Tapping Pakistan’s Maritime Potential

It is heartening to see the vital subject of the maritime economy gain some recognition in our national planning discourse as my presence here shows. After all, it was barely an year ago that a member of the Planning Comission had confided in a meeting that none of the 13 indicators that the Commission had identified for zooming in incorporated anything even remotely connected with any maritime activity.  I still won’t start off my talk, as is generally the norm when discussing maritime matters, by decrying our so-called sea blindness, a term reportedly coined by Professor Eric Grove. The hype surrounding Gwadar has ensured that one maritime entity at least has been catapulted into the forefront of the public consciousness. But seen in the broader context of a blue water economy, is that all there is to it? Strategically located along the northern reaches of the Arabian Sea and blessed with a 1000 km long shoreline, Pakistan possesses all the credentials of evolving into a significant maritime power. My presentation today revolves around circumventing the artificial barriers standing in the way of realising our aspirations.

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Primed for Disaster – Gadani’s Ship-Breaking Industry

On completion of their operational lives, all ships need to be disposed off, and the most beneficial way of doing so, in theory at least, is to send them for recycling where it’s machinery, equipment and hull can all be reutilised in one way or another, without adversely impacting the environment. In practice though the process is environmentally unsound and labour exploitative, as the industry has by now gravitated towards countries with low labour costs, weak regulatory mechanisms and lax standards of enforcement.

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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.

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The Chabahar-Gwadar Conundrum

The prevailing sense of elation about the supposedly ultra-bright prospects of the Gwadar-CPEC projects has in recent times been dampened by news about the expected rise of  an adjoining port, a mere 70 kms away across the border in Iran. The signing of a trilateral MOU between India, Iran and Afghanistan to facilitate Indo-Afghan trade through Chabahar has added to the speculation. It is thus important to analyse such conjectures before they fully embed themselves  in our collective consciousness and thereby mislead the country into a knee jerk response with potentially disastrous consequences.
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Safeguarding the Vital Links in Sea Trade

Nothing encapsulates, and perhaps embodies, the spirit of globalisation better than world trade, most of which is carried out via the medium of the sea. Maritime trade can thus be said to be the pivot around which the global economy as well as our collective social well-being actually revolves. The enormous natural resources on land, coupled with a matching industrial capacity for value-addition, are not worth much were it not for a corresponding ability to trade freely over a terrain which, despite being used for common benefit, is still vulnerable to hybrid criminal threats.
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Gwadar in Focus

Gwadar has had a turbulent yet lonely history. Though it has been visited, and even nominally managed at times, by the Macedonians, the Ummayad Arabs, the Omanis and even the British, it managed to retain its own identity till the turn of the last century. It goes to the credit of the inhabitants that they didn’t permit the Portuguese to establish a foothold there in the late sixteenth century, at a time when the latter’s grip on the maritime trade of the entire Indian Ocean region was virtually uncontested. Gwadar’s modern history can however be traced to the sanctuary given there to Sultan Said when he had lost out on a power struggle with his brother for the throne of Muscat across the Strait. Though the Sultan eventually managed to wrest control of Muscat 14 years later in 1797, he never really let go of Gwadar and continued to exercise jurisdiction there through an appointed Wali. Imprints of the Omani slave trade are still visible.
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Seawater Intrusion in the Indus Delta and Associated Hazards

Seawater intrusion into the once-fertile Indus Delta has unfortunately become a way of life, simply because almost everyone not directly impacted by this phenomenon has started taking it for granted and very few are willing to do anything about it. This has resulted in substantial damage to the ecology and biodiversity of the environment, as well as the regional economy and more specifically, the livelihood of the local inhabitants.
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Gwadar and CPEC – Reality Check

This is a subject which deserves to be tackled with utmost seriousness, as it is one in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, and where rhetoric is found to trump reality every time. It will thus be my endeavour to present as realistic and pragmatic a picture as possible to enable this vital issue to be better understood in an wholesome perspective.

That the port of Gwadar and the interlinking corridor are vitally important to the country has been established beyond doubt. The trick lies in converting this vision into a viable reality. To do so, our foremost consideration should be to learn from history by analysing the fate of similar prestigious maritime-related projects, like for instance Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Ltd, Port Bin Qasim and its adjoining steel mill and the on-going Karachi Deepwater Container Port. All were preceded by hype similar to the one we now hear about Gwadar and all of them are hardly success stories to warm the heart: some are floundering, some barely getting by, while the last one mentioned, the Karachi Deepwater Container Port, which is still struggling for closure, is destined to be headed for failure. The point worth understanding is that building ports and shipyards does not ipso facto make a country a great maritime power; running them well, does.
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Gwadar Glimpses

Part 1 –  1973 to 1981

My first look at Gwadar in early 1973, needless to say, was not a pretty one. Heat, dust and despondency hung in the air. As soon as the ship’s boat hit the shallow gradient of the clay and gravel beach and as we waded onto it in knee-deep water, dragging the boat behind us, the stench of rotting fish hit us in the face. The sprawling beach on the Gwadar East Bay, apart from being littered with decaying fish remains, also featured colourful fishing boats hauled up for maintenance and fish of peculiar shapes salted and left to dry in the burning sand. Small fishing craft dotted the confines of the bay. Fish appeared to be the staple diet of the community, as beyond a few snacks and a local bottled drink of some sort, nothing worth eating or drinking could be located in the nearby market. At the entrance to the market was a prominent pan shop presided over by an imperious and imposing lady. The sun was relentless and the area hardly witnessed any rainfall. Water was a scarce commodity, with the British-era desalination plant, which relied on the rays of the sun to cleanse the seawater of impurities, being ill-maintained. Many dug-up wells yielding brackish water, could be seen sealed after expending their utility.
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Extended Continental Shelf – The Last Maritime Frontier

Pakistan’s crowning glory this year(no, it’s not international cricket coming back to the country after a prolonged hiatus) is a little acknowledged achievement: winning the UNs endorsement for extension of Pakistan’s continental shelf up to 350 miles from the coastline(or baseline, to be more precise). This is all the more creditable since Pakistan is the first and only nation amongst the Indian Ocean littoral states to have achieved this landmark. This was not accomplished overnight, but through painstaking efforts spread over two decades.

Most of us land-lubbers who frequent beaches get to realise that the land does not abruptly end where the sea begins, but forms a steady gradient underneath. Such a natural extension of the land mass into  the sea is known as the continental shelf, which ends only when the gradient takes a steep nosedive.
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