I'm amazed to see that the mangrove forests around the city of Karachi, particularly in the popular Sandspit beach area, are still surviving. You see, there are no effluent treatment plants in the large industrial estates in the city and the waste containing hazardous materials, heavy metals, oil, etc. is simply discharged into rivers, coastline and the already polluted harbour (considered one of the most toxic harbours in the world today). The industrial pollution discharges combined with the cutting of mangrove trees near the coast have resulted in a decrease in shrimp and fish production.

That is why fishermen in Karachi now have to go further into the Arabian Sea to catch fish or further up along the Makran coast to find shrimp. On a recent visit to the mangrove forest along Sandspit Beach, I was treated to a delicious meal of prawn biryani, spicy crab and lobster — all caught further up along the coast by the local fishermen of Kakapir village. 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.

This meal is now served on their new “floating restaurant” which has been built on a boat moored inside the dense mangrove forest located nearby. According to the National Coordinator of the Small Grants Programme, Masood Lohar, “I got the idea while visiting Thailand and thought maybe we could find some expert to build it here. The boat men of Kakapir offered to build it themselves. We took a risk, but they built a very good house on the boat which we sent to Keenjhar Lake for a small grants project there. Then we got them some more funding to build a floating restaurant in Kakapir to supplement their income.” The local women cook the fresh sea food and the floating restaurant has to be pre-booked — usually big companies and NGOs hire it out for lunch. It is doing good business and the women are benefiting from the extra income.

For those living nearby in the concrete city, the green mangrove forests of Kakapir are definitely a tourist attraction. The mangrove forests are the lungs of the city — they filter the air by absorbing all the dust and air pollution and are a home for a variety of birds. These mangroves also protect the coastline from tsunamis and hurricanes. They also provide the local people with fodder for livestock and fuel wood. Although the shrimp and fish have long disappeared, the people continue to catch the hardy mud crabs still living in the roots of this mangrove forest and sell them in the local markets.

We were given life jackets and then invited onto a modern, sturdy boat for a tour of the mangrove forest. In this part of Sandspit, the mangrove forest is quite thick — but the water is black from all the pollution. “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 even gives off a foul smell on bad days. “It's like a closed room — 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. Yet tourists flock to Sandspit each weekend and the NGO has built a number of tourist facilities.

There is 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 have also built a watch tower (30 feet high and equipped with telescopes for bird watching) aside from the floating restaurant. All this is great, but how long will these mangroves 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 the 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.

According to a 2007 study by WWF-Pakistan entitled 'Pakistan's Waters at Risk', “The government needs to develop and enforce Water Environmental Standards, National Drinking Water Quality Standards and Surface Water Classification Standards. Concerned agencies and industries must be compelled to treat industrial and municipal wastewater through rigorous enforcement of Self Monitoring and Reporting Tools (SMART) and National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS)”.

A clean water campaign was started by WWF-Pakistan in 2007 to get the government to agree to these basic standards. Due to the change in government, however, the campaign lost steam and they now have to develop new linkages with the current set of policy makers. In the meantime, the citizens of Karachi should really insist that their local government takes the lead in cleaning up their coast line.

Written under the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowships