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Climate change and overuse is threatening Pakistan's main waterway

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Indus is one of the world's longest waterways. It snakes its way down Pakistan, and its canals help irrigate the fields that feed the country's 220 million people. Fishermen have enjoyed its bounty for centuries. But as NPR's Diaa Hadid recently discovered on an expedition down the Indus, climate change and overuse are threatening the river and the millions who rely on it.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The Indus Expedition 2022 team began their journey rafting down the glacial melt of the Himalayas, where the Pakistani portion of the river begins.

WAJAHAT MALIK: It was cold. Like, I was feeling it (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bismillah.

HADID: That's Wajahat Malik, a filmmaker who's been leading a team of environmentalists and adventurers. They want to raise awareness about the Indus, a river that's rarely traversed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

HADID: We meet at the tail end of their journey in the country's south. The Indus has long been a source of prosperity, but hardship seems everywhere. As we head to the riverbank, the first thing we see are men filling tankers from a pipe extracting water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

HADID: It's Nazir's turn. Like many people here, he goes by only one name. Bells on his tanker jangle...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS JINGLING)

HADID: ...To attract customers when he drives into a nearby town.

NAZIR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says people there don't have water in their taps, and demand is strong. It's been hovering around 116 degrees for weeks now. But this water is only for people who can pay for it.

We settle into rubber dinghies that the Pakistani navy has lent the expedition, alongside a few armed seamen for security. This stretch of the river has long been a redoubt for bandits and fugitives. I'm handed a life jacket.

How do I get this on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Give this to me.

HADID: Great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Slip your arms in.

HADID: We get going, and it's clear I don't need it...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MALIK: Send over, please.

HADID: ...Because we keep running aground.

MALIK: Look, the water is only, like, two feet deep here. So we'll have to drag the boat to the deeper channel and then go on to the other side.

HADID: Dams up the river have long reduced the flow to this lower stretch of the Indus. This year, there hasn't been much rain or snowmelt to replenish the waters - something scientists say will happen more frequently as the climate keeps changing. And as we motor on, we see another problem - pipes everywhere, extracting water. Many here are controlled by powerful families who steal it to irrigate their fields. As we navigate the boat back to a deeper part of the river, we hear gunshots.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

HADID: We just heard two shots, and the guards on our boats...

MALIK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...The navy guys on our boats have cocked their weapons. I'm crouching.

MALIK: We just got shot at by the guy over there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

HADID: Those guys there, yeah?

MALIK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HADID: We can see two guys are standing on the bank. They fired some shots earlier at the boat.

A gunman keeps his weapon trained on us as we motor away. The team think it's a bandit. Perhaps he thought we were part of an arrest raid.

We pass dusty mountains, scrub and goat herders. And it's so hot, we stop and jump in.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HADID: Malik, the filmmaker, and I stand in the water to chat. And he tells me that in Pakistan's 75 years...

MALIK: There are, like, about five recorded expeditions. There was the first expedition in 1952. The last one took place in the '90s sometime.

HADID: Some of it's geography - the river is hard to navigate in its initial stretch as it emerges through Himalayan gorges. Further down, there's dams that break up the flow. And yet the Indus is Pakistan's artery.

MALIK: I think there is a disconnect. There are not very many big cities along the river - and especially the urban population. So for them, a river is something which is, you know, away.

HADID: Far enough to not think about the river, but close enough that it's become a dumping ground.

MALIK: The sewerage of the cities and the towns, the chemical waste. We saw all these marble factories, and they were pouring all their junk.

HADID: Malik says this is why this expedition and his film is important.

MALIK: I want Pakistanis to know that river Indus - it's the lifeline of Pakistan. It gives us bread. I mean, it nurtures us, our fields. And, you know, it is everything to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

HADID: Soon afterwards, we trudge on to the riverbank, and we meet Abdul Rashid, a fisherman. He's repairing his net by the water. He's thin with gaunt cheeks. There's a few fish in his bucket.

ABDUL RASHID: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says he makes a few dollars a day, and he considers himself lucky.

MALIK: Most of the fishermen are jobless. They are hungry. They don't have enough food.

HADID: He says there's not enough water for the fish to thrive. And downstream, in the village of Charo, the canals that farmers use to irrigate their crops are mostly dry.

JABBAR RIND: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Jabbar Rind is a 75-year-old farmer, but he's now looking for work in the local bazaar for $1.20 a day because he can't plant his wheat, corn or rice.

RIND: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says he's got no choice. He's hungry. But across the road, there are green fields.

RIND: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Jabbar says a landowner hogs the only available water to irrigate his rice paddies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER PUMP)

HADID: Instead, the villagers hand-pump brackish water to drink. Jabbar Rind's nephew, Elmuddin, says they've long suffered at the hands of powerful landowners, but climate change is making their lives harder.

ELMUDDIN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: It's getting hotter. The rains come less often. And he fears his fellow villagers at the tail end of this damaged river will starve.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER PUMP)

HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, on the Indus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.