The Pakistani government’s plan to build a new city on the twin islands in the Arabian Sea has drawn harsh criticism from environmentalists, who see the ambitious project as a “serious” threat to the region’s entire ecosystem.
The proposed offshore residential center aims to ease the escalating housing crisis in the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, which already hosts more than 15 million people, according to official statistics, while unofficial estimates put the figure at more than 20 million.
Located three nautical miles west off the coast of Karachi, the twin islands – Bundaal and Bundu – serve as natural fortresses against typhoons and tsunamis as well as being a popular destination for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds from Siberia.
The government plans to connect the islands to the Karachi coast via a bridge after turning it into a luxury offshore development.
“Building new cities on these islands is completely impossible for the environment. This will not only remove Karachi’s first defenses from natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis, but also destroy marine life as well as coastal forests and endangered species,” Tahir Rasheed, director of the Fund. World for Nature (WWF) Pakistan, told Anadolu Agency.
According to Rasheed, the twin islands are nesting grounds for 99 species of fish – many of which are considered rare – and home to 56 species of birds.
In addition, the islands host more than 200,000 migratory birds that travel the tiring distance from Siberia to escape the bitter winters each year.
They have also long been home to rare green turtles that make the yearly trip to Karachi’s coast to lay their eggs.
Spread over 17,500 hectares, the two islands combined contain nearly 3,500 hectares of marine or mangrove forest.
“Habitat on these islands means there will be no migrating birds in the future. Fish and turtles will either migrate to other destinations or become extinct, and there will be no mangroves to reduce the speed of the cyclones,” said Rasheed.
“All of us out of the place [there] will be pollution, garbage, and waste, “he continued.” Losing natural defenses against natural disasters just for a new city is not a wise idea. “
WWF officials are also calling for “ecological audits” of projects through a credible organization to evaluate the pros and cons.
“If the value of development is higher than the environment, which I am sure is not, then the government must continue,” he said further.
Shabina Faraz, an analyst based in Karachi who often writes about the environment and wildlife, has a similar view.
According to Faraz, the proposed project not only disrupts the ecosystem but also violates international conventions on the environment.
“The two islands are part of the Indus Delta, which has been declared a protected area under the Ramsar Convention,” he said while speaking with Anadolu Agency.
Pakistan is a signatory to the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran.
“Karachi’s growing population and housing needs are undoubtedly a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but not at the expense of the environment and jeopardizing the existence of the entire city. [in case of cyclones or tsunamis], “he argued.
“Plenty of land is available around Karachi where several new cities can be built to ease the housing crisis.”
The local fishing community was affected
Local fishermen will also be hard hit from the proposed project, according to experts.
Hundreds of small and medium sized boats pass through the two islands to enter the deep sea for fishing every day.
Before entering the deep sea, fishermen catch bait to fish from the shallow waters of the two islands.
If there is a place to live there, they fear they will lose this centuries-old fishing route.
“These islands have long been a base camp and conduit to the deep sea for us. We catch the bait from this channel first and then enter the deep sea for fishing, ”said Ghulam Mustafa, a local fisherman.
“If there are settlements and the construction of bridges means it will become a forbidden area for poor fishermen,” he said.
Voicing concern, Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman of the Pakistan Fishermen’s Forum, a non-governmental organization working for fishermen’s rights, said that some 800,000 local fishermen would lose their livelihoods if the two islands were inhabited.
It’s not so easy to build a new city
It takes 35 minutes to reach the island of Bundaal by motor boat from Ibrahim Hyderi, a poor fishing village in the eastern district of Karachi.
On the way to the island which is also known as Pulau Besar because of its size which is much bigger than Bundu, dozens of fishing boats were seen.
A fisherman quickly threw an anchor overboard to stop the boat from running aground. One has to get off the boat and wade waist-deep into the water to reach the muddy shore.
The salty sea breeze flanked by the midday sun makes the body feel itchy.
The dense green mangroves that stand like a wall by the beach are the first to be seen. Several camels were grazing nearby. The only humans seen on the vast but barren island are three hunters who nest in the makeshift hut in search of migrating birds.
Half a mile from the hunters’ lodge is the shrine of a Sufi which is also the site of the annual three-day Urs (Sufi) festival attended by fishermen from neighboring islands and the mainland.
“This is not a new idea. Several attempts have been made recently to develop these islands for housing purposes since 2006,” said Faraz.
However, investors, including the construction giant based in the United Arab Emirates, have withdrawn each time following joint resistance from civil society, political parties and environmentalists.
This time too, political parties – especially nationalist groups in the southern province of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital – took to the streets against the project.
They accuse the UAE and Pakistani property tycoons of being behind the project and enjoying the support of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“This will not be an easy project to materialize, not only because of the strong political resistance but also the ongoing world economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Faraz.
This project is also a forum for competition between the central and provincial governments to fight for ownership of the two islands.
The federal government, through a presidential decree, has taken control of the twin islands to develop housing projects.
Initially, the Sindh government led by the center-left Pakistan People’s Party allowed the federal government to proceed with its plans. But following strong resistance from political parties and civil society, he withdrew his support, demanding the annulment of presidential regulations.
Rejecting the criticism, Federal Information Minister Shibli Faraz accused the Sindh government of “playing politics” in the project, which he said was aimed at reducing the burden on the population in Karachi, attracting foreign investment and creating thousands of jobs for local people.
He assured that the government would “fully” protect the rights of local communities.
According to a Karachi-based constitutional expert, land or islands within 12 nautical miles of the country’s territorial waters belonged to the province following the 18th amendment to the Constitution.
“According to the Constitution, the federal government can acquire land from the provincial government only when necessary, such as defense and security purposes. But that need must be included in the federal legislative register,” Shahab Osto, a Karachi-based legal expert who has challenged federal government action in Sindh High Court, told Anadolu Agency.
“As this is a housing scheme and in no way mandatory, it is therefore not included in the federal legislative list according to the Constitution.”
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