Unsustainable coastal reclamation, unregulated construction, untreated sewage disposal, diminishing public spaces, polluted marine life — Pakistan’s largest megalopolis is fast losing its coastline to ecological neglect and deterioration. Can anything be done about it?
The tale of land reclamation starts with ocean waves (that are Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s devotees) kissing the wall of his shrine twice a day, depending on the moon’s cycle. This sacred devotion has protected Karachi against all-natural calamities that the city has been threatened with over the years, even though the shrine and the waves are now separated by vast land.
But decades of man-made alterations and activities along the coast in Karachi now force us to take a step back and critically examine the city’s edge, to understand the threats our seafront and, therefore, our citizens face.
With some of the country’s most high-profile residential and commercial projects popping up right along Karachi’s edge, and our own wastewater and garbage threatening marine life, there is a dire need to focus on the preservation of our coast. We have neglected our natural environment for far too long. We must now work to protect and conserve what is left; we must now become the saints and saviours of our own city.
As the population continues to spike around the world and countries race to ‘develop’ and expand further, the demand for land has also increased rapidly. And so land reclamation — defined by the International Association of Dredging Companies as the process of creating new land by “raising the elevation of a waterbed or low-lying land, or by pumping water out of muddy morass areas” — has emerged as a frequently applied solution.
But this frequently applied ‘solution’ is neither perfect nor new.
Land reclamation in our region has a history older than Pakistan’s existence. The British were one of the first to carry out major land reclamation projects in India, to connect and develop satellite townships, especially in the coastal cities of Bombay and Karachi.
Within Karachi, areas of Old Clifton and Boat Basin, that were once natural swamps and islands, were ‘reclaimed’ and eventually connected to the main city infrastructure.
According to cartographic specialist Ryan Moore’s From Minor Village to World Metropolis: Karachi in Maps, approximately 144 acres were reclaimed from the sea in Karachi between 1916 and 1920.
Decades later, land reclamation is still in vogue and, of course, land still has one of the most important political functions in the world. European thinkers have philosophised that land ownership is one of the foundations of a ‘civilised’ society. This can also be seen in Pakistan’s context, with the value placed on having apni zameen (own land).
Karachi is in dire need of an updated land use map and daily mapping practice. More open spaces also need to be allocated for public use, and a proper ratio of built environment versus open space within Karachi must be introduced. Only then will we create a city that is favourable to the locals and the ecology of the land.
According to information provided at the UN’s Ocean Conference, almost 40 percent of the global population resides within 100 kilometres of the coast. Major land reclamation projects in recent history are largely concentrated in coastal cities like Karachi, primarily in Asia. Of the 14 largest megacities located along the coast globally, 11 are in Asia.
This, of course, exerts considerable pressure on this critical zone. Rapid urbanisation at the coast is usually accompanied by “major geo-engineering interventions [such as Coastal Land Reclamation (CLR)] that form part of what is called ‘ocean sprawl’, which increases the pressure on the delicate ecosystems of those areas,” as stated by Dhritiraj Sengupta and others in their 2020 article Gaining or Losing Ground? Tracking Asia’s Hunger for ‘New’ Coastal Land in the Era of Sea Level Rise.
In a previous article, Sengupta points out that common practices, like CLR, are under-researched and thorough study is needed to understand and assess the level of damage CLR has done to the ecosystems of coastal megacities.
This stands true for Karachi, where major CLR projects, coastal development projects and others have been in the works for years, without proper research on the host of issues pertaining to the ecological, environmental and cultural impacts on Karachi’s edge.
Losing Karachi’s edge
Karachi’s edge could be identified through its key elements — a port, a source of income for its fisherfolk, a public space for its citizens and a home to a vast amount of flora and fauna. But, unfortunately, land used for real estate and housing communities has also become a prominent trait in the recent past.
Waterfronts in Karachi have fallen victim to Dubai-esque perceptions of development, which entail the rapid urbanisation and ‘modernisation’ of the city’s infrastructure by significantly altering the land and its resources. As such, land reclamation has been used to ‘modernise’ the coast of Karachi, harming elements of the natural environment to accommodate the built environment.
This rapid urbanisation and infrastructure development has led to incredible monetary value given to land. Land developers in Karachi have frequently used land reclamation, specifically CLR, not just as a solution to the shortage of land for development, but as a means of making a profit, even when there is other land available.
Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Phase-VIII has seen some of the most high-profile residential and commercial CLR projects in the country. The Karachi Port Trust (KPT) has also carried out massive CLR projects to expand their facilities — the most recent being the Deep Sea Container Terminal (locally known as China Port).
Aside from CLR, land reclamation projects have also been carried out within freshwater bodies, such as the extensive reclamation of China Creek to create KPT residential land in the mid-2000s.
At the root of many of these problems is the built environment being prioritised over the natural environment within city planning. This practice started receiving international criticism in the 1970s and has been globally challenged with the emergence of a new paradigm — urban ecology.
This kind of ‘development’ is not specific to Karachi, or even Pakistan. Forbes magazine contributor Wade Shepard writes that the creation of new land provides “what amounts to a developmental magic act: government officials can virtually point their fingers out to sea, say ‘voila,’ and a blank slate of prime positioned, high-value real estate almost instantly appears.”
Developers and governments essentially get “blank slates of land”, Shepard goes on, that they can easily develop “without the hassles and expenses inherent to relocating people, settling with existing landowners, and redeveloping an already established area.”
These incredibly lucrative CLR projects are therefore very attractive to land developers. This is precisely why so many such projects have emerged within recent years, especially in South Asian coastal cities, and in Karachi, where the practice has been focused on housing societies.
Over the last 30 years, DHA Phase-VIII has undergone extensive land reclamation. One of the most prominent projects in the area is Phase-VIII Extension, which includes the Crescent Bay development by Emaar Pakistan.
The land has been created for both residential and commercial use. A commercial section, ‘Saahil Commercial’, is demarcated within Phase-VIII Extension, and the first of the three ‘crescents’ of Emaar is reserved for commercial high-rise development.
It is important to note that Phase-VIII Extension real estate plots are pushed all the way to the edge. This may be providing prime real estate to DHA, but it is very detrimental to the ecosystem of the waterfront and will greatly limit the availability of the beach to the public.
Contrastingly, the Sea View Apartments along the main Sea View Road (Edhi Avenue) are built at a setback from the beach, and have four roads (two service lanes, and two main roads) between the apartment complex and the start of the beach, and are therefore still contained within the city.
These four roads then merge into two narrower roads as you approach Phase-VIII and Phase-VIII Extension. From here, the Sahil Avenue/Khayaban-e-Saahil, the latest intrusive intervention, branches out to the edge of Phase-VIII Extension, allowing the public to take their vehicles right to the edge without any buffer.
Within DHA Phase-VIII, there are multiple similar examples of development projects right along the edge of the water. Creek Marina, a celebrated six-star residential and commercial high-end development, started construction in the early 2000s and was meant to be finished in 2010.
It now looms, half-finished and abandoned, at the southern edge of Phase-VIII, right opposite the most recent coastal high-end complex, Emaar; both constructed upon reclaimed land, and both limiting the access that the public has to the waterfront of Karachi Ecological.
Saving the sahil, once again
Back in 2007, a civilian coalition called the Sahil Bachao Coalition emerged, to mobilise against DHA’s extensive ‘Waterfront Project’ that aimed to construct theme parks, marinas, expo centres, expensive hotels and condominiums along Karachi’s Clifton Beach. Of the project, architect Arif Hasan wrote:
“The DHA Waterfront Project is one face of real estate violence and authority’s complicity. The awareness about this subject is one step on the road to organise people. It is clear that the concept of ‘development’ is not the same for different social groups … In Karachi’s case, the new development project attempt [is] against a single principle of access to public spaces for everyone.”
The Sahil Bachao Coalition was successful in pausing the development plans back then, but new plans by the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) have since emerged to ‘develop’ the strip of beach from Nishan-i-Pakistan to Chunky Monkey Amusement Park along main Sea View Road.
With problems eerily similar to that of the Waterfront Project, this ‘new’ plan would entail land reclamation into the sea and produce massive amounts of waste during and after construction. It would also create large concrete structures that are not sustainable or desirable for the area or the common man, and would further damage the delicate vulnerable ecosystem(Ecological) of Karachi’s coast.
