Reports from Khoj’s Weather Station at the 28th North Parallel for World Weather Network
‘Sindh sailaabon ki dharti hai’ my friend Ibrahim commented at the Moenjodaro museum. The text at the entrance attributed the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation to a series of great floods that had accompanied a major shift in the course of the Indus River. A worker at the museum pointed out his nearby village as we stood at the elevated height of the ancient city. More than two months after it had flooded, his village was still submerged. Just yesterday, we had been wading waist-deep through festering flood waters in Warah, trying to wrap our heads around the inconceivable scale of destruction. Have you ever seen a flood like this before? The elders recounted the dates of every flood they had witnessed with ease. They had always known when to expect it, they understood the cycles. And then, something ruptures, entropy. The cycles start to spiral, time tangles and the dates no longer make sense. Hamara system ab kaam nahi karta.
‘What is it that causes nature to lunge in this cataclysmic way?’, Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite asks in a 2005 interview speaking of hurricanes. ‘These are all aspects of that same original explosion.’ It has now been five months and the cascading crisis of Pakistan’s 2022 floods persists in its brutal unfolding. The water had surged from every direction: relentless rain, gushing hill torrents, bursting embankments. Where there were once homes, fields and villages, now: a toxic sea. In some places the water was 12-14 feet deep. For miles and miles, there was no dry land to rest. No dry land even to bury the dead.
Buildings and bridges crumbled to dust. Livestock swept away. Families swept away. The state, largely absent. Viral audio of a desperate farmer in Dadu asking the National Disaster Management Authority helpline to just bomb his village and end their suffering. Viral footage of dozens of men in Mehar piling their bodies together to block a bursting embankment. Real end of times shit.
But it was also just a beginning. The beginning of an unprecedented crisis that continues to ignite massive outbreaks of waterborne diseases, food shortages, widespread hunger and displacement, and incalculable death, especially among children. These floods were described in international media as one of the first major events to mark the arrival of a new era in the climate emergency: ‘apocalyptic’, ‘a wake up call for the world’. But this relentless rain, the melting glaciers, the crumbling infrastructures are all resounding reverberations of that same ‘original explosion’. The cataclysmic upheavals of colonial expansion, extraction and dispossession and the entrenchment of an ecocidal ideology that lives on today in our displaced, choked, poisoned water bodies and a relentless state with an insatiable appetite for disastrous and hubristic mega development projects. The false, frayed, fragile edges of colonial ideology and infrastructure coming so irrevocably, devastatingly, spectacularly undone all across our land and all we love.
Most of Sindh, the province I come from, was under water. Sindh is named after Sindhu, the ancient river that flows, expands, contracts across its surface. Sindhu gave birth to Sindh. It is a profoundly sacred and deeply revered river. The Rig Vedas were written at the banks of this river, and they mention Sindhu over 150 times: ‘For thy course Sindhu, Varuna tore open a path as you hastened towards flood’. Elsewhere: ’Waters, the worshipper addresses to you excellent praise… the rivers flow by sevens through the three worlds; but the Sindhu surpasses all the other streams in strength.’ This river predates the Himalayas. Through the massive geological shifts that birthed the highest mountains on the planet, the Sindhu endured and softly shored a path.
River worship is an ancient and ongoing tradition here. Our patron saint is Jhoolay Lal, considered by Muslims to be an apparition of Khwaja Khizr and by Hindus to be an avatar of ocean god Varuna. The devotees of Jhoolay Lal were known as the Daryapanthi: those who walk the path of the river. My friend, activist Arfana Mallah speculates that perhaps the reason why river worship is more entrenched in Sindh compared to rest of riverine Pakistan is our dry climate. ‘Hum darya ke liye taraste hain’ she says, in the language of a true lover. Another name for Sindhu, and therefore for Sindh, is Mehran. A name etymologically connected to Mehr/Mitra – the Indo-Persian diety of water and friendship. Mitr. Friend.
That the descendants of river worshipers now inhabit a political culture of which river defence is a central tenet should come as no surprise. The Sindhu is not only one of the most sacred rivers of the world, but also one of the most brutalised. Anti-dam resistance has been constitutive of and central to Sindh’s post-partition cultural and political identity as well as Sindh’s generally antagonistic relationship with the Pakistani state. In a dhaba in Warah I spoke to comrade Sartaj Chandio, a lifelong member of leftist party Awami Tehreek, who recently defeated a local feudal in elections. He remembered the early days of resistance against the Kalabagh Dam, a controversial project the state has been threatening to build on the Indus since the 1980s. ‘We are not particularly religious people,’ he said, ‘but we made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, and we swore upon the shrine that we will die to defend Sindhu.’
To die to defend a river. The language in which Sindhu is spoken of is often anthropomorphising: ye Sindhu ka rasta rok rahe hain, inhon ne Sindhu ko qaid kar diya hai. The poet Amar Sindhu (her name means eternal Sindhu) said: ‘Sindhu hamara devta bhi hai, hamari shanakht bhi’. It’s like the river, mitr, is a mirror. Our destinies are intertwined. After all, these spectacular infrastructures crowded all along the Sindhu’s path, drying, displacing the river, are the tools and the systems by which the state distributes life and death among us all. Dams and drainage canals like the LBOD (Left Bank Outfall Drain) and the RBOD (Right Bank Outfall Drain), funded by international institutions like World Bank and Asian Development Bank, were crucial faultlines in these floods, and are all infrastructures locals had contested. The destruction of the environment and the communities that inhabit it is not the collateral damage of these development projects, it is their very aim. But Infrastructures also end. These floods have left us all too aware of their fragile, feeble materiality.
