A short boat ride from the shores of Karachi, mangrove trees sprout along the quiet inlets of an uninhabited island that environmentalists say provides vital coastal protection to the metropolis.
But the calm of Bundal Island, home to a few camels, is at risk, with Prime Minister Imran Khan determined to turn it into an enormous real-estate project to ease pressure on the expanding megacity home to 20 million people.
The $50 billion housing development has pitted regional leaders against the central government, with local activists and lawmakers accusing the prime minister of reneging on pro-environment promises.
“Let nature restore itself and (do) not dream of these big, grand cities,” said Mahera Omar, an environmental film-maker from Karachi who enjoys kayaking around Bundle and meandering through the island's mangroves.
“We are all very tired of our concrete jungle. We all want to get away, out into the open,” she added.
Coastal mangroves act as a natural barrier, soaking up wave energy and limiting the extent of flooding.
“These islands form a barrier against storm surges and tsunamis. Their preservation is vital for the preservation of Karachi,” Arif Belgaumi, an architect and town planner, told AFP.
Karachi is already prone to inundation and suffered catastrophic flooding during this year's record monsoon when filthy, chest-deep water filled the streets.
Bundal Island floods during particularly high tides, so any construction would also require environmentally damaging reclamation work that could have knock-on effects for Karachi, Belgaumi added.
But Prime Minister Imran's administration says the project would create thousands of local jobs and bring much-needed relief to chaotically expanding Karachi — not to mention new tax revenue for Pakistan's cash-strapped coffers.
Keeping parliament out of the loop on the issue, President Arif Alvi had recently promulgated the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) Ordinance, 2020 to allow the federal government to take control of the two islands to initiate and maintain a continuous process of reclamation, master planning, urban planning, spatial planning and to promote and stimulate the twin islands as trade, investment and logistics centres and hubs, duty-free areas and international tourist destinations.
The move was met with fierce opposition by the Sindh government that blamed Islamabad of trying to take over the province's territories.
'It will bring devastation'
Critics say the plan runs counter to green pledges by the premier, who has spoken out about the perils of climate change and frozen construction of several coal-fired power stations in favour of renewable-energy projects, mainly hydroelectric dams.
The government has also unveiled a nationwide effort to plant 10 billion new trees by 2023.
“He takes pride in recognising that global warming is the reality[... But] when it comes to the province of Sindh, the people of Sindh, his point of view changes,” Sindh government spokesman Murtaza Wahab said.
Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Bundal Island, located in the Arabian Sea, is uninhabited except for a few camels and other creatures.
It nonetheless has been whacked by urbanisation — the sandy beach facing Karachi is strewn with plastic rubbish and medical waste that washes ashore from the megalopolis.
The mangroves are considered an important component of Karachi's environment, which has suffered decades of high pollution and neglect, with the trees acting as natural filters that clean water and protect baby fish.
“The people of Karachi actually relate to mangroves as [...] a natural part of their lives,” Wahab said. “That is why we are so territorial about it. That is why we feel so passionate about these mangroves.”
The redevelopment proposal has faced years of opposition from critics who say it would be too costly and complicated to redevelop Bundal Island.
A group of Karachi fishermen, who cast nets from the island's comparatively cleaner waters, have also filed a lawsuit against the project.
“We will become jobless,” said Kamal Shah, a spokesman for the fishermen. “They are saying the construction of a city will bring development. It will bring devastation.”
The waters here are already suffering, he said, with Karachi's dilapidated drains spewing untreated wastewater into the sea.
Rab Nawaz, a senior programme director at the World Wildlife Fund, said the development of Bundal Island would trigger an “environmental disaster”.
“Bundle is a nesting ground for turtles, dolphins. There [are] mangroves which are protected forests in Pakistan,” he said.
“Building a huge infrastructure on it is going to destroy all that."