Saving marine life

21 Dec 2016


THERE are many issues that confront our country, but environmental and ecological matters are perhaps the most neglected and least understood. We somehow fail to understand the intrinsic value of nature and the need to live in harmony with the very sources that sustain life. But degradation and weak protections of fragile ecosystems in a country like Pakistan — where millions rely on the environment for survival — will not only impact livelihoods and exacerbate poverty but threaten, change and destroy the very processes and resources they depend upon.

Pakistan is signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, under which all parties are to establish protected areas that are effectively managed and ecologically representative of national and regional systems to reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss, reduce poverty and pursue sustainable development. Under the 2010 Aichi Biodi­versity Targets, each country is expected to declare at least 17pc of its terrestrial areas and 10pc of its coastal and marine areas as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) by 2020.

An MPA is an area of sea dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biodiversity, natural resources and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means. MPAs play an important role in protecting habitats and representative samples of marine life, and can assist in restoring oceans’ productivity and avoiding further degradation.

The need to act is urgent and crucial.

MPAs “provide a range of benefits for fisheries, local economies and the marine environment, including conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems; arresting and possibly reversing global and local decline in fish populations by protecting critical breeding, nursery and feeding habitats; raising the profile of an area for marine tourism and broadening local economic options; providing opportunities for education, training, heritage and culture; and providing broad benefits as reference sites in the long-term” for research and scientific studies.

The Charna and Kaio island complex is one of five sites proposed to be designated MPA status.

This decision was based on a feasibility report by the WWF that was presented to the National Coordinating Body of Pakistan (NCBP). This body — which includes the Pakistan Navy, Ministry of Defence and provincial forests, wildlife and fisheries departments — has been working with the Ministry of Climate Change and the International Union for Conservation of Nature on implementing the Mangroves for the Future programme in Pakistan.

Additionally, it has been deliberating on potential MPAs, for which a working group was constituted. They identified five potential sites and, in October 2016, NCBP initiated work to declare Charna Island as an MPA.

But the island complex, located nine kilometres west of the mouth of the Hub river between Balochistan and Sindh, may well become another case of environmental violation gone unnoticed if timely action is not taken to protect its unique habitat, known for its coral assemblage, flora and fauna.

A power plant and a refinery appear to be engaged in activities that pose a serious threat to the ecological integrity of the island complex. The power plant’s coal expansion has been allowed an unloading jetty, and the refinery a mooring near it. Moreover, Bahria Foundation has initiated the establishment of an LNG terminal on Charna. The cumulative effect of all these activities will be hugely detrimental to the ecological integrity of the island and its surrounding waters.

In the light of NCBP’s decision, it is important that all activities that disturb the environmental integrity of the island and its surrounding waters be stopped immediately. Pakistan is signatory to the SDGs, has ratified the Paris Agree­ment and more recently joined the Open Govern­ment Partnership platform. In one way or another, all these partnerships call for sustainable use of resources, protection of fragile ecosystems, and accommodation of civil society’s concerns when framing and implementing policies that impact communities, vulnerable groups and ecosystems.

Pakistan is seriously affected by climate change and routinely highlights its concerns on international platforms — demanding climate justice, financial assistance and capacity building. Given limited funding and heavy competition, future access to financing windows will be measured by local progress indicators in various sectors, as well as the Environmental Democracy Index, to gauge compliance with local environmental policies and international commitments. Failure to act will not only cause irreversible damage to Charna’s unique habitat, but also damage Pakistan’s credibility and prospects of accessing climate change funds.

The need for action is urgent. In 2005, Margalla Hills’ environmental integrity was safeguarded as a result of suo moto action taken by the Supreme Court after civil society and the media highlighted the issue. One hopes that, this time, the government will take notice and action swiftly and on its own.

The writer is CEO of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organisation.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2016