Before the Storm
Muhammad Essa sits on his boat, tied to a dock, near the Korangi Fish Harbour in Karachi. As the boat gently rocks against the current, he overlooks final preparations being made by his crew. They have to set out for the open waters once the sun sets. In the morning, they will sell their catch at the harbour market in Ibrahim Hyderi.
Essa has been a fisherman for over three decades; he knows these waters like the back of his hand. As a young boy, he would accompany his father to the sea, where he first learnt the trade. Despite modern intrusions, the fishermen’s methods have remained largely unchanged over the years.
But there is one development that has been worrying Essa lately: due to depleting mangrove reserves, there are fewer fish and shrimp to catch along the coastline. Fishermen are forced to go deeper into the ocean, working longer hours and risking their lives in their search for sustenance.
Essa squints under the harsh glare of the sun. “Some 20-30 years ago, there were countless mangroves safeguarding the coast of Karachi. They served as breeding grounds for fish and shrimp, as well as providing them with their necessary diet. Even our livestock fed on the leaves of the mangrove trees.”
The Indus Delta, where the Indus River flows into the Arabian Sea, is one of the richest natural habitats for an array of fish, bird, reptile, and crustacean life. The coast experiences high tide and low tide twice a day, within a six-hour-cycle. When the water recedes, it warms the surface, serving as a hatchery for fish and shrimp eggs. The hatchlings wait at the wet surface (swamp land) inside the mangroves. When the outgoing tide drains the surface, they are carried into to the mainstream.
Fishermen, environmentalists and activists have warned of the risks of diminishing mangrove reserves for years now. “I may not be an educated man, but I know about the threat of tsunamis and cyclones when the coast is cleared of vegetation,” says Essa.
Other than lowering temperatures, mangrove forests act as a ‘buffer’ against extreme weather conditions. For centuries, they have served as a natural barrier to protect the coastal settlements from inundation and soil erosion. They are the first natural wall – or first line of defense – against any kind of intrusion from the sea.
When he is out fishing, Essa worries about the safety of his family. “There are no artificial banks to prevent seawater from flooding our homes. Mangroves are a blessing from God.”
“Thanks to the mangroves, we reach the sea safely and anchor our boats on jetties. Otherwise, the large waves would submerge our small fishing boats,” remarks 22-year-old Ali Jutt, as he carefully navigates the water channels along the coast of Rehri Goth, one of Karachi’s largest and oldest coastal settlements. This is the path followed by most fishermen to reach the Arabian Sea: they cross the river’s calm, mangrove-covered water channels, before reaching the open waters — a journey that usually takes over half an hour.
Jutt adds that even a small-scale cyclone would cause heavy loss of life and property for the fishermen here. “We live in the shadow of our ancestors, we can’t change professions so easily. If we lose these forests, the lives of our future generations will be at stake,” he says, pointing towards the green forests — jutting just above the grey water.
Guardians of the Coast
Global Climate Risk Index 2017 listed Pakistan as the seventh most vulnerable country to the risks of long-term climate change. The country contributes roughly 0.34 per cent of global greenhouse gases, yet suffers disproportionally due to its diverse topographic settings — with glaciers in the north and the sea in the south.
Due to glaciers melting, vertical sea levels have been rising steadily. More alarmingly, the reduction of the downstream flow of river water and silt beyond Kotri Barrage (constructed in 1958) has led to an increase in horizontal sea intrusion — killing marine life and vegetation. The increase in salinity during the low flow periods has also reduced the fertility of the delta for the cultivation of rice, fruit and the raising of livestock.
According to ecologist Rafiul Haq, “54 kilometres of the Indus Delta has been engulfed due to the horizontal sea expansion between Keti Bandar and Shah Bandar.”
On the other hand, Balochistan – which has a very tiny deltaic area – has three small pockets that have mangroves up to a few thousand hectares, which thrive due to the seasonal flow of rain water in Somiani, Gwadar and Pasni areas.
“The River Indus once had 17 mouths (creeks), which were sources of fresh water. Only one (Khobar Creek) is active now, from where freshwater flows into the sea,” says Haq.
