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A tale of two islands

The details of the two-island (Bundal and Buddo) controversy have been discussed in the national media so exhaustively over the last one week that one can, without having to build a context, call for immediate withdrawal of the Presidential Ordinance in question. Then alone one can have a saner debate on the pros and cons of turning the two islands into an investment guzzling real estate project and at what cost to the environment and the human beings living on these islands.

Some of those opposing the project said that with the construction of the city and so-called development of islands, around 800,000 fishermen would be deprived of their livelihood and they would suffer extreme poverty.

Pakistan has a coastal belt of over 1,050 kilometers and there are 300 small and big islands located in Sindh’s coastal belt.

Bhundar (Bundal) and Dingi are the twin islands in this belt that are spread over an area of 12,000 acres. These twin Islands are at one hour ride from Karachi and are under ownership of Port Qasim Authority.

The coastal belt is spread over an area of 338 km which is one of the largest areas of mangroves and seventh largest delta in the world.

Mangroves are assets of Sindh. It should be protected because mangroves save locals from tsunamis and cyclones. Another controversy lies in the fact that the islands are part of the Indus Delta – a protected site under the Ramsar Convention, to which Pakistan is a signatory.

As per an ecologist, “All Ramsar sites across the world are wetlands of international importance for migratory birds.”

The delta, the creek areas, the mangrove forests around these islands are harvesting areas for marine life. They are also used by the fishing boats as a passageway to the deep sea.

There are shifting sand dunes on the island, some of which gain heights of up to 3 m. A portion of the northern area of the island is covered at high water and has a thick growth of mangroves at the extreme northern point. Bundal is also used by fishermen as a transit point when they venture out to the high seas for fishing, drying their catch of fish and mending their nets.

Those who are bent upon turning the twin islands into a real estate bonanza, including the Prime Minister, are advised to spend just about an hour or so going through the 81-page Handbook on Pakistan’s Coastal Marine Resources to estimate the cost-benefit ratio of constructing their illusory treasure island.

The following are some relevant excerpts from the Handbook:

Mangroves are salt tolerant plants (trees and shrubs) found in tropical area which have adapted to survive in saline and brackish water. They occur naturally in sheltered coastal areas, such as river mouths, creeks, backwaters, lagoons, bays and estuaries where freshwater meets the seawater. Their survival is dependent on tidal inundation. Mangroves make up one of the world’s most unique ecosystems because they thrive where no other trees can survive – in the transition zone between the ocean and land. They are also among the world’s most productive ecosystems.

A total number of 69 species in 27 genera, belonging to 20 families are considered as true mangrove species.

Mangroves protect the land from erosion; play an invaluable role as nature’s shield against cyclones and disasters, protect shorelines; breeding and nursery grounds for a variety of fish and shrimp; harbour a variety of life forms like invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals like tigers; source of timber, fuel and fodder; sequestration of CO2; purify the water by absorbing impurities, harmful heavy metals and help us to breathe clean air by absorbing pollutants and; potential source for recreation and tourism.

Mangrove roots also have pores on them called “lenticels”, which help the tree to breathe. Another adaptation feature of mangroves is the growth of “pencil roots” or “pneumatophores”. These are specialized roots that grow upwards from the ground in the air like sticks, and help the trees to access oxygen. This is important because mangrove forests often grow in waterlogged and oxygen deficient soil conditions.

Apart from this, mangrove leaves have special salt glands which help them secrete excess salt from inside the leaves, thus helping them survive in salty conditions.

Also, mangroves contain filters on their roots to keep salt out; while in some trees the leaves store extra water to balance the salt content.

Mangroves are “viviparous” plants. The vivipary is a special adaptation feature that ensures favorable conditions for the growth of seeds i.e. the seeds germinate while they are attached to the mother plant. The seedling or “propagules” grow larger and stronger before they get detached from the mother plant. As the propagules fall down they become lodged in the soil or mud, or may be transported with the water somewhere else to anchor and grow. Because, the propagule is a half-grown seedling, it germinates immediately after being anchored in a suitable environment and starts putting out leaves.