The Manchar lake is one of South Asia’s largest freshwater lakes. Char means boundless, horizonless water. And Mann is one of those impossible concepts to translate – heart, soul. The boundless waters of the soul. Manchar is home to some of the most ancient fisher communities of Sindh, now barely surviving, and is remembered for its rich, aquatic ecology – a major resting point for thousands of migratory birds. But this ecology, the stuff of poetry and legends, has systematically been torn apart by dams, barrages and toxic effluent, and climate migration has reduced the population drastically. In these floods Manchar overflowed its banks so much that it became one with Hamal Lake 100 miles to its north.
I asked Mustafa Mirani, Manchar local and Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum activist: ‘What do we lose when we lose a lake?’ He said: ‘Jab ek jheel tabah hoti hai toh ek poori tehzeeb tabah hoti hai’. We lose a way of life, a whole conceptual universe. ‘Hamari bahut sari rivayaat theen magar hum un ko ab nibha nahi paa te’. We are no longer able to fulfill our traditions.
Manchar’s is an enchanted ecology. In my notebook Ghulam Mohammad Mallah of Manchar Bachayo Tehreek drew a map of the dozens of shrines located along the peripheries of the lake. The sacred geography is a kind of archive, dozens and dozens of portals into history, into worlds. And he hadn’t even gotten around to the shrines and saints inside the lake yet. At the urs (death anniversary) of Manchar saint Shaikh Dhaman Shah the devotees, this year mostly flood affectees, arrived as per tradition in boats. Fatima Majeed, another Fisherfolk Forum activist, once told me that boats are so sacred that Mallah (fishers) remove their shoes, some even do wuzu (ablution), before entering them. ‘Beda paar’ is the metaphor used to reach one’s (spiritual) destination, one’s maqaam: may your boat cross over, may your boat reach its shore.
The Mallah, too, is a sacred figure, a guide, a navigator to the divine. It is said that all Mallah are descendants of Noah. In Sindh it is the Mallah, not the mullah, who is the bridge and the medium between worlds. In sufi kalam invocations of the Mallah/Mohana are frequent: Bedi wara ada Mohana, Lal te thi wanjan (brother mohana, bring your boat, I must go to my Lal). Mann atkeya beparwah de naal / mintaan karaan mallah de naal. (My heart is entangled with an indifferent beloved / I plead with the Mallah)
The folk tale of Noori, the fisherwoman of Keenjhar who is pursued by the king Jam Tamachi in an epic tale of caste defying love, is the only folktale in Shah jo Risalo with a happy ending. Noori argues in the Sufi tradition of how love for the individual is simply a vessel towards true love: love for the collective. She tells Jam Tamachi, if you love me you must love my people, my community, my lake, my fish, my birds, my landscape. Noori teaches the alienated king a new mode of relationality, the boundless waters of the soul, intertwined destinies, wahdat ul wujood. The floods arrived as a reminder of what many already knew, had argued, had fought for: the waters are inhabited, the boundaries between self, land and water are mere illusion.
That day, still wet from the floodwaters of Warah, we visited the home of comrades Fozia and Seengar Noonari in Nasirabad. I had never met Fozia in person before, but knew her from seeing breathtaking footage of her rallying the women of Nasirabad every day to march across the city a year earlier. They were marching for the recovery of Fozia’s husband Seengar after he was forcibly abducted by the state for his work as an activist in the left. Fozia along with her comrade Abida Channa spoke of the relief work they had been doing as part of the Women’s Democratic Front and the complete absence of relief efforts from the state. Just weeks earlier the flood waters had flowed into the same home we were sitting in. Even now, across the flood affected areas, the first responders are the last responders. When the few NGOs and state initiatives that showed up to provide aid have packed up and left, locals, activists, are still working – mutual aid, collective survival.
Abida’s husband Naji Channa gave me a book – a recently published compilation of essays on the environmental martyr Nazim Jokhio. Nazim had been brutally tortured and killed in November 2021 for circulating footage of a PPP minister and his Arab dignitary guests hunting the beautiful, endangered Houbara Bustard. Despite its vulnerable status, the Pakistani state issues permits every year to royalty from across the Gulf, who hunt the bird for sport and for its meat which is said to be an aphrodisiac. Migratory birds like the Houbara Bustard are called musafir pakhi in Sindh, travelers. Traditionally, hunting or eating a musafir pakhi is haram, a deep violation of our traditions of hospitality. Arfana had explained to me, ‘hum un ki rah dekhte hain’, we eagerly await their return.
That day, across Sindh, people were mourning the death of Ustad Juman Darbadar, one of Sindh’s most beloved poets and elders. Fozia told us her toddler hates the sound of her sweet singing, as it reminds him of the long laments she would sing every night when Seengar went missing. But she still sang a song for us that day, for Ustad Juman Darbadar. This song is considered one of Sindh’s national songs, an expression of Sindh’s fundamentally revolutionary spirit. Ustad Juman wrote this song at the height of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy that had raged across Sindh in the 1980s against the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. After witnessing the murder of a young comrade in struggle, he wrote these words that people all across Sindh were singing that day:
This text was written in and through conversation with Ibrahim Buriro, Arfana Mallah, Amar Sindhu, Ghulam Mustafa Mirani, Fatima Majeed, Majeed Motani, Ghulam Mohammad Mallah, Taj Joyo, Leela Ram Kolhi, Chaman Lal Kolhi, Fozia Seengar, Seengar Noonari, Abida Channa, Naji Channa, Sartaj Chandio, Shahana Rajani, Anam Abbas and others.
Commissioned by Khoj International Artists’ Association. Khoj’s participation in World Weather Network is supported by the British Council’s Creative Commissions for Climate Action, a global programme exploring climate change through art, science and digital technology.