KARACHI: Mangrove forests are being destroyed in the Port Qasim area, where a private company plans to establish a coal-based power project of 660 megawatts, it emerged on Sunday.

The provincial government had declared mangrove forests protected a few years ago and the ones located in the Port Qasim area were accorded the protected status in the 1950s.

The private company, according to sources, has started removing mangroves without taking approval from the forest department.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project reportedly being built by a Chinese company is yet to be submitted, the sources say.

During a recent visit to the site, workers were found uprooting mangroves with the help of bulldozers. Most trees were mature, at least 12 to 15 feet high. Land reclamation activities were also found to be hectically in progress at the site located some distance away from a thermal power plant.

The staff at the site told Dawn that they were bringing the sand for land filling from the Ghaggar Phattak area. The work, they said, had started some days back and that the ground was being paved for the foundation laying ceremony to be performed by the prime minister.

Upon contact, chief conservator of forest of Sindh Riaz Wagan said the federal government hadn’t informed or contacted the provincial government in that regard. “The consultants hired by the company recently approached us with a request to allow construction activities on the land where mangroves exist. In this regard, department officials have been asked to look into the matter and their report is yet to be submitted,” he said. Mangrove forests were legally protected and their removal without taking the government on board was illegal, he added.

“Mangroves cover 64,400 hectares area under the Port Qasim Authority (PQA). The land was given to the PQA with trees with the assurance that they would be protected and the PQA couldn’t allow any party to destroy mangroves,” he said and added that action would be taken against offenders after investigation.

On the process of according approval to parties seeking construction on land with mangrove forests, he said that the forest department experts looked into the status of mangroves and, then, might suggest some other site for a specific project or recommend tree transplantation whose cost was entirely borne by the relevant project executor.

Raising similar concerns, director general of the Sindh Environment Protection Agency Naeem Ahmed Mughal said that the company’s initiative was completely illegal considering that the project’s EIA report was yet to be submitted, heard and approved.

“We are inquiring into this matter and I have directed my officials to personally visit the site. The company’s consultants had approached us a few days back with an EIA report. But we refused to accept the document since it has to be submitted by the project proponent and not the consultant under the law,” he said.

He also questioned land reclamation activities and argued that the PQA owned only the land on the ground and not the one under the sea. “Land reclamation activities could affect the area’s ecology and the PQA couldn’t allow such actions,” he said.

On condition of anonymity, a PQA official said that the company’s consultants were in the process of finalising the EIA report and accommodating the PQA’s concerns which were raised over a preliminary report.

“We were told that mangroves would be fully protected during the project’s execution. A site visit would be conducted on Monday to check the facts,” he said.

Sharing his concerns, Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah, representing the International Union for Conservation of Nature, termed the coal-based power project a disaster-in-the-making and said such a venture would further pollute the coast and would have a direct bearing on fisheries, besides causing destruction of mangroves.

Mangrove forests, he said, had already de creased from 350,000 hectares in 1950s to 105,000 hectares now. “That means only 40pc mangroves are left and that has happened due to multiple factors, including construction of development projects,” he said.

Director of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan Rab Nawaz said that his organisation during a stakeholder consultation meeting had informed the consultants preparing the EIA report that the cutting of mangroves was prohibited since they had a protected status.

“Karachi is fast losing its mangrove forests and one only has to look at Boat Basin to realise how much of this unique forest has been lost over the last few years.

“These trees are ecologically and economically important to Karachi, being the nursery grounds for fish, crabs and shrimps as well as being an important wall of protection against sea-storms and tsunamis. We request officials to look into the matter and take action,” he said.