No safe way foreword on Indus

On 18th July 2022, fifty people died when a boat carrying a wedding party sank in the Indus River near Sadiqabad. The general census that has emerged after the incident was that the boat sank because it was overloaded. In my view, the cause of these senseless deaths is something different.

On 21st August 2020, this newspaper carried an Opinion Page article about 10 deaths that occurred on Keenjhar lake which 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."

The death of 50 people in a single accident on the Indus is unforgivable. There are no laws that regulate our inland waterways, which is why people are dying on them. Boats are built without any safety standards. They are neither registered nor inspected. Navigation channels are unmarked and there are no rules of the road for boaters. Drivers are not trained, examined, or certified. Tourism is hazardous.

River front development cannot take place because of the chaotic nature of travel on Pakistani waterways. The private sector cannot invest or create jobs despite civil society and government agencies touting the financial benefits of water transportation for reduced transportation costs, fuel consumption, carbon credits and exports.

The world's most advanced economies, including the US, China and the EU have large networks of inland waterways, which allows them to transport products cheaply. Even Pakistan’s competitors in textile exports — Bangladesh and Vietnam — are doing better than us in this regard because their water transport networks allow them to move goods easily.

From 2014 to 2018 the Punjab government financed a pilot program on a stretch of the Indus from Attock to Daudkhel to explore the viability and benefits of transportation, tourism, waterfront development and ship construction on waterways. The project was successful, as confirmed by the Punjab government-commissioned Feasibility Study in May 2017. After its successful completion, the pilot project was terminated. The government did not introduce inland water transport up to Karachi, going against the recommendation from consultants in the pilot project.

The caretaker government declined to act as it did not consider developing a new project part of its mandate. When the PTI government took over in 2018, there was immediate progress. The Planning Commission studied and supported the concept and advised a line ministry to take ownership and propose a plan to the Cabinet. The Communication Ministry came on board and prepared their proposal in early 2020. However, the Covid 19 pandemic began soon after and the attention of the government turned towards saving jobs and lives in the name of public health. The Communication Ministry was forced to shelve the proposal.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs was observing the developments, controversies, and pushback against the project. In 2020, it commissioned the World Bank to study the subject to see if had merit and to propose a future course of action. The World Bank prepared its report by mid-2021 and presented recommendations to the federal government in February 20222.

The report said that the World Bank categorically supports inland water transport and associated activities on the waterways and “strongly recommend(s) developing a long-term, economically viable and sustainable IWT (Indus Water Treaty) solution for Pakistan.” It also said 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.”

Among its recommendation, the report said it encourages Pakistan to "Adopt a proactive approach to IWT market development with ongoing support programs in order to realize an IWT breakthrough." The World Bank noted that no federal or provincial ministry or departments were taking responsibility for developing the sector at present.

It therefore recommended Pakistan establish an Inland Waterway Authority at the federal level under the Ministry of Maritime Affairs for developing, regulating, monitoring, and standardizing IWT in Pakistan. In establishing this Inland Waterway Authority, it encouraged Pakistan to give the body a clear mandate that covers IWT policy formulation and implementation and regulation, monitoring and standardization of the IWT sector. This recommendation, which can be implemented at once with a negligible cost, is significant and will help avoid incidents like the one that recently took fifty lives on the Indus.

The decision by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs to commission a study on the topic in such a timely manner was a game changer. Skeptics opposed to developing our inland waterways have been given reason to shift their perspective based on the World Bank report.

Among the ruling parties, the PTI government has been most supportive of waterway development over the past three years. Before that, the PML(N) government in the Punjab sponsored the successful pilot project on the Indus, an idea initially approved by President

Zardari during the PPP government’s term. All three major political parties have shown some degree of support for this type of development, but bureaucratic obstacles have made the process slow. With the added support of the World Bank, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs may have more leeway to navigate the proposal for an Inland Waterways Authority despite systematic setbacks.

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 avoid needless deaths on the Indus.


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


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