From hominids to blind dolphins

The Indus River
October 27, 2000

This collection of more than 30 essays brings together edited versions of papers presented to the Indus River symposium hosted by the Linnean Society in London in 1994. Covering a wide range of topics, in three parts from the geological history of the river basin to the contemporary misuse of mangrove swamps in the Indus delta, they attempt to discuss as comprehensively as possible the biodiversity, past and present, of the Indus River and its basin. Subjects studied include environmental conservation and management, hydrology, geomorphology, geology, archaeology, prehistory and anthropology. However, there is virtually nothing on the contemporary demography, political organisation or economic geography of the basin.

In the last chapter, on "The historical geography of Indus basin management, a long-term perspective, 1500-2000" by James Westcoat, the point is made that river basins are rarely used to define political units, that attempts within Pakistan to promote an Indus River System Authority in the 1990s have failed, and that at partition in 1947 the headwaters of the Punjabi rivers were allocated to India. This suggests that the rationale for an Indus symposium may be suspect, and certainly the volume produced is a bit of a ragbag collection of disparate material. No doubt many of the contributors learnt a lot from each other, but this is not reflected in the chapters, which do not cross-reference each other. Indeed the significance of some of the chapters is to be found not in relation to the Indus region, but with reference to other issues. For example, in "The palaeolithic and Pleistocene potential of the Indus drainage system", Robin Dennell makes the observation: "The Indus drainage system is crucial in the unravelling of (the long-term history of humans): not only does it provide one of the world's most detailed, continuous and best-dated terrestrial sequences spanning the entire 8 million years of our evolution, but it is also intermediate between our two best records of early hominids - that of the Rift Valley of East Africa to the west, and China and Indonesia to the east."

The first nine chapters in the first section are nearly all on the delta, most of them concentrating on the state of the mangrove swamps. There are also lists of changing fish catches, diminishing shrimp and oyster catches, and comments on erosion and sediment, water quality and pollution. Much of this material is repeated from one chapter to the next. Justifiable concern is expressed about such species as the Indus blind river dolphin, now with sub-populations trapped in different reaches of the river between different barrages but encouragingly the subject of conservation programmes. The feel of most of these chapters is of alarm at environmental change, and they call for the restoration of the natural river regime to restore sediment recharge and water quality. To some extent the fear of change is curious, because so many of the remaining chapters stress the extraordinary dynamism of the basin and the massive changes that have occurred over geological, prehistoric and historic periods.

The eclectically arranged chapters include an examination of stratigraphic sequences to understand the age of the Indus system in relation to the Himalayan orogeny; a review of the geological basis for oil and gas exploration; discussion of the impact of the river on sea water in the north Arabian Sea; the past 40 million years of Himalayan geomorphology; and a debate on the possibility of offshore oil and gas. The third section is mostly about archaeology, particularly about the Harappan civilisation and Mohenjo-daro. It is suggested that a revolution in river transport enabled the Harappan civilisation to unite much of the Indus system and this allowed the development of the central metropolis of Mohenjo-daro, whose engineering exemplifies advanced environmental understanding. But in a return to geomorphology, Michael Harvey and Stanley Schumm suggest that the rate of tectonic uplift and subsidence is sufficient to override sedimentation rates, so that the former forces could change the course of the river on the plains. They suggest that just such a change brought the end of the city.

There is a lot of information in this book, much of it quite new. Not enough has been published in the West on the environment in Pakistan, so this represents a valuable addition. But it does not fit any contemporary paradigm about environment and sustainable development. It is a book about geology, geomorphology, archaeology and the cataloguing of biodiversity, probably worth more in its parts than in the whole.

Graham Chapman is professor of geography, University of Lancaster.

The Indus River: Biodiversity, Resources, Humankind

Editor - Azra Meadows and Peter Meadows
ISBN - 0 19 577905 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 441

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