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LDA’s housing plans threaten Sandspit backwater ecology

Published Dec 24, 2013 07:27am

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KARACHI: Already devastated due to the continued flow of untreated hazardous waste, the ecologically important zone of Hawkesbay/Sandspit backwater is set to be hit by another man-made disaster; this time by Lyari Development Authority (LDA), sources told Dawn.

The LDA, they said, was building different housing schemes along the coast and planned to drain out sewage from these colonies into the Hawkesbay/Sandspit backwater. Trenches had been dug, though the authority had not obtained permission from the Karachi Port Trust, the owner of the backwater area, for waste discharge. The Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) was also not on board, they added.

The ecology of the backwater area, the sources said, was also under constant threat from the land mafia which was reclaiming and selling land.

These issues, according to the sources, were raised at a meeting held at the commissioner office more than two months ago. The meeting was called to attend to the Sindh High Court’s concern over illegal land reclamation and encroachment in the coastal belt. Officials from Sepa, KPT and the LDA had attended the meeting.

Speaking to Dawn, a Sepa official on condition of anonymity said that the matter was in the knowledge of the agency and an expert had been asked to visit the area. “The LDA has never sought permission from the agency for any of its housing schemes, which is mandatory under the law. One of our officials had attended the meeting at the commissioner office and would look into the case,” he said.

A KPT spokesperson also confirmed that such an ‘illegal development’ was in progress. “The LDA has neither taken KPT’s permission for sewage disposal into the backwater nor it would be granted any if they asked for. We have come to know that trenches have been dug and required action would be taken when the time comes,” the official briefly commented.

No LDA official was available for comments.

The area, comprising coastal wetlands, shallow tidal lagoons, inter-tidal mudflats, saltpans, estuaries, saline pond, mangrove swamps and sandy beach, once had an immense diversity in flora and fauna. It was home to hundreds of bird species, many of whom lived on different fish, which was then found in plenty here.

“The area has significant ecological and biodiversity value. Mangrove forests provide good feeding, sheltering and breeding ground for many bird species. The mangrove forest at Sandspit is equally important as it provides a representative wetland ecosystem close to the city. During the five years (from 2000-2004), 114 species of birds belonging to 14 orders and 38 families were recorded here,” said a study (Observations on the Birds of Sandspit/Hawkesbay Coastal Wetland Complex, Karachi coast) published by World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P).

The place, however, gradually degraded on account of discharge of sewage that continues till today. The ecological devastation of the area, the only place in Karachi where one could find large groups of birds (especially in winter), has also affected livelihoods of poor inhabitants who have now stopped fishing in the area as levels of pollution have reached a point where only a few non-commercial hardy fishes could sustain life.

The issue of increasing pollution was also highlighted in the 2004 study. “The estuary of Lyari River along with other parts of the backwater has been extensively damaged by the pollution of Lyari River. As a consequence, biodiversity is very limited here. Even the benthic deposits may also contain high level of toxic materials,” it said.

Ironically, the government has never paid any heed to the repeated calls from environmentalists to award protection status to the area, which they believed could be developed into an excellent place for eco-tourism.

“The government has been urged several times to declare the entire Sandspit/Hawkesbay area (including the turtle nesting grounds) a nature reserve where the state needs to regulate human interference. It’s painful that now another plan is in the offing and that, too, not by any private organisation but a public sector department to destroy what little biodiversity is left in the backwater,” said deputy director general WWF-P Dr Ejaz Ahmad.

Once domestic sewage would start flowing from coastal housing projects into the backwater, small in-house factories would also appear and it would be difficult to stop the ecosystem from complete collapse, he pointed out.

To a question as to why the area couldn’t be awarded a protected status, Dr Ahmad explained that one major reason was the divided land ownership. “The KPT, city government and the cantonment boards owned the land. The KPT had once shown interest in the ecotourism plan but that interest could never materialised,” he explained.

Jahangir Durranee, one of the researchers of the 2004 study currently working as a consultant with WWF-P at its wetland centre at Sandspit, said that fish mortality were often noticed in the area and, though, increasing pollution had brought a 60 per cent decline in bird visitors, a small population of them still arrived in the backwater in winters.“They do come but for a short period and move to the other side of the border. This means there is still a hope of bringing those back who have stopped visiting us only if we start rehabilitating the ecosystem of this once birds’ paradise,” he said.

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