The Indus Delta’s Perrenial Perils

The most significant feature of Pakistan’s coastline is not the hammerhead of Gwadar jutting out majestically into the sea but the Indus Delta region covering the entire south western swathe of the coast.  This topographical landmark is prominent from an ecological angle also as around 25 creeks drain into its 150 km wide mouth, with the port city of Karachi continuously intruding into its western extremity.

This delta used to be historically interspersed with thousands of natural river courses, which braided with smaller tributaries, formed a natural yet intricate drainage system. However, since the British era when this irrigation and drainage system had been conceived and executed, things have gone from bad to worse. Most of these waterways, hardly 10% of which are lined, now stand abandoned, afflicted by the ravages of time, nature and plain outright neglect. Construction work undertaken over decades, inclusive of irrigation canals, road networks and illegal settlements, played no small part in the obstruction of these dhoras as they are locally referred to. Such obstructions, along with an attendant lack of drainage capacity, have made the delta vulnerable to the multiple scourges of sea intrusion, salinity, water-logging and flooding. These calamities have together combined to lay waste millions of acres of prime agricultural land and deprived the area of its freshwater fishing sanctuaries.

The combined impact on the local communities, which were completely dependent on these once-flourishing agricultural lands and freshwater lakes for their livelihood, was nothing short of catastrophic. Most of the people have been forced to relocate to seek alternate work. Those who chose to remain are plagued with malnutrition and climate sensitive diseases, with healthcare facilities virtually non-existent.

All problems which stalk this unfortunate land are ironically interlinked. A near absence of waste treatment facilities in industries, hospitals and municipalities gives rise to all types of toxic and chemical polluting agents. Drastically reduced freshwater flows downstream of Kotri, throttled to near zero for almost nine months of the year, result in widespread deforestation of the largest arid climate mangroves in the world, while preventing the flushing out of the accumulated impurities at the same time.

A mangrove forest is nature’s gift to the coastal environment. Apart from acting as a bulwark against natural disasters, it serves as a life-sustaining ecosystem for nourishing all types of flora and fauna. It is an invaluable source of nutrients as well for both freshwater and marine fisheries. Its roots provide a natural protection against coastal erosion, retarding the process through their ability to hold the soil together by trapping suspended particles. The lack of a natural freshwater flushing mechanism, so vital to preserving their health, has resulted in wiping out almost all the luxuriant mangrove species except for the most salt tolerant one, Avicennia Marina.

On a positive note, organisations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature(IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund – Pakistan(WWF-P)  keep prodding stakeholders like the Karachi Port Trust, Port Qasim Authority, the Sindh forest department and the Pakistan Navy towards a mangrove preservation and revival program. IUCNs partnership-based regional initiative Mangroves for the Future(MFF) is playing an active role in addressing such challenges to Pakistan’s fragile coastal ecosystem. As an active member of MFFs National Coordinating Body, the Pakistan Navy is doing whatever it can to improve environmental awareness as a prerequisite to combating pollution. With MFFs moral and financial backing, it has set up a Reed Bed Sewage Treatment Plant at Manora to help reduce marine pollution and more importantly, it is spearheading a campaign to generate awareness  of environmental issues, starting with PNs own personnel. PN has also accomplished 50% of the target it had set for itself for plantation of a million mangroves in the coastal areas of Sindh and Baluchistan within an incredible period of three months.

It is however distressing to note that the British era irrigation and drainage system has not been improved upon, while polluting influences in terms of saline seepage, saline groundwater, excess irrigation water, rainfall run-off, industrial effluents and municipal waste have increased manifold. The solution proposed and executed by the World Bank was to create a Left Bank Outfall Drain. The idea faltered because of a very basic and avoidable design flaw: the 41 km long Tidal Link meant to drain the water into the sea was built at a lower level as compared to the sea it was supposed to discharge into. So not only are the pollutants and saline-laden water being pushed back, the periodical floods that occur wreak maximum devastation by spreading impurities all over the low-lying deltaic plain.

In addition, our apparent inability and possibly the will to keep pollution in check in Karachi’s urban environment results in unimaginable amounts of waste products through domestic, commercial, industrial and hospital sources all being unceremoniously dumped into the Arabian Sea, as if it was some type of a giant garbage bin.

Karachi harbour, where till the early seventies at least, dolphins and fishing tackles were a common sight, is now a wasteland, polluted to an extent that not even a single National Environmental Quality Standard can be met. The extraordinary levels of toxic elements like chromium, lead, chlorides and sulphates, coupled with the low conductivity experienced forms a corrosive mix that apart from decimating all types of marine life, whittles away at the submerged port infrastructure  and causes extensive damage to ships berthed inside the harbour. This accelerated corrosion of ships’ hulls as well as seawater-based machinery and pumps has a huge impact on naval vessels, reducing their lifespan by as much as 50% and drastically enhancing their preservation and maintenance costs. Presence of solid waste and plastic bags in the water tends to choke seawater intakes resulting in more frequent machinery failures.

Though control of pollution in Karachi harbour is the preserve of Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, the Pakistan Navy, smarting under its massive impact, lobbied hard with the Senate Standing Committee on Defence Production to reactivate the Marine Pollution Control Board, which during its formative years ie 1994-99 under the chairmanship of the Chief of Naval Staff had made substantive progress in combatting marine pollution. Regrettably though, despite the PNs best efforts, the Board again went into a hibernation mode soon after being reconstituted in 2009.

As a supplementary measure, an indigenously-constructed mechanised Debris Collection Boat is being used to collect solid waste floating around the warships. Another locally constructed multipurpose barge is being utilised for collection of oily compensating water secreted by submarines in harbour.

After our organisational, operational and functional inadequacies stood exposed during the Tasman Spirit oil spill disaster of 2003, the Pakistan Navy took the initiative of formulating a National Marine Disaster Contingency Plan. The experience gleaned from the conduct of simulated oil spill exercises involving the active participation of other associated stakeholders like Maritime Security Agency, port authorities and oil marketing companies has enabled Naval Headquarters to go in for the Plan’s update.

The obvious solution which has somehow evaded everyone’s notice is to invest in the setting up and maintenance of sewage treatment plants for the safe disposal of waste. Three such plants with a treatment capacity of 151 MGD had admittedly been installed, but they all are presently in a complete state of disrepair. The Sindh Government, with the active backing of the Pakistan Navy, is pursuing a proposal with the Federal Government for improving sanitary conditions on an equal sharing basis. The project envisages a complete rehabilitation of the plants in question as well as capacity enhancement of the one catering to the Lyari basin area which happens to be the major offender insofar as Karachi harbour pollution is concerned.  A few companies are also collecting trash for free from some military establishments for generating electricity. Other municipal authorities may do well to profit from such enterprises too. Hospitals and industries likewise need to be pressurized by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure safe disposal of their toxic and unhygienic waste products.

We are unfortunately living in a dreary present where everything we touch, eat or drink is tainted in some way or other. The impurities laden seawater has already intruded up to 70 km inland in places and is on the verge of encroaching upon the vegetable basket of Karachi, Malir. The sort of legacy we want to pass on to our coming generations is in our hands. Will we rise to the occasion by harnessing the forces of nature towards a shared goal of health and prosperity or should we continue to give it free rein to devastate our living resources? The future can only belong to us if we join hands to eliminate the perils that dog this land of plenty.

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