Slow but steady destruction of mangrove cover around Karachi

Updated February 03, 2019

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Smoke spotted from behind the thinning mangroves on the Hijrat Colony side of the Mai Kolachi Bypass last week.
Smoke spotted from behind the thinning mangroves on the Hijrat Colony side of the Mai Kolachi Bypass last week.

KARACHI: On an otherwise normal Karachi afternoon last week, commuters on the Mai Kolachi Bypass could see huge clouds of black smoke behind the already thinning mangroves on the Hijrat Colony side.

There was also a fire tender trying to reach there. First it tried reaching the area from the Haji Camp side but after reaching a dead end there it turned around again towards Mai Kolachi to make an attempt from near the freight train tracks.

Closer inspection reveals that the mangrove trees were burning. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Closer inspection reveals that the mangrove trees were burning. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

It was feared that the fire was originating from one of the little homes in Hijrat Colony but on reaching close, it was discovered that someone had set ablaze the mangrove trees and reaching there to put out the fire was not easy for a heavy fire truck as the ground around the mangroves was like quicksand. All stood around helplessly watching the trees burn.

The mangroves that we see around our coastline are a gift of nature in place to protect us from storms, cyclones, tsunamis and floods. Often it is said that whenever there is a storm warning or forecast around Karachi, we are saved as the city is blessed by the ‘saviour’ of Karachi Abdullah Shah Ghazi whose shrine happens to be situated on a hilly area that once directly faced the sea. Although reclamation in the area has seen the distance between the shrine and the sea widen, his prayers still keep the trouble at bay. Still, along with the spiritual explanation here, there is the scientific explanation too, which happens to be the mangrove cover.

A hollow mangrove forest with plenty of trees chopped down. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A hollow mangrove forest with plenty of trees chopped down. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

These trees are no ordinary trees. Besides providing shade for other life forms they break the strength of storms and are the first line of defence on the coast against them. They have immense benefits. They are home to some 25 species of fish, crabs and shrimp. There are also the pelicans, flamingos, kingfisher and six to eight other species of birds such as cranes and ducks that pass by the mangroves while migrating to warmer climates. They serve as a feeding ground for them, but the numbers of the resident and migratory birds are now dwindling owing to the thinning of the mangroves.

Woodcutters or enemies of nature and biodiversity? / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Woodcutters or enemies of nature and biodiversity? / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Apparently, some people are after the land and the trees come in the way of their plans for reclamation. There were once thick mangrove forests visible on either side of the Mai Kolachi Bypass. But now, while much of the land has been reclaimed on one side, it seems that efforts by the land mafia are under way to gobble up what is left, as it is being used as a garbage dump. They often set fire to the remaining mangroves there to speed up the process.

Some voices raised over this issue have also been silenced. Activists such as Abdul Ghani and Abu Bakar among the fisherfolk, who highlighted the issue of mangrove destruction by the land mafia and tried raising awareness about the benefits of these trees, have been killed for choosing green over greed. And it is not just the land mafia that is after the mangroves. There is also the timber mafia. Those thieves go about their work very quietly. They don’t touch the trees that are in the front; they start cutting down the ones behind them so that no one has a clue about them as they see the trees intact from afar. But the reality is that the forests are getting hollow.

The timber mafia secretly at work. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The timber mafia secretly at work. / Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

As the trees are cut they are brought to the shore by boats in the middle of the night and quickly loaded onto big trucks to be transported to the city where buyers are ready. Reportedly, from Rs200,000 to Rs400,000 worth of wood is chopped down every day. And after being sold off, it is used in making furniture. Millions are made like this while playing havoc with nature and biodiversity. With the mangrove cover all gone, the citizens of Karachi may have to pay with their lives in case a natural disaster such as a cyclone or tsunami were to occur here.

The mangrove forest also has a big heart. A few dried branches for firewood does not hurt its density. / photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The mangrove forest also has a big heart. A few dried branches for firewood does not hurt its density. / photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

Some NGOs, realising the repercussions of the destruction of the mangroves, now run several restoration drives with schoolchildren planting hundreds of mangrove saplings along the coast. But Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, wonders what use is replanting when one can’t save the older generation of trees that were already there. “A timmer tree takes 10 to 12 years to mature and cutting down even one is a big loss to the environment,” he says. “Giving importance to restoration rather than focusing on protection is like setting up a university in a land where there is hardly any concept of primary education.”

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2019