Prior to the construction of dams and barrages (the Sukkur Barrage was built in the 1930s), there were eight species of mangroves. Only four species have survived into the 21st century: Avicennia marina (85 per cent), Rhizophora mucronata (13 per cent), Ceriops tagal (1 per cent) and Aegiceras corniculatum (1 per cent).
“The delta is spread over an area of 600,000 hectares, out of which mangrove forests cover an area of 164,000 hectares,” says Haq. But this figure is disputed, with some experts presenting a much more dismal reality (70,000 hectares) and others a far more optimistic one (250,000 hectares). Remote sensing is an expensive exercise, so is not conducted on a regular basis.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has led large-scale mangrove plantation drives in Sindh and Balochistan, claims 182,000 hectares of land are covered by mangrove forests, according to a survey it conducted in 2002.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) identified 107,000 hectares of mangrove forests through satellite images. This was a drastic improvement from its previous survey in 1992, which revealed that only 82,000 hectares of land in Sindh were covered by mangroves.
According to Haq, Karachi is covered with less than three per cent vegetation, which is alarming for a city of its size. “If a single human being requires around eight trees for oxygen, a megacity like Karachi, with a population of around 20 million, would ideally require 160 million trees.”
Mangroves are known to be one of the highest sequesters of carbon dioxide and an immediate source of oxygen: the south-west wind that blows for nine months in Karachi transports oxygen from the mangrove forests to the city’s residents.
One of the more recent example consequences of deforestation was the heatwave that engulfed Karachi in the summer of 2015, resulting in the death of over 1,200 people.
“We have discussions on water scarcity and electricity shortages, but we rarely speak about the diminishing sources of oxygen from our cities. And the situation may worsen in the coming years,” Haq warns.
But the ecologist remains optimistic. “Until the 1990s, there was no serious monitoring mechanism in place to overlook deforestation. Now, the Sindh Forest Department is working to control the loss of cutting down mangrove trees.”
In 2013, the department gave mangroves the status of ‘protected’ forests — regardless of whose jurisdiction they fall under. However, there seems to be some confusion about the department’s exact role and authority.
The most recent example of this uncertainty was demonstrated at a public hearing on September 20, 2017. Officials from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and Sindh Forest Department were unable to respond to questions about whether a no-objection certificate was required for the cutting down of 882 mangroves to make way for an LNG project at Hafeez Island. The proposed project fell under the jurisdiction of Port Qasim Authority (PQA).
“The forest department has to be taken on board before any changes are made to the areas covered by mangroves, but that does not mean it has been put into practice yet,” Haq explains. “Mangroves that come under the control of PQA and Karachi Port Trust (KPT) are the most vulnerable.”
Sindh Forest Department conservator, Riaz Wagan, clarifies that only mangroves in the ‘east coast’ (from east Phitti Creek to Sir Creek) fall under the department’s direct jurisdiction. Mangroves on the ‘west coast’ (from the border of Balochistan till west Phitti Creek) fall under the control of private bodies such as KPT, PQA, Defence Housing Authority (DHA), Karachi Development Authority (KDA) and Pakistan Navy.
Wagan believes that the destruction of mangrove forests has taken place over the past 20 years, but replanting efforts by the forest department has reversed some of the damage. The forest department also regulates the chopping of trees for timber by engaging local communities in the coastal settlements.
In 2009, the ministry of environment broke a Guinness World Record by planting of 541,176 saplings in Keti Bandar, Thatta.
“We are planting mangroves on 10,000 to 15,000 hectares of land, which means 10 to 15 million saplings are planted every year, for the past five years,” says Wagan. “If we consider 80 per cent survival rate, that means 8 to 10 million saplings grow each year.”
The conservator explains that one hectare of land consists of 2.5 acres; 1,111 saplings are planted at a distance of 3x3 feet, at a cost of around 9,000 rupees per hectare. An additional 120 rupees (per hectare) is required each year for the maintenance and protection of the plantation for up to three to five years, after which the mangroves become self-reliant.
