Highway to hell: The real cost of the Malir Expressway

Will the new project, to cost a whopping Rs27.5 billion, solve Karachi’s traffic issues or simply lead to environmental disaster?
Published March 8, 2022

In December 2020, Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari inaugurated the Malir Expressway — a 39-kilometre motorway linking the city’s affluent areas with the equally posh newer gated societies springing up in the city’s outskirts along the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway.

Soon after, members of indigenous communities, who have called Malir their home for the past several decades, started protesting the move, citing the proposed destruction of their homes. Environmentalists and social activists including those affiliated with the Karachi Bachao Tehreek and the Indigenous Rights Alliance joined in the chorus, accusing the Sindh government of displacing vulnerable communities and destroying the area’s ecosystem in the name of development aimed at easing access for the privileged.

What was most surprising for the protesters was that while construction started on the project soon after the inauguration, neither were the indigenous communities who would be displaced taken on board nor was an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) filed with the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

The EIA, as the name suggests, is a study of the environmental impact of a development project that is carried out before the said project has commenced.

According to Section 17(1) of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act 2014, “No proponent of a project shall commence construction or operation unless he has filed with the Agency an IEE or EIA, & has obtained from the Agency approval in respect thereof”.

In October 2021, the consultants for the Malir Expressway — National Engineering Services Pakistan (Nespak) and EMC Pakistan — finally submitted an 800-page EIA report to SEPA, which has called a public hearing almost five months later on March 9 (tomorrow), to be held at the Royal Palace Lawn and Banquet on Sharae Faisal. The hearing invites the attendance of the general public, concerned citizens, stakeholders and experts to discuss the merits and impact of the project.

Activists fear, however, that the hearing will be yet another farce aimed at simply checking the box and that none of their concerns will be heeded. After all, if the stakeholders’ input and public’s approval were so important, why is the hearing being conducted a year too late?

Unrestricted development

Around the world, land use and landscaping methods have witnessed a remarkable transformation, with urban planners prioritising the impact of development projects on climate change, the environment and evolutionary insights.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, the development process continues to remain isolated from considerations about the environment and climate change. Rather, the impact of development projects in our country is often measured economically, with the environment, biodiversity, land-use and the food nexus being sidelined.

A case in point is Karachi, where various administrations have over the years come up with at least five master plans.

None of these have, however, been implemented. The city’s track record is littered with chaotic, arbitrary development projects that ignore established methods of urban planning and end up worsening the living standards of Karachi’s residents — particularly the marginalised urban poor.

It is no surprise then that the World Bank and Asian Development Bank’s Climate Risk Country Profile Report of Pakistan terms Karachi the most vulnerable to extreme heat waves, pollution and floods. In fact, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Climate Report 2022 — shows that a temporary rise of 1.5°C (2.7°F) in global temperatures will have severe impacts on nature, some of which will be irreversible.

In 2015, the city experienced a deadly heatwave, with the Ministry of Climate Change’s technical report explaining that rapid urbanisation and global warming had triggered an Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. This was a result of the shrinking of open green spaces in the metropolis over recent decades, transforming the city into a concrete jungle to the extent that there is no empty space, no unpaved soil to recharge our aquifers. As trees become a rarity and shade a luxury in our parks, we continue to pile on the concrete with no data to quantify the city’s concrete density, exacerbating the impact of the heat.

Deja vu?

But there is a need to learn from the failed projects of the past as we plan for the future. Take the Lyari Expressway, for example. One of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Karachi’s history, it aimed to ease the city’s transportation woes and provide a separate passage for heavy vehicular traffic, much like the Malir Expressway.

Upon completion, though, it was restricted to heavy transport. Ultimately, it has merely turned the metropolis into even more of a concrete jungle — at the expense of evicting approximately 77,000 families, many of whom ended up homeless and without livelihoods.

Some of these families made their way to Samoo Goth, Malir. And now, they’re facing the risk of eviction in the name of development yet again, with the Malir Expressway project set to make its way through their neighbourhoods.

The question remains, though: will this new project — to be built at an eye watering cost of Rs27.5 billion — solve Karachi’s traffic issues or will it simply lead to environmental disaster?

