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ENVIRONMENT: AN ISLAND OF TROUBLES

September 10, 2017
Churna Island is seen in the distance while fishing boats are out for the catch of the day | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Churna Island is seen in the distance while fishing boats are out for the catch of the day | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Surrounded by breathtaking clear waters and home to an astounding variety of marine life, Churna Island is a paradise tucked away for scuba divers and snorkellers who frequent it, especially in the cooler months (September to April). This island that lies off the Sindh-Balochistan coast is also a lifeline for hundreds of people — who are directly dependent on the species of fish found there — such as the fisherfolk from Mubarak Village, about six kilometers away from Churna.

Recently, this major biodiversity hotspot has been in the limelight for the threats posed to its environment after reports emerged that an organisation planned to build a terminal of liquefied natural gas (LNG) near it.

The project provoked strong opposition from environmentalists and concerned citizens who believe that it would destroy the island’s surrounding biodiversity. Media reports suggest that the project proponent, the Bahria Foundation, had submitted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of the venture to the Environmental Protection Agency of Balochistan (Bepa) whose jurisdiction the island comes under. But, according to sources, the environmental watchdog refused to entertain the request for initiating the EIA review process on grounds that the uninhabited island is under consideration for the status of a ‘marine protected area’.

The Hubco power plant and Byco oil refinery are at a distance of around 12km from Churna Island | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The Hubco power plant and Byco oil refinery are at a distance of around 12km from Churna Island | Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

The Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010 specifies that each party (including Pakistan) who agreed to Target 11 of Aichi Biodiversity Targets has to declare at least 17 percent of its terrestrial areas and 10 percent of its coastal and marine areas as protected by 2020.

The pristine island of Churna is under threat due to industrial projects

If the Pakistan government declares Churna Island protected, it will be the second marine protected area in the country after Astola Island, another major biodiversity hotspot located 39km south-east of the Pasni fishing port, in Gwadar, Balochistan.

“But, this makes up for only two percent of the country’s coastal area,” explains a government official asking to remain anonymous. “With Karachi’s heavily polluted coast having destroyed many ecologically important spots, the government has to take some big decisions in Balochistan if it really wants to fulfill its international obligation,” he said. He advised caution in order to protect the interests of the poor living in the nearby coastal areas, now that the coast of Balochistan coast is the focus of huge industrial activity.

The ashening skies

A stony coral, or hump coral, classified as ‘near threatened’ in the IUCN Red List at Churna Island | Amanullah / National Institute of Oceanography
A stony coral, or hump coral, classified as ‘near threatened’ in the IUCN Red List at Churna Island | Amanullah / National Institute of Oceanography

An existing and immediate threat to the island that experts fear is the 1,320-megawatt coal-fired power plant being built on the Hub coast. The Hubco power plant and Byco oil refinery site is approximately 12 kilometres from Churna Island.

A joint collaboration between Hubco Power Company Limited (Hubco) and a Chinese company, the two-billion-dollar project is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and was approved a year ago. Work on the project is going on at a rapid pace in the coastal part of Hub named Mouza Kund. This is where Hubco has been operating a thermal power plant for the last 22 years. Later, Byco Petroleum Pakistan Limited arrived there with an oil refinery and an offshore oil terminal.

Despite its distance from the island, the coal-fired power plant will still have an impact on the residents of the three villages nearby since smog, soot and aerosols travel long distances.

A recent visit to this area revealed the impact on human lives of the proposed and operational industrial activity. Residents of Allana Goth, Abbas Goth and Qadir Baksh Goth — the three villages located in the immediate vicinity of these plants — are deprived of basic facilities, such as water and electricity. Government health units are non-functional while there is only one functioning school and that, too, run by an NGO. One could see black smoke rising from the chimneys installed in the area, which the villagers believe to be the cause of increasing skin and lung diseases in the area. Protests against the companies recently resulted in registration of FIRs against 50 persons.

Lamenting that private companies have done little to alleviate their sufferings, most locals are against the under-construction coal-fired power project, seeing it as another risk to their health. The matter has been taken up by Mr Aslam Bhootani, former speaker of Balochistan assembly, with the environmental tribunal of Balochistan.

“Every single individual in these villages is ill and badly in debt. These companies have employed only a handful of locals on menial jobs while the rest, dependent on fishing, are jobless since there is no fish left in the waters being continuously polluted by hazardous discharge from these installations,” says a local named Gul Hasan.

Defending the operational projects, Hubco and Byco officials stated that their companies had always demonstrated compliance to national and international environmental standards and would do so in the future. Monitoring reports by third parties, they said, were regularly submitted to Bepa.

“The upcoming project is a super critical power plant in which the company is installing 60 million dollars worth of equipment only to keep the environment safe from pollutants,” says Hubco chief executive officer Khalid Mansoor. “The strong opposition seen in the project’s public hearing held last year was politically instigated. No doubt that things have been blown out of context and people misled.” He also rejected the villagers’ complaints over emissions and questioned how, if this were true, the Hubco staff who works in the area has not been affected by these pollutants.

