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Pakistan: Climate change threatens financial capital

Karachi threatened by rising seas and storms as coastal islands succumb to erosion.

Karachi Pakistan Climate Change
Pakistanis throng the popular Seavies beach along the Arabian Sea in Karachi on June 4, 2010. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

KARACHI, Pakistan — Saleh Mohammad trudged through knee-high mud, clutching onto the skyward facing roots of the mangrove that surrounded him.

“Now look at these ones,” he said as he vigorously shook the roots. “These are healthy. See how strong they are, and how dense the growth. If the island had this type of growth on that side too, it could be saved.”

He points to the west where, only a few hundred meters away a veritable mangrove graveyard is spread across an entirely different, sandy landscape.

Buddo and Bundal are twin islands just off the coast of Karachi at the southern edge of Pakistan, a city that rubs shoulders with the Arabian Sea. Islands born out of silt deposits from the Indus River, they were once, possibly only a hundred years ago — inhabited by the city’s chief fishing community.

Today, thanks to a variety of climate change and man-made disasters, the islands are gradually eroding — creating a potentially grave threat to Karachi, Pakistan’s financial center. The erosion of the islands, coupled with rising sea levels, could lead to massive flooding in the city, which resides below sea level.

The effects of climate change, in fact, are a growing threat for Pakistan as a whole, analysts say. Unchecked development and a lack of government oversight with regard to the environment has led Maplecroft, a risk analysis group based in the United Kingdom, to list Pakistan among the 16 countries at the greatest risk from climate change.

On first sight, it is difficult to see why the islands are worth a fight. Stray dogs that are sometimes rabid are the chief inhabitants. One side of the island’s beaches is strewn with garbage that washes up from Defence, the posh Karachi neighborhood. But a closer look around the mudflats reveals a healthy, if shrinking, ecosystem.

But development in Karachi, and a lack of government regulation to protect the islands, is slowly but surely destroying them.

“The islands are eroding at an alarming rate,” said Shahid Amjad, a marine biologist, who until recently, headed up the National Institute of Oceanography. He added that the islands and their mangroves protect coastal communities from sea disturbances, like the southwest monsoon, which rips into the Sindh coastline almost every year.

In addition to frenetic shipping around Karachi, unrestrained effluent pouring into the surrounding sea from the city’s main industrial area, Korangi, is also threatening the islands — not to mention the area’s fishermen.

“If they want to save the islands,” Saleh said, “they have to start dredging. But the authorities rarely think about the longterm, even if they want to develop the islands.”

The docks at Ibrahim Hyderi, the mainland fishing village in west Karachi, are a veritable force of life. Groups of men sit drinking tea and repairing fishing nets. Ice is hauled onto the boats to preserve the catch. Builders are working on new projects, either carving small fishing boats for shore side fishing, or larger trawlers, or large boats for deep sea fishing that are reminiscent of picture-book images of Noah’s Ark.

Here, the fishing community has remained poor and lives on the fringes of society. Illiteracy figures are high and many children tend to drop out after the fourth or fifth grade if they go to school at all, opting for an unpredictable life at sea.

In 2006, however, the community managed to defeat plans for a $43 billion luxury living complex that was to be built by EMAAR, a company based in the United Arab Emirates.

Diamond Bar, as the project was titled, was part of a larger 8,000-kilometer luxury development project called Sugarland City. EMAAR planned to build a bridge connecting Defence, one of Karachi’s poshest locals, to the islands by way of a 10-minute drive. Although an Environment Impact Assessment was passed, little thought appears to have been given to either the island’s ecosystem or the impact of the project on the area’s impoverished and struggling fishing community.

“This project would have had immense environmental and social issues because you’d have these luxury flats, and you’d have the slums of Karachi just looking at this huge development,” said Rab Nawaz, director of the Natural Resource Management Program at the World Wildlife Fund’s Karachi office. “I think it would have been war, having all this money next to a city that is just dying — water problems, social problems.”