Mangroves are an important feature of the coastal areas of Pakistan. They are most abundant in the Indus Delta which constitutes 97% of the total mangrove cover found in Pakistan; whereas the rest 3% mangroves are found at three locations along the Balochistan coast, at Miani Hor, Kalmat Hor and Jiwani.

Originally, eight species of mangroves were found in the Indus Delta; however, four of these have become extinct due to increasing levels of salinity. Of these, Avicennia marina is the dominant species which accounts for about 90% of all the mangrove species found in Pakistan. The other species include Rhizophora mucronata, Ceriops tagal and Aegiceras corniculatum.

Along the Makran Coast there are three mangrove species. Miani Hor is the only area where three mangrove species occur naturally including, Avicennia marina, Rhizophora mucronata and Ceriops tagal. In Kalmat Hor (Pasni) and Gawatar (Jiwani) Bay, only the Avicennia marina species is growing.

Historically, mangroves have occupied most parts of the Indus Delta. During 1958, an area of 344,846 ha comprising of varying densities of mangroves, mud flats and water channels was declared as protected forests and put under the management control of the Sindh Forest Department. However, the stocked area has reduced significantly. An assessment by the Sindh Forest Department in 1985 using Landsat Data and ecological surveys revealed an area of 280,470 ha under mangroves. Furthermore, SUPARCO in 2003 revealed the total mangrove cover to have reduced to 86,728 ha (IUCN Pakistan 2005)

WWF Pakistan in 2008-09 estimated an area of approximately 98,128 ha, of which 92,412 ha (94%) existed in the Indus Delta; 1,056 ha in Sandspit area along the Karachi coast and the remaining 4,660 ha mangroves along the Makran coast. A recent assessment carried out by the Sindh Forest Department in 2009 has revealed an area of approximately 107,000 ha in the Indus Delta, showing a slight increase in the mangrove cover.

Legally, all the mangroves found along the coast of Sindh have been declared as protected forests from 2010. Mangroves along the Balochistan coast do not have any legal status except for 294 ha mangroves in Miani Hor which were declared as “Protected Forest” in 1958. The remaining areas under mangrove cover are either communal property or with the Balochistan Board of Revenue.

The mangrove ecosystem has been under severe stress resulting from human induced and natural pressures such as, reduction in inflow of freshwater from Indus due to construction of barrages and reservoirs, pollution, cutting for fuel wood collection and livestock grazing, especially camels.

The Arabian Sea, bordering the coast of Pakistan, is known to be rich in marine biodiversity, as a result of prevailing monsoon dynamics leading to strong seasonal upwelling of nutrient rich water from the depths along the narrow continental shelf resulting in high surface productivity and rich plant and animal life. This results in Pakistan’s coastal waters having a rich diversity of vertebrates, including cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises), turtles and fishes, as well as invertebrates.

There is a very close link between the fisheries resources and the mangroves. Mangroves, and their associated tidal flats, provide a habitat for clams, crabs, oysters, and other species. Mangroves are known to be an important breeding, nursery and feeding ground for a large number of fish and shellfish species and other aquatic resources. The coastal mangrove creek systems are shallow and nutritionally rich, providing an ideal habitat for a variety of marine animals in addition to commercial fish and shrimp species. The shrimp industry largely depends upon the shrimp nurseries located in the mangroves of the Indus Delta. Although the shrimp are distributed along the entire coast, the main fishing grounds in the sea are usually located along the coastline adjacent to mangroves.

The reduction in freshwater flow into the Indus Delta has impacted mangrove growth and productivity of fish and shrimp and other marine resources. The Palla fish, which used to be caught in abundance, has reduced due to decline in freshwater flows in the Indus especially below the Kotri Barrage

M Ziauddin, "A tale of two islands," Business Recorder. 2020-10-14.
Keywords: Political science , Presidential Ordinance , Port Qasim , Ramsar Convention , Palla fish , Pakistan , WWF , IUCN , SUPARCO

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