Both Hubco and Byco maintained that they were engaged in a number of community initiatives including installation of solar panels, on-job training, large-scale job opportunities and, recently, provision of water via tankers as part of their corporate social responsibilities. But, they admitted, that living conditions in villages were extremely poor and required government attention.

“We can’t replace the government no matter how much we do for villagers,” says Mansoor, adding that the company under its agreement with the government couldn’t supply electricity to the village as this would be considered an “illegal” activity.

Paradise lost

The Churna Island is a lifeline for fisherfolk and a paradise for scuba divers | NIO
The Churna Island is a lifeline for fisherfolk and a paradise for scuba divers | NIO

Speaking to Eos, retired commodore Syed Zafar Iqbal, project director of Bahria Foundation’s proposed LNG terminal project, explains that the project site is 500 metres to 700 metres away from Churna island and the location was chosen because it provides protection from high wind and wave action.

“We can go further 500m away but not more than that as this will increase the breakwater wall cost multiple times, besides causing other technical problems. Every project has an environmental cost, but its negative effects can be mitigated through proper strategies,” he says, adding that all other relevant approvals have been taken and the project is now pending with Bepa.

Sources believe that matters came to this point owing to a lack of consensus among members of the national coordinating body of the federal ministry of climate change, tasked to declare marine protected areas after consultation with stakeholders. Some of its members claim that the island has little ecological significance and that the project should be given the go-ahead.

On the potential loss of the island’s biodiversity, Iqbal argues that corals only exist in patches. “No reefs are reported there,” he claims. “Besides, the breakwater wall would actually protect the underwater ecology as water would become relatively calmer. Marine life harmed during construction of the project would also re-bounce in a matter of time.”

The stakeholders’ assertions are contrary to the several studies carried out previously which indicate the island provides conducive habitat for growing coral reefs, is a thriving ecosystem and a basking and feeding area for magnificent species such as whale sharks, mobulidae, ocean sunfish and baleen whales.

The organisation, Iqbal says, would fund an ecological study before launching the project and grow corals artificially as is being done in some other countries. “People are raising their voice against the project but there is hardly any concern over unregulated tourism, fishing and harmful recreational activities, which have already damaged the area,” he adds.

On the status of the proposed LNG terminal project, the Bepa director general claims, “In recent meetings, the Bahria Foundation has agreed to change the site of the LNG terminal for which it would carry out an international study.” The Bahria Foundation officials maintain that they will consider the financial viability of relocating the site a short distance away, if so advised.

In deep water

This herbivore sea urchin species plays a critical role in maintaining balance between corals and algae | National Institute of Oceanography
This herbivore sea urchin species plays a critical role in maintaining balance between corals and algae | National Institute of Oceanography

Contrary to the arguments in favour of the under-construction coal-fired power plant and the proposed LNG terminal project, experts look upon these projects with alarm and describe them as ‘potentially destructive and damaging’ for the island’s biodiversity and fishing communities.

Dr Samina Kidwai of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), cites a 2015 study conducted by her institute which inferred that the island is exceptional and ecologically sensitive.

“The NIO has evidences in the form of georeferenced videographs that show the exact location of underwater resources. The island’s beauty is awesome [and is of] huge scientific interest. It should top the list of our coastal resources that need to be conserved.”

Furthermore, according to her, though Pakistan’s oceanography is not favourable for reef building, even in patches, corals supporting various ecosystems take hundreds of years to build and once gone, they are gone for good.

“Is there any example” she asks, “where such constructions haven’t damaged marine life? Is there any guarantee that the damage won’t be a permanent loss? And what time-scale are we talking about for the rehabilitation of the ecosystem?”

About the coal-fired plant, she explains that despite its distance from the island, it will still have an impact on the residents of the three villages nearby since smog, soot and aerosols travel long distances.

“We experienced smog in the early morning hours when we went for the dive surveys,” Kidwai says, adding that strict guidelines and monitoring were required to make transportation of coal safe so that it does not pollute the sea.

Sharing similar concerns, Mohammad Moazzam Khan of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) said any major development project will inevitably effect life around Churna Island. “Once constructed, the LNG terminal will change the water regime, especially water dynamics which will seriously affect life around Churna.”

He advocates implementation of “a special programme for protection” through which “all other unregulated recreational and fishing activities can be controlled.”

The Bepa director general says that the government is cognizant to the threats posed by industrial activity and is taking measures to ensure the respective companies follow the law. “Any industrial activity and environmental concerns should go hand in hand. Our team is in Hub right now, collecting seawater samples and monitoring air emissions. Coal emissions can affect Karachi, too. Hence, we plan to grow forests along the Sindh-Balochistan border, besides applying for Green Climate Funds to counter climate change.”

Meetings with relevant stakeholders, he says, had been organised to urge them to spend their corporate social responsibility funds on environment protection rather than on education or health initiatives.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017