It takes 10 years for the development of an ecosystem once the plantation is carried out; and 20 years for mangrove trees to mature, which can then go on to live 50-60 years. However, the decay starts after 30 years, when the tree begins to hollow from the inside and dries up due to the salinity in the water.
Despite its efforts, the forest department does not have the authority to carry out plantation drives in areas that do not fall under its jurisdiction in the west coast of Sindh. “Certain establishments reclaim land for their housing projects, cutting down natural mangrove forests, which have been reduced to an area of 2,000 hectares,” Wagan grimly adds.
Big Fish/Small Fry
When he is not at a protest or conference, Muhammad Ali Shah is usually found inside his office – the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) – in Ibrahim Hyderi. And he is usually seen engrossed in conversation, a book or a newspaper; behind a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles, wearing his trademark white shalwar kameez and flip flops. Currently, he is in the midst of research for a book he wants to write on the River Indus — “the lifeline of the country”.
Shah has been struggling for the rights of fishermen since 1994, when he co-founded PFF, to counter the lack of national representation for the fishing community. In 1998, he set up PFF’s headquarters in Ibrahim Hyderi, which now boasts over 100,000 members.
In 2004, PFF triumphed against the “illegal occupation” of Sindh Rangers after four years of peaceful demonstrations, hunger-strikes and sit-ins in front of various press clubs. Prior to PFF’s agitation, fishermen were bound to sell their catch at low rates to contractors designated by the paramilitary force (since 1977).
Shah has dedicated his life to improving the working conditions of one of the country’s most vulnerable labour forces. So, naturally, he is troubled by the rate of declining mangrove forests. According to him, there are two self-interested agencies which have contributed to the demise of the forests: the land grabbers and the timber mafia, comprising individuals from the government, semi-government and corporate sectors.
“Institutionalised land-grabbers such as DHA have reclaimed land and destroyed thousands of hectares of mangrove cover. PQA has also played a part in the destruction through its various coal and thermal power projects,” he says. Meanwhile, the timber mafia continues to cut down trees for capital: The boilers set up in various factories run on the relatively inexpensive wood of mangroves, for example.
“But the destruction of mangroves is like wiping out the factories of lungs for the residents of Karachi,” Shah warns. He believes that the government focuses less on conservation and more on plantation, which is not the right policy to adopt.
Seeds of Resistance
Even the crisp, cold winter air could not stop Abdul Ghani from sweating, as he rushed into the Sindh High Court on February 11, 2011. The 42-year-old environmental activist clutched a bundle of papers under his arm. These were crucial documents: damning evidence to suggest an environmental catastrophe was incoming, with a list of powerful names involved.
As President of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Development Organisation (FDO) and General Secretary of PFF (Karachi), Ghani was committed to saving the ecology and securing the rights of the fishing community. “He was so concerned about the cutting down of mangroves that he filed a public interest petition,” says Saeed Baloch, an old friend of Ghani’s.
Ghani moved the court against the deforestation and land filling being carried out in Kakapir village by Kemari Town’s then-Nazim Zulfiqar Younus, the provincial home secretary, DIG Police West, town police officer of the area, Mauripur SHO, and the provincial Board of Revenue.
The small village of Kakapir has up to 350 houses, with a population of around 2,000. It is situated on the causeway from Manora to Mauripur, close to the Hawkesbay and Sandspit beaches: an area pockmarked with elaborate beach huts that belong to government organisations and multinational companies, built on land leased by KPT.
Days before the petition, hundreds of fishermen, including women and children, held a protest against the illegal cutting of mangroves and the alleged encroachment by Younus, in connivance with other officials. At that time, around 27 acres of mangrove-covered land at Kakapir had been cleared.
An emotional Ghani told the judges that Kakapir’s fishermen had been facing the effects of the high tides and cyclones as land grabbers – lacking foresight or conscience – continued cutting down mangrove forests and filling the water with earth. “If this continues, the tide will one day engulf their bodies,” the activist stated before the two-member bench.
