Wasteland foretold

Published March 22, 2022
ONE of the many mining sites in Jamshoro district that have ravaged the land.—White Star
ONE of the many mining sites in Jamshoro district that have ravaged the land.—White Star

JAMSHORO: Qadir Baloch went into hiding on the night of Dec 3, 2021. That, he alleges, was after the henchmen of a powerful feudal lord tried to break into his home in a village in Jamshoro district, adjoining Karachi’s Malir district. He only just managed to flee under the cover of darkness. Knowing what the men had come for, he took his land ownership papers with him.

“First the sardar’s men tried to offer me Rs70,000 per acre, but I refused outright,” he says. “The land is like my mother and I won’t sell it.” It is now over two years since he has been resisting the pressure to sell. First, he says he was paid a visit by people from Bahria Town, the real estate giant whose sprawling project, Bahria Town Karachi (BTK), is coming up nearby. “They wanted to build a road through my land. I told them to get lost and they went away. But now the wadera’s own people are attacking me.”

This, say locals, is the modus operandi now being employed by the land mafia to acquire real estate for building housing projects in an area that falls within what is colloquially known as Kohistan, comprising Jamshoro and Hyderabad districts along with portions of Karachi’s Malir and West districts. Qadir Baloch is one of the few that have dared to speak up so openly; defiance of the waderas is rare in these parts. As chief of the Burfat tribe, the biggest of the four tribes in Kohistan with around 100 sub-tribes, Malik Asad Sikander is known as the ‘king of Kohistan'. But this ‘sardar of sardars’ — and PPP MPA from Jamshoro — rules over a diminishing kingdom. Indigenous communities are being forced to give up land where they have lived for generations and engaged in barani (rain-fed) agriculture or poultry/livestock farming, to make way for the housing aspirations of the middle and upper classes.

Unchecked sand mining and excessive extraction of groundwater in Malir and Jamshoro districts will have devastating long-term consequences

But there is another disaster with long-term consequences brewing in these suburbs of Karachi. Given that today is World Water Day, whose theme is ‘Groundwater: making the invisible visible’, it is an apt occasion to highlight the issue. The devastation is on two levels. Firstly, unchecked mining of sand, or reti bajri, is taking place here to meet the insatiable demands of the construction industry. This is hampering the recharging of groundwater (water stores under the land surface replenished mainly by rain water and snow melt), degrading the land and wreaking havoc on the area’s ecology and environment. Secondly, over-exploitation of groundwater is depleting the aquifer to dangerous levels. Both phenomena together are a ‘perfect storm’ that will hasten the impact of climate change and increase desertification in what is known as Karachi’s green belt, and imperil the quality of life for millions.

Not a blade of grass

A visit by Dawn to an area north of BTK revealed a scene of utter destruction: one could see massive sand mining sites, known as dhakkas, where excavator machines had removed the top layer of soil, tossed it to the side where it lay in huge mounds and gouged out tons of earth from beneath. Swathes of Malir have already been ravaged; now Jamshoro is being similarly plundered. Crossing into deh Mole in Jamshoro district, excavators could be seen busy at work in the river bed, removing the earth and depositing it into dumper trucks, which would then carry it away. Within the span of an hour, at least six dumpers on average would drive off bearing their load.

Using GPS and satellite mapping, Dawn has determined that at least 4,000 acres falling in parts of both Malir and Jamshoro districts in the vicinity of BTK have been mined or are currently being mined for sand. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sand mining is taking place on a huge scale further afield in Jamshoro, including in Lonikot and Nooriabad, as well as deeper inside Sindh.

According to Section 3 of the Sindh (Prohibition of Taking Minerals Including Reti (Sand) and Bajri From Any Land) Act 2003: “Except with the prior sanctions of Government, no person shall take minerals including reti (sand) and bajri from any land by excavation or otherwise.

Provided that no sanction shall be accorded if it adversely affects the topography, archaeology, ecology and environment of that area.”

The Mines & Mineral Development Department (MMDD), Sindh, is the regulatory authority for all mining in the province. The office of the DG MMDD Umar Farooq refused to share with Dawn copies of the sand mining grants that are currently in effect, claiming that the identities of those granted the mining concessions were confidential. Nor did they share the survey maps based on which the grants had ostensibly been given, and which could help determine whether the mining is being carried out as per terms of the lease.

The fact is, the public is entitled to the information sought by Dawn. According to Section 6 (k) of the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016: “A public body shall proactively disclose and publish …Full particulars of the recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it.” So why is the MMDD so cagey about the details of mining being done on public land?

Multiple sources claimed that much of the sand mining in Jamshoro is done in a completely unregulated manner. According to one of them, “There aren’t really proper contracts for sand mining in Jamshoro because the entire area is controlled by powerful feudals, and they manage it. You can’t mine anywhere in Kohistan without their permission.”