According to a July 2020 Dawn news report, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) approved of this plan in February 2020 without a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment, which is a legal requirement under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act of 1997.
The report quotes Dr Asif Inam, the former director-general of the National Institute of Oceanography, saying that the Clifton beach is experiencing rapid sedimentation of the material dredged from KPT’s Deep Sea Container Terminal, and that any structure along the Clifton beach would obstruct the naturally occurring process of longshore sediment transport from the West of Clifton to the East, thus resulting in “accumulation of sediments on the western side and erosion on the eastern side of the structure.”
Besides the clear issue of the project’s inevitable detriment to Karachi’s Ecological, this information brings into question the sustainability of this project’s upkeep, due to the issues created by past coastal land reclamation projects.
In a quote for the same article, Naeem Mughal, the director-general of Sepa, says that the CBC project does not pose any environmental risks because the area is devoid of Ecological important flora and fauna. He further adds that there is no threat of marine pollution, as the project would have a sewage treatment plant, and would instead “upgrade the beach which currently stinks with polluted water.”
Even though it is claimed that these ‘development’ projects will benefit the public, there is often an aura of secrecy around them. KPT’s Deep Sea Container Terminal was also a massive CLR project that happened without much knowledge or involvement of the public — perhaps because the project was along the stretch of beach that is not as frequented by visitors.
This project has created a huge mass of land along the coast in front of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and a new harbour, including breakwaters and an artificial bay.
Karachi’s ecological neglect and deterioration
Land reclamation is only one of the threats Karachi’s coastline currently faces. Other dangers include untreated domestic and industrial sewage disposal in the sea, the degradation of the fishing sector, the unsustainable relationship of the general public with the sea and the uncontrolled commercial activities along the coast — to name a few.
Karachi is home to a 90-kilometre-long coastline that provides protection to the city and its citizens. It has a variety of flora and fauna, and stands as an effortlessly beautiful and attractive public place.
According to the WWF’s 2019 Annual Report, Pakistan’s coastline is a habitat for 134 ray and shark species, shrimp, tuna, green turtles and salmon. The coastline also used to be home to the 6th largest mangrove forest in the world, but has dwindled down to 35th over the years.
While conducting field research and documenting decayed marine life, we often witnessed, at the foot of the Emaar project, a terrestrial plane with crabs crawling across the beaches with their busy claws constructing temple-like structures across the sand.
We would see construction boulders and tetrapods carpeted with moss, and the unexpected but exciting arrival of blue bottles, corrals and turtles depending on the season. But soon into the fieldwork, a lot of marine life was found dead and decayed on the city beach, due to plastic disposal, water pollution and wastewater.
At least 16 million people live in Karachi, the centre of industrial activities and international and domestic trade through its port. Hence, it is no surprise that a significant amount of municipal and industrial wastewater is produced daily in this urban habitat.
Karachi’s management of this wastewater and its disposal location — the ocean — has become increasingly concerning. The sewage treatment plants by the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) function inefficiently and well below their capacity. According to a 2017 study by Seema Jilani, the plants only treat 12 percent of the sewage released into the water.
Jilani writes that a substantial amount of sewage is discharged on the Manoro Channel, and 80 percent of the aggregate wastewater is dumped into Karachi Harbour, including wastewater that drains into the Lyari and Malir Rivers that flow into the sea.
Additionally, commercial buildings along the coast often dispose of their waste directly into the sea due to ease of proximity. In some cases, this disposal is visible through satellite imagery.
Jilani’s study also found that due to the disposal of industrial effluents and sewage into the sea, the quality of Karachi’s seawater has been rapidly deteriorating.
The water has alarming concentrations of heavy metals, organic pollution and volatile matters. She explains that reasons for the higher amount of pollutants and higher concentration of metals is largely due to the sewage disposal of the Lyari River that flows into the sea. This contributes to the pollution level even more significantly than local port activities.
Additionally, the sewage disposal enables a worrying rate of coral bleaching and increases the risk of erosion and inundation in low altitude coastal areas. Furthermore, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, it directly affects the reproduction and biodiversity of marine life, which in turn impacts the livelihoods of local fishermen, reduces stock for fisheries and even threatens food security.
Within the ambit of health, such ravaged waters are the habitat and feed of the very fish that we consume, introducing massive amounts of heavy metals and pollutants into our diet as well.
