l  love mangrove forests — I remember my first visit to Sonmiani Bay on the Makran Coast (around two hours drive from Karachi). The thick green forest floated towards us as our boat neared the mud flats. We could see dozens of birds nesting in the branches while below us, the clear blue sea was teeming with fish. I learnt later that mangroves are important for the economy because they act as breeding grounds for shrimps and fishes.

Therefore, by protecting the mangrove areas we are protecting our future food. Experts say just one hectare of mangrove forest, if properly managed, will produce an annual yield of 100kg of fish and 25kg of shrimp. Mangrove forests are also a source of fuel wood and fodder for local villagers and important habitats for numerous migratory birds. They also protect the coastline from erosion by heavy waves, storms and wind.

Unfortunately, nearer to Karachi, the mangrove forests are in bad shape. Not only are the forests being cleared for land, but the heavy pollution in the water around the city is probably killing off what remains of these precious resources. I finally got a chance to visit the mangrove forest in Sandspit during a recent visit to Karachi. An NGO called the Fisher Folk Development Organisation, based in Kakapir Village in Sandspit has started an eco-tourism project funded by the UNDP`s Global Environment Facility`s Small Grants Programme.

We were given new life jackets and then invited onto a good quality boat for a tour of the mangrove forest, called `Mangrove World`. In this part of Sandspit, the mangrove forest is quite thick — but the water is black and filthy! “Water from the Lyari River, which is full of industrial effluents, eventually ends up here,” explained Abdul Hameed, our guide and a member of the NGO. The stagnant water was almost black — another visitor on the boat remarked, “Welcome to Karachi`s version of the Black Sea!”

I, for one, just could not enjoy the boat ride, even though I appreciated the efforts of the NGO. They have built a tourist shed raised up on stilts in the middle of the mangrove forest where one can enjoy a cup of tea and watch the birds. They are also constructing a 30 feet high watch tower (equipped with telescopes for bird watching) and a floating guest house (on a boat) where visitors can spend the night in the middle of the mangroves. These are all great ideas, but what about the dirty water?

“It`s like a room with no windows or doors open — the water remains stagnant throughout the year. The government needs to build an outlet — a canal connecting this waterway to the sea, which is just a few hundred metres away on the other side of the road. This way, at least during high tide, we can get fresh water in from the sea,” pointed out Abdul Hameed.

I wondered how the mangrove forest managed to survive in such polluted water, which is getting even more polluted each year as the population continues to grow and more industries are established near Lyari River. None of these industries have waste water treatment plants. They simply dump their waste into the river, and then there is all the untreated sewage from Karachi city which also finds its way into this water.

I was shocked to learn that people catch the mud crabs still living in the roots of this mangrove forest (the shrimp and fish have long disappeared) and sell them in the local markets! Yuck! Also, nearby the forest are salt fields where people take salt out of the saline land and sell it in the local market as well. Just imagine — people are eating this salt which is probably full of toxic chemicals!

It is really incredible that this patch of mangrove forest is still surviving. Once the mangroves on Pakistan`s coastline were one of the most extensive arid coast mangroves in the world, but today only three species still survive, the most common being the avicennia marina, which is highly salt tolerant. That is the predominant species found in Sandspit. Still, the tourists are coming in — the eco-tourism project has done so well that the Fisher Folk Development Organisation has bought another boat from the income.

Karachi`s city government really needs to do something about the polluted water — I noticed on this trip to the city that they have completed all the roads, flyovers and bridges, which have sorted out the perpetual traffic problems. I hear they are also building storm drains now to prevent flooding during heavy rains. These are all great initiatives — now they need to start building sewage treatment plants!

And finally, the polluting industries which dump their chemicals into the rivers and the sea need to be fined and forced to build treatment plants. The free ride has to end!