Chief Justice Mushir Alam passed a restraining order, stating that no further mangroves were to be cut. He instructed the Keamari Town Police Officer “to ensure compliance of [this] order and keep vigilance on the activities of any person engaged in [the] cutting of the mangroves.”
Ghani sought state protection for himself, his entire family, and the residents of Kakapir from the land mafia, “so that they could resume a normal life,” while the court carried out its proceedings. Ghani might have convinced the judges, but he paid a heavy price.
On May 5, armed men roamed Kakapir, along with members of the police. They were searching for Ghani and Haji Abu Bakar, president of PFF Kakapir, who they had pressed charges against. At around 2am, the men began threatening villagers, raiding homes and destroying property.
When they failed to locate the activists, they trespassed upon the premises of the Mangroves Eco Tourism centre – Ghani’s labour of love, which provided an alternative source of income for the fishing community – that was set up in 2008. They destroying the centre’s jetty, seating shed, floating restaurant, trekking walkway, and birdwatch tower.
The offices of FDO and PFF were also burnt to ashes. The men threw a hand grenade into the PFF office: the intensity of the blast entirely dismantled the roof of the building.
Some villagers took cover in the mangrove forests, but were caught as they tried to escape in the morning. The police arrested four men, who were released within a few hours.
In the early morning hours on May 6, the bodies of Haji Abu Bakar and Abdul Ghani were found near Shams Pir Island, an hour away from the village by boat. Family members recalled seeing torture marks on their bodies — the etchings of a fishing net on their faces suggested strangulation.
Three months later, on October 7, 2011, Chief Justice Alam passed another order, directing SP Keamari Town to ensure that the area was not encroached upon and that no further mangroves were to be cleared by any authority or person. The court appointed Barrister Abdul Rehman to assist them, as the petitioner (now deceased) had no resources to protect the lands.
In the meanwhile, the SHC appointed one of its officials to carry out inspection of the site and verify ground realities. In his report, the official confirmed that several premises on the seashore were built freshly with masonry blocks, and the remains of mangrove trees were found at the site.
Ghani’s petition went through various rounds of proceedings and finally culminated on October 10, 2014.
PFF declared the two activists martyrs, but their mission is far from complete. Six years later, the destruction of Kakapir’s mangroves continues — largely unchallenged now.
Until 2013, plotting and filling continued on land where mangrove forests once stood. Residents mention that the construction has blocked a channel situated on one side of the village; while on the other side, several channels and jetties have been blocked off, making it difficult for boats to approach the village.
Residents refuse to speak up, fearing for their lives. “Who doesn’t know the names – or fate – of Abdul Ghani and Haji Abu Bakar? They gave hope to the people in our village,” says an elderly fisherman, requesting anonymity. “We never expected such brutality.”
“The murders were a warning to the entire village,” Aijaz Ahmed gravely states. Ahmed was one of the founding members of FDO, along with his father (Haji Muhammad Siddique Panjwani) and Ghani.
Since Ghani’s assassination, and his father’s death, Ahmed has been heading the organisation. He says he faces threats on a near daily basis. “Around five fabricated cases have been registered against me since 2011, but I have been absolved of all charges now.”
Until he dropped out of school in the sixth grade, Aijaz and Ghani were classmates. “We would walk all the way to Mauripur to attend the government school together. He was an activist back then, too,” Ahmed reminisces.
The PFF Kakapir building remains in the same condition it was left in 2011, but the office of FDO was rebuilt in June, 2017, and Aijaz has been trying to re-initiate activities. He also has plans of reviving the Mangrove Eco Tourism centre in January 2018, with aid money he received from foreign donors.
“We have to carry on with the work Ghani and Abu Bakar initiated. We will not let their martyrdom go in vain.”
Against the Tide
In 1984, Tahir Qureshi’s life took an unexpected turn. Then a young employee with the Sindh Forest Department, Qureshi was kidnapped by dacoits during an official visit to Dadu’s dense riverine forests — an area notorious for the presence of various gangs, at the time.