Illicit profits

The illicit profits are said to be divided up as follows: the contents of each dumper sell for Rs27,000 inside BTK, for Rs30,000 at Sohrab Goth and more if sold further afield, depending on the distance. The owner of the loader (‘shawal’) that fills the dumper pockets Rs6,000; local waderas, known as kumdar, in the goth closest to the boundary between deh Mole in Jamshoro district and deh Bolari in Malir district charge Rs1,300 as ‘zilla bandi tax’ to allow vehicles to cross over while Bahria charges a ‘road tax’ of Rs500-700 per dumper going through BTK. The rest — minus fuel and maintenance expenses — goes to influential stakeholders up the hierarchy, including the police and allegedly the tribal chiefs. A dumper driver told Dawn that some 65 dumpers make three round trips every day, 24 hours a day.

Even the PPP-led government’s own legislators find no traction when they speak up against the plunder caused by reckless mining. In a letter dated July 23, 2019 and addressed to Minister Mines and Minerals Mir Shabbir Bijarani, MNA Nafisa Shah pointed to the “indiscriminate, excessive, illegal mining in the area of Kot Diji which has magnificent ancient and scenic geological hills … . More than 200 sites have been leased out by the MMDD for more than 99 years… . I have written letters earlier to the Chief Minister, and to the Secretary Wildlife and Forests to declare this area as a national park. However so far, no action has been taken to preserve the natural and biological heritage of the area. …” While the letter refers to limestone quarrying, which is outside the scope of this investigation, it indicates the apathy of the government and the prioritising of profit over long-term benefits.

In Malir and Jamshoro, average yearly precipitation has varied wildly during the years between 2000 and 2021. But ruthless sand mining has exacerbated the impact. Sand acts like a sponge, soaking up precious rainwater and helping it percolate towards the aquifer. When it rains over the Kirthar range, which runs along the boundary between Sindh and Balochistan, hill torrents fill the Mole and Malir rivers. However, when sand is removed from the river bed, the porosity needed to absorb the water is diminished.

Excessive mining in the river bed disrupts the water’s natural flow and increases its velocity to such a destructive extent that it erodes any structures it encounters, including foundation piles of highway bridges as well as rain water check dams. “The degradation of the natural pathways along which rainfall passes causes the flow pattern to be disturbed,” says Dr Fahad Irfan Siddiqui, associate professor at Mehran University’s mining engineering department. “Land degradation plays a big role in the kind of flooding we’re seeing in areas like Gulshan-e-Maymar and Saadi Town.”

Kirthar National Park’s buffer zone

Shockingly enough, sand mining is even taking place close to the officially notified boundary of the Kirthar National Park, with the closest site less than five kilometres away. Kirthar is the third largest national park in the country, and qualifies for the strict criteria fixed by IUCN for a Category II protected area, designated mainly for ecosystem preservation. “This is the park’s buffer zone which is as important as the park itself and there should not be any activity here,” says environmentalist Nasir Panhwar.

There are at least 14 small dams and check dams in the area. The oldest of them is Thaddo dam, constructed in 2004 across the seasonal Thaddo river. Eight are comparatively recent, having been built from 2014 onwards when construction on BTK first began. One came up as late as 2021. Given that the indigenous communities in the area were up in arms since at least 2015 over being made to surrender their land for BTK, one wonders whom the check dams — installed by the Sindh government whose functionaries were complicit in the land grab — were intended to benefit.

26m gallons of water in 24 hrs

As a result of the excessive sand mining, one would expect the green cover to have reduced over the years, and the area becoming more arid. On the contrary, maps based on remote sensing technology show a surprising trend. While most types of vegetation cover declined between 2013 and 2017, moderate, dense and highly dense vegetation increased between 2017 and 2021. But this is not evidence of any encouraging news. Experts say this can be explained by the fact that groundwater is being overexploited.

Tofiq Pasha Mooraj has had a farm in Malir since 1974 and understands the area’s water dynamics like the back of his hand. “Initially they were pulling out water with buckets, then with diesel engines and then with electric motors. The quantity of water we could extract per well expanded and we started extracting more and more water.”

Another expert partly credits retired army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf for the ‘greening’ of Malir. In the mid-2000s, he gifted senior bureaucrats with large plots of land in Malir’s Memon Goth. “They put in lots of tube wells and that gave a fillip to agriculture. You can see the difference in the greenery on satellite images after 2010,” he says.

Gul Hassan Kalmati, central committee member of the Indigenous Rights Alliance Sindh and a well-known historian, anthropologist and writer, says there are over 200 submersible pumps in Malir, capable of drawing 26,000,000 gallons of water in 24 hours. Hydrant owners sell the water to various housing schemes in the area.

The massive extraction of groundwater inevitably gives rise to another insidious development: seawater intrusion. Seawater is 2.5 per cent heavier than groundwater, so groundwater depletion will allow seawater to intrude into the empty space that used to store groundwater, rendering millions of acres in Karachi and the deltaic area barren.

Nature is stealthy. It is a process, whereby it gives people many opportunities to set things right. But it seems we are unwilling to see what lies ahead, choosing short-term pecuniary gains instead of a viable future. Dispossessed farmers like Qadir Baloch are not the only ones facing impending doom.

The complete version of this report with more visuals can be accessed on dawn.com

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2022

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