A map showing the proposed route of the Malir Expressway. — Photo courtesy: Malir Expressway EIA report
A map showing the proposed route of the Malir Expressway. — Photo courtesy: Malir Expressway EIA report

The major part of the expressway is to be built in Malir, which has one of the few remaining green belts amid Karachi’s urban sprawl, providing fresh fruits and vegetables and playing the role of the city’s ‘oxygen hub'. Experts believe that if concrete roadways were to prevail over Malir’s fertile soil, Karachi would lose far more than it would gain.

Contradictions in the EIA report

In fact, the EIA report itself contains several contradictions, leading one to believe that it is misleading to say the least. For example, Section 5.5.1 claims that the project site lies in a “landscape with poor ecosystem”, implying that its implementation won’t cause a severe ecological loss.

Turn over a few pages and the species list — although in no way comprehensive — on pages 147 to 150 belie this claim. Ecologists and wildlife photographers such as Salman Baloch have documented evidence of the presence of at least 176 species of birds, besides other mammalian species such as foxes and jackals. The latter are also mentioned in the EIA report, making it obvious that the ecosystem is extremely rich and that hundreds of species of flora and fauna will in fact be disrupted by the project.

The report also raises an important question regarding the SEPA’s performance, where it attributes “environmental stresses” faced by the coastline to “untreated wastewater flowing through the Malir River from various industries, where the surviving species in the river are observed to be in deplorable conditions”.

Is it not the SEPA’s responsibility to ensure the industries operating in the area treat their sewage before it flows into the river?

Moreover, the report claims that there are 113 species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species that were found to be present in the area. In actuality, however, this figure is much higher, as documented by several ecologists and researchers.

Build on

Despite these concerns, expressed time and again by activists and environmentalists, the government has chosen to carry on with the Malir Expressway, reducing vegetation, farmland and open, green spaces in a city already packed with concrete and cement. This is likely to have adverse effects such as heatwaves, UHI, ecological degradation and even food shortages.

Making matters worse, there is no documentation and implementation of national and provincial climate change action plans, even though Pakistan is a signatory to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Paris Climate Agreement, both of which are designed to address such concerns.

The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, and Sindh Environmental Protection Act, 2014, require public consultation on all major projects but often, projects begin without EIAs or with review reports that remain hidden from the public eye. This has been the case not just for the Malir Expressway project but also for the revamping and restoration of the Gujjar, Orangi and Mehmoodabad storm water drains in Karachi.

Development. For whom though?

Projects in Pakistan are carried out in the name of development — but development is more than just adding buildings and infrastructure to our cities. For true development, we need to think about the needs of the city and its citizens. Yet the vast majority of our projects are launched without the involvement of the community stakeholders and civil society, with no concept of democratic consultation, and promoting only the benefits of the contractors who are part of the system.

The skyscrapers of Karachi were born as a result of squeezing blood in the form of sand and gravel from the veins of Sarsabz-o-Shadab Malir (Green Malir). Taking this sand and gravel has irreparably damaged the underground freshwater reserves, the levels of which continue to fall. Meanwhile, developers of housing societies have further demolished Malir and left behind acres of stone. And now, the Malir Expressway project is once again preparing to destroy its remaining orchards, farmlands and vegetation.

Today, Karachi is a city running without direction, with poor urban planning and little thought spared for its environmental conditions. But the shortcomings in its urban planning and the relevant climatic impacts must be addressed, with a shift towards participatory planning that meets the needs of its citizens and its ecology.

Development plans must focus not on constructing buildings and roads, but on the development of the people.

We can do this by taking into consideration the voice of the citizens and the environmental impact for all development projects, especially those that have a direct impact on the public. Reviewing regional and grassroots projects with the input of government officials, city planners, architects, environmentalists and other experts from the community is essential too.

Even the smallest projects should be designed on the basis of solid research, being finalised only after consulting the relevant stakeholders and community. The goal must be to integrate such development projects within a neighbourhood-level plan. Otherwise, such ‘development’ will only be disastrous for Karachi.

Header illustration: Kong Vector/ Shutterstock