The public also bathes in this water, giving way to health hazards, which can be illustrated by the fact that Naegleria (an amoeba found in warm freshwater) was easily spread across seawater because of the sewage disposal in the sea and nullah by Sea View.
KWSB has come up with two projects to deal with untreated sewage disposal. The first project is already in the works and, according to a KWSB press release, aims to increase the treatment capacity of the existing ‘Sewage Plant-III’ in Mauripur by almost 800 percent, to the tune of 36,117.459 million rupees.
The second proposed project is to treat industrial waste by establishing plants in five different industrial zones: Korangi, SITE, TransLyari, FB Area, and Super Highway SITE Phase 2. These treatment plants were expected to start functioning by June 2021. However, the project has yet to commence as per media reports from earlier this year.
We need to put more thought into proposed solutions before building further expensive infrastructure. The DHA Cogen Desalination Plant, previously known as Defence Cogen Limited (DCL), is yet another example of costly infrastructure that has not been utilised and has instead incurred a heavy loss of more than 150,000,000 rupees.
A much more sustainable approach to our sewage issues is needed. An example of such a solution is the Decentralised Wastewater Treatment System (Dewats), developed in India.
Dewats encourages the development of small-scale, affordable sewage systems that treat and then enable the reuse of treated water for gardening and toilet flushing, as explained by Anurag Chaturvedi in his article Fixing India’s Sewage Problem. Dewats cuts down domestic water supply by 50 percent through water reuse and uses approximately 90 percent less land. It is almost 80 percent less costly than large-scale wastewater treatment plants.
Such cost-effective and sustainable sewerage systems should be incorporated by the local governments across our city to treat our waste. On a local level, the Orangi Pilot Project’s highly successful low-cost sanitation program proves that small-scale sewerage systems are part of our city’s precedent and that projects similar to the Dewat system can be incorporated in Karachi.
The contamination of our coastline does not end with sewage disposal, but is further aggravated with the accumulation of plastic pollution, oil spills and nuclear waste from Karachi Nuclear Power Complex, hospitals, pharmaceutical organisations, factories in Korangi and small cottage industries.
The water collects, transports and washes ashore plastics such as bags, water bottles and cans. These pollutants then harm marine life and biodiversity. Currently, Karachi’s public beach is not well maintained and suffers poor management by CBC. Tractors are used to clean the beach, and though this proves to be a quick fix, it’s hardly efficient or environmentally friendly.
The heavy tractors tend to collect parts of the natural environment, for example seaweed and vegetation, instead of just solid waste. The use of such heavy vehicles and claws is also very harsh on the ground and ends up squashing and pressing into the sand sea creatures like crabs, sand structures built by them, sand dunes, seaweed, vegetation and, ironically, the very garbage that the tractors are supposed to pick up. The physical suppression of garbage into the ground simply removes it from view, but retains it within the natural environment.
CBC needs to cease using tractors to clean the beaches and should instead use manual labour. The already-existing labour force used by CBC to clean main Sea View Road can be tasked with cleaning up the public beach.
Furthermore, CBC needs to implement stricter policies to deter beach-visitors from littering the beach by issuing small fines, providing garbage collection bins and placing signage that clearly communicates the importance of maintaining a clean natural environment.
At odds with nature
At the root of many of these problems is the built environment being prioritised over the natural environment within city planning. This practice started receiving international criticism in the 1970s and has been globally challenged with the emergence of a new paradigm — urban Ecological.
Urban ecology, a term coined by French biologist Jean-Marie Pelt, stands at the interface of the natural and the built environment.
Franz Rebele, in his article Urban Ecology and Special Features of Urban Ecosystems, says that urban Ecological views the whole landscape of the city as consisting of a singular ecosystem, wherein one element cannot be studied independently of the other, and reconciles the ‘human’ with ‘nature’ in a mutually beneficial relationship. We can utilise the framework of urban ecology by applying it to local level issues on the coast of Karachi.
Speaking about the chain of events that takes place when creating and claiming land, Tofiq Pasha, an urban gardener/maali says, “When nature does it, it takes care of the entire chain. When we do it, we do it to only one space and don’t realise that we’re interrupting the whole chain… How dare we do that?”
