Death on the Indus

On July 18 this year, 50 people died when a boat carrying a wedding party sank in the Indus River near Sadiqabad. As usual, a general consensus is emerging that the boat sank because it was overloaded. This is utter nonsense. The reason is very different.

On August 21, 2020 this newspaper carried an opinion article on 10 deaths at the Keenjhar Lake that stated: “it was a tragedy which should never have happened. Hundreds die every year on rivers, lakes, canals and other waterways across the country. Boatmen and administrators are widely (and unfairly) condemned. Enquiries are ordered; Reports are prepared and filed away. Nothing happens. Till the next inevitable accident, when the cycle of recriminations and enquiries is repeated. And yet the deaths continue". Where every single human life is sacred, the death of 50 people in a single accident on the Indus is unforgivable.

There are no laws, rules and regulations applicable to our inland waterways. That is the cause of deaths. Boats are built without any concept of safety. They are not registered or inspected. Navigation channels are not marked. There are no ‘rules of the road’. Boat drivers are never trained, examined or certified. Tourism is hazardous. Riverfront development cannot take place. The private sector cannot invest or create jobs. Massive financial benefits of water transport, including reduced transport costs, reduced fuel consumption and consequential reduction in the cost of importing fuel, cheaper and more competitive exports, carbon credits and openings of jobs for the youth, etc have all been emphasised by our civil society and the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The world's most advanced economies – the US, China and the EU – have the largest networks of inland waterways, which make their products cheap. Even our competitors in textile exports – Bangladesh and Vietnam – are doing better than us because of their cheap water transport networks.

From 2014 to 2018 the Punjab government financed a Pilot Project on a stretch of the Indus from Attock to Daudkhel to explore the viability and benefits (or otherwise) of transportation, tourism, waterfront developments and ship construction on riverbanks etc. The Pilot Project was very successful, as confirmed by the Punjab government-commissioned Feasibility Study in May 2017. After successfully completing its mandate, the Pilot Project was terminated. Consultants had recommended that the government should follow it up by introducing inland water transport up to Karachi in phases. The government did not include this in the project termination order.

The caretaker government, quite rightly, declined to take action as it did not consider developing a new project as part of its mandate.

Once the PTI government took over in 2018 there was immediate progress. The Planning Commission studied and supported the concept and advised that a line ministry should take ownership and put up their proposal to the Cabinet. The Communication Ministry came on board and prepared their proposal, by early 2020. Then disaster struck, in the form of Covid 19. The entire attention of the government was diverted towards saving lives and jobs. The Communication Ministry was, quite rightly, forced to shelf the proposal.

In the meanwhile, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs had been observing the developments and the controversies created by different interests (and the usual mafias) pitted against the Project. In 2020 it therefore commissioned the World Bank to study the subject and, if there was merit in it,  to propose a future course of action.

The World Bank prepared its report by mid-2021. They invited stakeholders to a Webinar. After taking their opinions into consideration, the World Bank presented its report to the Federal government in February 2022. The World Bank report categorically supports inland water transport (IWT) and associated activities on the waterways and “strongly recommend(s) developing a long-term, economically viable and sustainable IWT solution for Pakistan.” It noted that "developing IWT is socio-economically viable and is likely to result in major economic gains for the country as demonstrated by freight and passenger flow projections, multimodal transport cost modeling, multimodal shift potential estimation and simplified socio-economic cost-benefit analysis.” Amongst a slew of recommendations, it also advises adopting "a proactive approach to IWT market development with ongoing support programs in order to realise an IWT breakthrough in Pakistan."

The World Bank noted that no federal or provincial ministry or departments were responsible for developing the sector. It therefore recommended: “Establish an Inland Waterway Authority (IWA) at the Federal level under the Ministry of Maritime Affairs for developing, regulating, monitoring, and standardising IWT in Pakistan. Ensure that the future Inland Waterway Authority (IWA) has a clear mandate, covering (a) IWT policy formulation and implementation; (b) regulation, monitoring and standardisation of the IWT Sector". This is the most significant recommendation. It can be implemented at once, its cost is negligible and it is the only way that accidents like the one that took 50 lives on the Indus recently will be avoided.

The timely initiative of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to commission a study was a game changer. Skeptics opposed to developing our inland waterways have been given a clear ‘shut up’ call by the World Bank report.

The PTI government has been most supportive during the last three years. Before that, the PML-N government in Punjab sponsored the successful Pilot Project on the Indus. Not to forget that the entire concept of a Pilot Project itself was initially approved by then president Asif Ali Zardari during the PPP government. All three major political parties of the country have demonstrated their support. Now, with the added support of the World Bank, let us see how soon the Ministry of Maritime Affairs can navigate the proposal for a Waterways Authority through the labyrinth of bureaucratic obstacles.

The safety of its citizens is the primary duty of the state. While there are compelling economic reasons to set up a Waterways Authority, the most important reason is that it will save lives and avoid more deaths on the Indus.

Naeem Sarfaraz a mariner and a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer. Naeem can be reached at


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