However, upon finding out about his work, they released him. They held anyone who worked for the conservation of mangroves in great esteem — after all, mangroves also provided them the best hiding spots, they explained.
On that day, Qureshi pledged that he would dedicate the remainder of his life to preserving the coastal belt’s mangroves: severely neglected, simply considered to be ‘wastelands’ by the government in the 1980s. “My feet would get scorched while walking inside mangrove plantations in my initial years,” Qureshi recalls. “But I knew I had to help the coastal communities, where forests were being cut down in the name of urbanisation and industrialisation.”
In 1993, he joined IUCN as a programme director, overlooking Pakistan’s coastal belt. Through various plantation drives, Qureshi has helped rehabilitate 30,000 hectares of mangrove forests across the Indus Delta.
He reintroduced two mangrove species that had disappeared from certain areas: Rhizophora mucronata was reintroduced on the coast of Sindh from Miani Hor, Balochistan; while Aegiceras corniculatum was planted along the coast of Balochistan.
“The main focus of IUCN has remained capacity building of governmental and non-governmental organisations, rehabilitation of mangrove areas, initiating basic research in mangrove ecosystem and creating awareness of locals and community-based organisations,” explains Qureshi.
An ethnic Urdu-Speaker, he taught himself to speak fluent Sindhi when some of the locals objected to his frequent visits to their villages. “They said I was ‘trespassing’, and would create hurdles when I tried to work in the mangrove forests,” Qureshi recalls.
Today, hundreds of villagers from the coastal region have received Qureshi’s training: they refer to him as ustaad (teacher) or Babul Mangroves (Father of Mangroves) — a title that was first given to him by Environment Minister Hameedullah Khan Afridi in 2013.
Now retired at 68, Qureshi strikes as a frail figure. And yet, he continues to work tirelessly as a consultant to IUCN. He frequently visits the mangroves across Sindh and Balochistan, occasionally returning to check on the progress of his plantations from 10 or 20 years ago.
“Mangroves are my passion. My wife tells me to quit, but I continue to work against the wishes of my family,” he smiles.
Despite all his efforts, Qureshi believes a great deal of work still needs to be done. On an IUCN boat at the Karachi Fish Harbour, he grimaces at the dark, polluted waters, with its “coca-cola-colour”. He considers toxic waste to be the one of the biggest challenges to the survival of mangroves.
“The municipal authorities consider the ocean to be a dumping ground, disposing untreated sewage and toxic industrial waste into the sea. Up to 500 million gallons of waste are discharged into the sea daily, harming the vegetation and marine life, and ultimately disturbing the ecological balance,” Qureshi says, as he points towards the numerous, snake-like drains along the coast. “The fish and birds migrate to other pastures. Or they adapt to the filth — which then goes into our bodies as food.”
Qureshi believes that Pakistan can only combat the effects of climate change by increasing its forest cover. “We need to have at least 25 per cent forest cover. Unfortunately, we have not been able to increase it over five per cent, since the inception of the country.”
“The temperatures are rising; rain has become erratic; and acidic rain has become more frequent. Water logging and salinity has killed the fertile lands,” Qureshi laments.
In 1999, a cyclone in the Arabian Sea resulted in heavy loss of life and property in Thatta and Badin. However, areas with thick mangrove forests experienced minimum loss. “In Shah Samdo Creek, I even witnessed people saving their lives by climbing mangrove trees.”
As an IUCN representative, Qureshi has travelled extensively to other mangrove hotspots in the world: Brazil, Bangladesh and Indonesia. After the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, he spent three years in Thailand and Sri Lanka, planting mangroves in areas that were severely affected by the tsunami and prone to natural disasters.
“Interestingly, locals in Sri Lanka have renamed mangrove forests as ‘tsunami forests’, as a reminder of their role in preventing natural disasters.”
In Phuket, Qureshi recalled how he was standing near the airport, and his colleague told him that the entire area was destroyed by the tsunami — but one small structure near the coast had survived. “I looked at the structure: it was a mosque, and it was under the shelter of a large mangrove and palm tree.”
With additional reporting by Naeem Sahoutara