SOCIETY: LIFE AND DEATH ON KARACHI'S BEACHES

May 05, 2019

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Lifeguards keep watch from their post, while a sign  warns beach visitors against swimming in the rough sea | White Star
Lifeguards keep watch from their post, while a sign warns beach visitors against swimming in the rough sea | White Star

"Madam, please move away from this spot. It’s not safe because the tides are very unpredictable,” urged Saleem, a lifeguard on duty at Sandspit Beach.

“Where do you even see a wave coming all the way here? We are far off and at a dry spot anyway!” scoffed an old lady who was guarding five toddlers of her extended family who had come to enjoy the day on a hot summer afternoon.

Saleem’s concern for the children’s safety grew and he warned the family twice more to move away from the shore. At his last attempt, he was treated not just with harsh words but physical aggression as well. His efforts went in vain and he walked away, only to rush back on hearing the cries of the same family as the children were swept away by a wave. Saleem was able to rescue three children; the two others drowned.

With 40 kilometres of coastline and more than eight million annual visitors to its beaches, Karachi needs to expend greater efforts to provide for lifeguards

Such stories are heard every monsoon season. Most beach visitors do not know how to swim but are often reluctant to follow the advice of lifeguards. Lifeguards are treated with scant respect when they urge people to keep a safe distance from high waves, which people wish to wade in.

Karachi’s coastline stretches around 40 kilometres, covering beaches that include Seaview, Clifton, Sandspit, Hawkes Bay, French Beach, Kanupp Point, Paradise Point, Cape Monze, Sunehri and Mubarak Village. The sea is tempestuous during the monsoon season from mid-May to mid-August but this is also the time which draws the largest number of visitors during the year.

The city’s beaches are far more hazardous during the monsoon season because the Arabian Sea is very volatile due to its warm waters. The challenge is that the monsoon period coincides with school summer holidays in Pakistan, which is when people head to the beaches in record numbers. It’s a dangerous mix.

Beaches all over the world are unique from each other, and have differing terrains. The same is true of the beaches of Karachi. For example, the Sandspit Beach dips steeply close to the shore, so anyone walking into the sea at waist-level will suddenly step down into a deep dip. The French Beach is extremely rocky and the presence of a cove creates a strong rip tide along the sides. Hawkes Bay can be considered the most dangerous because it is exposed to the open sea and has a stronger presence of rip tides. Caught in a rip tide, one can’t swim back against it. The only way to escape is to swim parallel to the shore and swim back with a wave. However, most people panic and drown in the process.

Understanding the beach is the key. Just like humans, it too undergoes temperamental swings that worsen during the monsoon season. Unfortunately, people often try to fight this force of nature and entire families at times end up losing their lives trying to save one drowning family member.

During the monsoon season, the government imposes a ban on swimming and a few policemen can sometimes be seen trying to restrict people from going into the water.

A lifeguard jumps in the water to save a child | Photo by the writer
A lifeguard jumps in the water to save a child | Photo by the writer

However, these measures are not enough. What is needed is rescue services and lifeguards.

This is when the demand for lifeguards is at its peak and there is a growing need of rescuing people alive, rather than merely searching for dead bodies with the help of divers. It is through the efforts of lifeguards who patrol the beaches that lives are saved.

Government-run authorities such as the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) and Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) are responsible for providing lifeguards to safeguard people frequenting beaches. According to reports, these authorities have deployed over 40 lifeguards across major beach points in Karachi and are required to remain on high alert during the monsoon season. Two ambulances have also been hired to patrol those parts of the coastline that fall within the KMC’s jurisdiction (around half of the total). The supply of lifeguards and other rescue services matching demand here is a different ball game altogether, especially with Seaview attracting most of the beachgoers.

“The KMC operates its Emergency Response Centre at Hawkes Bay, where it deploys 40 trained lifeguards, equally dividing them over a 12-hour shift each,” says Bashir Sadozai, director media management, KMC. “Depending on the demand, which is high during the monsoon season, more people are inducted to perform these duties.”

Muhammad Shabbir Akhtar, chief sanitary inspector at CBC mentions that they hire people who are trained by the Navy to better serve as lifeguards. “We have nine lifeguards in total who cover a three-kilometre area at Seaview Beach and are divided into two shifts,” he says. “We further aim to upgrade our facility to better equip ourselves for life-saving facilities. These include a car for patrolling and an office at the venue for our lifeguards, among other requirements. Having said that, we are not just limited to our area because, when it comes to saving a life, our men go beyond the designated area if the need arises.”

“Until we commenced a proper life-saving service in 2004, the local villagers used to share potential death statistics as folklore. For instance saying, ‘It’s August 14, which means 14 people could die’ or ‘It’s Eid, we can expect 30 deaths,’ given the high footfall at all our beaches during summer holidays,” says Syed Muhammad Ahsan, the chief administrator at Pakistan Life Saving Foundation (PALS Rescue) — a non-profit organisation providing safety services to beach visitors. There used to be around 250 deaths annually in Karachi before the inception of PALS Rescue, which has now been able to significantly bring down drowning incidents to nearly none.

PALS Rescue is a privately run, near-shore water safety service, and provides life-saving facilities along Karachi’s beaches. It has successfully created a safe environment along the coastline, through a combination of lifeguard patrols, education and public safety campaigns.

According to a rough estimate, more than eight million people annually visit the beaches across the city. Since 2004, PALS Rescue, with its fleet of over 250 fully-trained lifeguards — though the demand doubles during peak season — has saved over 5,000 lives and has provided first aid to over 6,000 people, while also conducting over seven million preventive actions. To date, they have trained and inducted over 1,000 lifeguards.

One organisation is not enough to safeguard Karachi’s beaches, however. While PALS is doing its bit to provide security to people visiting the beach, there is a persistent need for the government to make life-saving efforts more sustainable, so that people can safely enjoy the great Karachi picnic spots even during the monsoons.

The writer is a communication professional and a blogger. Her interests are painting, wildlife photography, travelling and numismatics

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 5th, 2019