Current patterns of land use have significantly damaged the natural environment and coastal ecosystem of Karachi’s edge, by encroaching upon land and water that serve as a habitat for many indigenous species of plants, migratory birds and marine life.
Furthermore, current patterns of land use are devoid of inclusivity and place-making for local communities. Due to the persisting prevalence of such ‘development’, Karachi’s ecosystem, and therefore its citizens, are now threatened and there is a desperate need for preserving our dying edge, instead of ‘developing’ it.
It is worth questioning who benefits from this ‘development.’
Most of the land reclamation projects in South Asia are designed to cater to the wealthy and, therefore, the inflow of capital and the development of these projects leads to the gentrification of the areas around it. Locals are often pushed out of neighbourhoods that once belonged to them, spaces in the city become entirely inaccessible, and many projects take over/encroach on to areas that were once available to the general public.
Writing about high-rise projects curtailing the public’s access to the beach, architect Arif Hasan explains in Experiences on Confronting the Negative Effects of Habitat Privatisation (2006), it is “universally recognised in all development that, except in isolated instances, you cannot deprive people of the beach and the sea. It is a well-understood doctrine, ‘the doctrine of public trust’.”
The way forward
Karachi is in dire need of an updated land use map and daily mapping practice. More open spaces also need to be allocated for public use, and a proper ratio of built environment versus open space within Karachi must be introduced. Only then will we create a city that is favourable to the locals and the Ecological land.
Reclaimed land within Korangi, DHA and Clifton could be easily converted into a trekking trail, for locals and tourists alike, as mindful recreational activities.
Natural vegetation or ‘urban forests’ already exist in Karachi in these reclaimed areas, and, with some planning and imagination, this vegetation can become an escape from the busy, chaotic urban life in the city, and allow for a much-needed natural ‘getaway’ for the public.
During the lockdown period, we started to notice the need and desire that people have for open public spaces, and we should adapt existing areas to fulfil these needs.
It is an accepted fact that Karachi is in serious need of more greenery. This is usually misinterpreted by officials and locals as the need to plant more trees, regardless of their species or cost. A much more sustainable and beneficial way of making Karachi greener would be incorporating non-curated naturally growing vegetation in the city, and allowing the indigenous plants to grow and thrive.
Plants such as the morning glory, wild grass, keekar, pillu and tamarix are resilient and grow naturally in the area; they are also very beneficial for the ecology of Karachi and allow vegetation to grow without intervention. We need to let nature reclaim the lands that we have tried to lay claim to, and allow it to repair itself.
On an administrative level, we should rethink our infrastructure, specifically with regards to the excessive commercial activity along the coast. There needs to be a focus on preservation rather than development.
Restaurants, high-rises and recreational spaces permanently alter and encroach upon the public beach, often restricting access to parts of it, and thus ruining the sanctity of a free and accessible public space. Such encroachment from private sector businesses on public land needs to be highly regulated and controlled.
Most of the land reclamation projects in South Asia are designed to cater to the wealthy and, therefore, the inflow of capital and the development of these projects leads to the gentrification of the areas around it.
Additionally, we should consider introducing ‘softscapes’, to create coastal buffer zones and prevent the natural environment from being harmed by public activities.
This should be done along the distance of main Sea View Road and the sea and within Phase-VIII Extension where Sahil Avenue meets the water. The expansion of the softscape can act as a pedestrian zone, to provide access to pedestrians and cyclists, with formalised hawkers providing services to tourists, pedestrians, cyclists or any other passers-by.
The lockdown days revealed the importance of giving the city ‘silent time’ — a period of recovery, after which the area of the beach should be pedestrianised. In an ideal scenario, perhaps during the weekends, motorised traffic on main Sea View Road could be limited, to allow the city and the ecology to recover and rejuvenate itself.
Bicycle and walking lanes should also be introduced along main Sea View Road to encourage people to cycle along the edge, instead of taking their vehicle. Ethical plantation also needs to be part of the larger vision of development authorities, and this should reflect in the ratio division of built and open space.
Covid-19 has taught us that mental and physical wellbeing during a crisis is the only way forward in urban settings, and nature and humans can only coexist with mutual respect.
Originally published at Dawn
This article is jointly written by Marvi Mazhar, Anushka Maqbool, Harmain Ahmer