‘BIOPHILIA’, a concept coined by Harvard naturalist Dr Edward O. Wilson, encapsulates the intrinsic human tendency to be drawn to life and lifelike processes. This inclination involves a profound connection, love and yearning for nature. In our current era, with 56 per cent of the global population — 4.4 billion people — residing in urban areas, the consequential loss of biodiversity and the absence of nature’s benefits are palpable.
The shift to urbanisation results in significant biodiversity loss, depriving citizens of nature’s benefits. Pakistan, the third most polluted country last year, has its major cities consistently leading the air quality index. The repercussions of deteriorating air quality, prolonged heatwaves, recurrent urban flooding, burgeoning solid waste, and the depletion and contamination of underground water sources have collectively transformed Pakistani cities into a neo-squatter phenomenon, where the very act of living feels like a form of punishment.
Amid concrete landscapes, people’s interaction with nature is limited to electronic devices, overshadowing biophilia. Prioritising nature’s restoration is crucial for the well-being of present and future generations amidst urban challenges.
According to estimates, in two years, half of Pakistan’s population may live in cities. A palpable sign of this urban sprawl is observable during a road journey from Karachi to Islamabad or vice versa, where the gap between cities is rapidly diminishing due to the rampant expansion of haphazard housing colonies and DHA phases. This unchecked city sprawl raises concerns of two-thirds of the population soon finding themselves in urban centres, which may resemble an ‘urban hell’ more than a sanctuary in the ‘land of the pure’.
The shift to urbanisation results in biodiversity loss.
Compounding this issue is Pakistan’s staggering current population of 240.5 million, projected to double by 2050. With the alarming failure of population control, questions arise about how this burgeoning population will secure drinking water and food, especially as fertile agricultural lands succumb to the encroachment of housing colonies.
While these challenges are not exclusive to Pakistan and are prevalent on a similar scale across Asia, there are shining examples of proactive sustainable urban environments. Colombo stands out as one such example.
Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo was declared the Ramsar Wetland City, along with 18 more cities from seven countries during the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (COP13) in Dubai in October 2018. This made Colombo the first capital to be accredited as an International Wetland City by Ramsar. The city is intricately connected by an extensive 50-kilometre-long artificial canal system, weaving through 36 wetland patches. Recognised as the Colombo Wetland Complex, these vital ecosystems play a crucial role in the city’s well-being.
Functioning as a safeguard against floods, they also cool the air, purify water, supply food and medicines, combat climate change, and provide urban dwellers with a welcome escape from bustling city life. The wetlands, home to diverse plant and animal species such as the endangered fishing cat and otter, play a crucial role in the city’s ecological richness. This unique environment serves as a sanctuary for urban wildlife, featuring nearly 250 plant species and 285 animal species, some rarely found in any capital city.
In three years, the Clifton Urban Forest became an urban biodiversity hotspot with 700,000 trees, including 600,000 mangroves, hosting 142 bird species, including flamingos and eight types of migratory ducks. Its images dominate Pakistan’s wildlife photography pages, emphasising that Karachi’s healing is possible by prioritising beyond real estate wealth.
Karachi, flanked by nearly the 50 km-long Malir and Lyari rivers, offers opportunities for numerous freshwater urban wetlands potentially becoming tourism hubs and fostering a micro-economy for the local population. Proposals include reconnecting the remnants of the once-majestic ‘Obhayo’ lagoon with the sea through a flyover bridge replacing the Mai Kolachi road and restoring the Nai Nar lagoon on Sandspit.
Turtle Beach, marred by decaying elite huts, could be transformed into a protected zone, promoting beach tourism and serving as a sanctuary for green turtles. The Oyster Rock and four other inhabited islands can be turned into a great example of biophilia by making them spots for sustainable fishing, biodiversity and ecotourism, training and mainstreaming the native inhabitants to earn from their cuisine and culture, and entertaining the entertainment-deprived affluent Karachiites. It is still not too late.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2023