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The disastrous redesign of Pakistan’s rivers

British colonizers created a massive canal system in Pakistan — and helped cause the country’s deadly water crisis.

In late summer of 2022, Pakistan experienced a devastating flood. An unusually severe monsoon season induced by climate change resulted in a third of the country being covered with water. Over 1,600 lives were lost, and the water took months to drain out of lower-lying regions of the country, causing disease and displacement.

On the flip side, Pakistan is among the most water-scarce countries in the world — expected to reach absolute water scarcity by 2025 if nothing changes. You can’t remove climate change from this equation, but an overlooked factor is the role that British engineering played in building water infrastructure along the Indus River and its tributaries, Pakistan’s sole source of surface water.

A series of perennial canals, dam-like structures called barrages, and embankments were built to extract as much water from the Indus as possible and convert much of Pakistan’s arid landscape into farmland. But this water infrastructure exacerbates the destruction of flooding events and creates a hierarchical system along the canals in terms of water access.

In our video, we explain the design of this water infrastructure and how Pakistan’s colonial past has made the country’s relationship with water even more precarious.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.

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