In 1990, Pakistan Medical Association’s (PMA) Karachi branch organised its first round-the-lake marathon at the Haleji Lake in the Thatta district. Since then, the marathon has been organised regularly on the last Sunday of November or the first Sunday of December in which health workers, students and the general public run or walk around the lake.
I have participated in every Haleji Lake marathon in the past 27 years. Just 77 kilometres from Karachi, this great lake was once a popular picnic destination and renowned bird sanctuary (it is still known as one of Asia’s biggest bird sanctuaries). But over the years, I have witnessed its deterioration because of the apathy of the government, the departments concerned and visitors.
The local population routinely cuts trees without planting new ones. The visitors also have no respect for natural beauty and cut trees for firewood for cooking. It is painful to watch since kerosene stoves easily available in the same place could be used instead. Visitors pollute the lake and throw plastic bags and bottles here and there. I have also witnessed the deterioration of the big iron gate installed to control the flow of water.
The office building at the entrance is in bad shape, and needs renovation for years but it seems that nobody is there to do something about it. Haleji is drying slowly and a significant portion of the lake has become marshy with little or no water.
Haleji Lake was once one of Pakistan’s most famous artificial lakes but it may soon shrink into oblivion
With a surface area of only four kilometres (and a depth of five to seven metres), the lake is a big sanctuary for migratory birds (sadly not as big as it once was). More than 341 types of species have been identified on this lake.
Birds such as the European Widgeon, Dalmatian Pelican, Falcon, Harrier, Pallas’s fish eagle, Teal, Jacana, Flamingo, Pintail, and Northern Shoveller visit this lake every year from Siberia and different parts of Europe. The lake itself has different kind of fish and water animals, including three types of crocodiles and tortoise. The World Wide Fund has developed a sanctuary for crocodiles — with limited resources they are trying to protect the wildlife.
The lake is surrounded by a number of small villages which have neither electricity nor schools or any system to provide job-oriented training to its ever-growing population. Every year we witness an incremental increase in the number of beggars and malnourished children around the lake. Many of them ask for food items from visitors. Many children and almost all adults eat gutka — which infect their teeth — and in some cases, cause cancerous lesions.
The local population depends on the limited agriculture and fishing at the lake, but most of the young population has little or no income opportunities. Some of them are even involved in criminal activities. Since we have observed the law-and-order situation deteriorating, we have had to seek help from the police for protection of marathon participants in more recent years.
Initially marshland near the city of Thatta, Haleji Lake was converted into a lake by the British government when they needed another water reservoir for Karachi. The work was started in the mid-1920s after a detailed survey of the land, its habitat and climate of the area. It was one of the best examples of work done by the colonial government for water requirements in Karachi and betterment of people in the surrounding area.
During the Second World War, when a large number of troops from the allied forces were stationed in Karachi, the British government decided to increase the capacity of Haleji Lake because of increasing demand for water in Karachi. On an emergency-basis, massive construction work was undertaken to increase the capacity of the lake. Salt water was drained out and an embankment was constructed around the lake which was fed fresh water through a canal from the Indus River.
A wide katcha road was built around the lake, along with a dak bungalow and a small colony for staff near the lake. All around the lake many large cemented pipes were installed in a way that one third of the pipe hung over the lake. These cemented pipes were installed for the visitors to stay overnight and fish in the lake. A massive tree plantation was started around the lake in an organised manner to beautify the lake and strengthen the soil.
Sadly, both the pipes and the dak bungalow are no longer available for public use. The pipes around the lake have disappeared over the years. The dak bungalow was used by marathon organisers after paying a small fee but it has been closed for repairs for the last 10 years by the government.
Nostalgia for the glory days
Haleji Lake was once a popular picnic, fishing and bird-watching spot for Karachi and Thatta residents. I still remember an overnight school trip in the early ’60s to Haleji Lake. We went to Jangshahi by train from where we travelled by bull cart to our destination. We stayed in one of the big pipes where we required anti-mosquito burning coils in the night. Our camping site was very safe and nobody bothered us.
Sometime in the morning a government official came to check our fishing permit which was issued to us in Karachi after paying a nominal fee. The British rulers had developed and enforced a system for the benefit of the people. This system remained functional till a few decades ago.
I still remember those huge pipes around the lake, with big trees all around, and a lake full of water with its waves touching the embankment. I remember seeing many foreigners, who as my father told me, were there for bird watching (I didn’t know at that time that Haleji Lake was one of the biggest bird sanctuaries in Asia). I also remember different kinds of water flowers which abundantly grew there until recently.
Better late than never
The Sindh government should not allow this lake to be destroyed due to the apathy of officials and careless visitors. The government and the people can join hands to restore the lake to its past beauty and elegance. The wildlife should be protected, and the lake should be converted into an eco-friendly one for birds and animals. To raise funds for maintenance of the lake and surrounding locale a small fee can be charged to visitors. A fine and punishment can also be imposed for polluters.
What Haleji Lake needs is educated and enlightened neighbours. But for this it is important that schools are opened in the villages located in the catchment area of the lake. Young men and women need some skills training to become gainfully employed. Appropriate poverty alleviation programmes can help villagers in farming and livestock activities. We, the citizens of Karachi and Thatta, need to work with the government to protect this great resource on an urgent basis.
On the last Sunday of November 2016 we ran the 27th PMA round-the-lake marathon. The 18.6-km long path is a great pitch-like track where one can run and walk at leisure. It was great to enjoy the fresh air, look at the Siberian birds flying in and around the lake, watch fishermen catching fish on their small boats and observe visitors sitting under trees playing cards and cooking meals for themselves.
What kind of lake shall exist in the next few years is anyone’s guess. But if we want Haleji Lake to exist for future generations, we need to act now.
The writer is the former secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2017