and killed at least 1,314 people, including 458 children, said Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority.

And for people living around Lake Manchar, Pakistan’s largest freshwater lake, the monsoon has exacerbated an environmental disaster that has ravaged their community for a decade.

After years of living with a lake that is slowly disappearing while appearing to be silting up from pollution, the lake flooded last week and then burst its banks, leaving surrounding villages inundated and local residents stranded.

As Maula Bakhsh, who fights for fishermen’s rights and for the lake, put it, “We are drowning because of administrative negligence.”

Concern about the lake has been growing for years. Pollution investigations by Dr. Asghar Ali Mahesar from Mehran University of Engineering and Technology showed that industrial and municipal wastewater from Upper Sindh and Balochistan, as well as agricultural wastewater, have flowed into the lake, creating dangers for local fishermen and sea creatures. The villagers could no longer use the lake for drinking water.

Paryal Mallah, 60, has been fishing in the lake for decades. “There was a time whenever we threw a fishing net into the lake, the net came out full of fish, but now we don’t get enough fish to cover two meals a day,” he said.

Due to the shortage of fish in the lake, local fishermen’s income has dropped so much that they have no choice but to migrate, Mallah said.

Malli, 55, who lives on a boathouse, has had to take her family away because of the lake’s toxic waters. “We’ve lived through hard times, we’re forced to leave the boathouses of our ancestors to make a living,” she said.

More than 200,000 people used to live at the lake, according to the 1988 Pakistan census, but that number has since shrunk to about 3,000.

Local residents initially welcomed the rain in the hope that it would revitalize the lake, although they knew that only a government clean-up project would bring any improvement in the long term.

Aijaz Mallah, 35, said: “Fresh water from mountain streams in the lake only becomes a livelihood for three to four months. We want [the] government to take honest action to restore this lake.”

The lake was once a haven for marine life and home to nearly 32 species of fish including carp, catfish, tilapia, spiny eel and snakehead. Now only six species remain, according to Maula Bakhsh.

Fareeduddin Mustafa, the deputy commissioner of Jamshoro, a district surrounding the lake, said the majority of local residents have left the area while the rest have been advised to leave.

Mustafa said they would be housed in government buildings but locals say residents remain stranded, with many people homeless. They say rescuers don’t reach everyone.

Authorities are insisting that the water pressure be reduced and that the situation be brought under control.

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