Protecting the coast

Published June 14, 2024
The writer is a UK-based research scientist.
The writer is a UK-based research scientist.

PAKISTAN’S coastal and marine ecosystems, such as the Indus delta, Karachi’s mangroves, and the Makran coast, are not merely scenic beauties but foundational to the country’s environmental and economic stability. The Indus delta mangroves alone encompass about 130,000 hectares (321,237 acres) serving as vital carbon sinks that store approximately 14.4 million tonnes of carbon annually. Yet, these ecosystems face critical threats — industrial pollution, rampant overfishing, and the overarching impacts of climate change compromise their ability to perform essential functions.

In Karachi, the unchecked discharge of industrial pollutants has severe consequences on its marine ecosystems. Notably, the city’s release of about 90 per cent of its untreated wastewater into the Arabian Sea introduces pollutants such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons, with the tanning industry releasing toxins that have been shown to damage sensitive mangrove roots and reduce the water quality, affecting the health of fish and other marine life. The recent controversial construction of the expressway along the route of the Malir river, poses a direct threat to these ecosystems resulting in increased sedimentation that might suffocate the mangrove forests, which are crucial nurseries for many species of fish.

One solution to these problems is the establishment of a national marine data repository. This centralised data system would enable better management and monitoring of marine environments by providing accurate and timely information on pollution levels, biodiversity health, and the effectiveness of conservation efforts. The data on pollution levels, including concentrations of heavy metals and chemicals from industrial discharges, will help identify pollution hotspots and guide regulatory enforcement. Biodiversity data, tracking species populations and health, monitoring the health of the mangroves and coral reefs through satellite imagery, and field surveys and data on water quality indicators such as pH, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient levels would help in tracking the broader environmental health of the blue ecosystems.

Strengthening regulatory frameworks is essential to addressing the threats faced by Pakistan’s marine ecosystems. One specific policy would be the introduction of a ‘marine pollution control act’ which would mandate industrial facilities to instal and maintain wastewater treatment plants to remove harmful pollutants before discharge. The act should be reinforced with the insetting and offsetting of toxin release. Additionally, a permit system for factories along the coast, mandating the treatment of wastewater before the release and investment in catchment restoration, should be introduced. This would be in the form of ‘marine credits’ for funding coral reef restoration or seagrass meadow rehabilitation, which could then be used to offset their pollution footprints. These permits would be linked to regular inspections and hefty fines for non-compliance, ensuring a deterrent effect that would encourage industries to adopt cleaner practices.

Pollutants are damaging sensitive mangrove roots.

Community involvement is equally critical for sustainable outcomes. Local and indigenous communities, which have depended on Pakistan’s coastal and marine ecosystems for generations, are often overlooked in policymaking processes. These communities are key stakeholders, possessing invaluable traditional knowledge and a deep connect­i­­on to the environm­e­­nt. Yet, policymakers from urban centres frequently impose re­­gulations without con­­-sulting them, leading to ineffective and un­­sustainable outco­m­­es. True progress can only be made by genuinely engaging these communities, earning their trust, and implementing tailored awareness campaigns where needed. Without their involvement, no policy will be effective or enforceable.

Looking at international examples, community-led initiatives were one of the key components in the success of Marine Protected Areas, which helped to revitalise coral reefs. Ensuring justice means recognising these communities’ rights, incorporating their insights, and creating inclusive conservation strategies that honour their roles as stewards of the environment.

In the words of a local fisherman, “We protect what we love, and we love what we understand.” Just as the tides sustain the shores, so, too, we must sustain our efforts to protect these vital ecosystems. For the future of our oceans, and the communities that depend on them, is a shared responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.

The writer is a UK-based research scientist.

umar.strath@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2024

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