Geographically, Pakistan has a varied landscape which includes glaciers, mountains, plateaus, plains, deserts and coastlines. The mighty Indus, which flows from the Himalayan glaciers, after irrigating plains of Punjab and Sindh, merges into the Arabian Sea, forming a delta which is both rich in history and biodiversity.
Tahir Qureshi, Director of Coastal Ecosystem, IUCN, narrating the history of the delta, said ?The mighty Indus when in full rage had 17 estuaries and it came laden with 300 tonnes of river silt, pushing the sea backwards. Approximately, 150 million acre feet fresh water found its way into the Arabian Sea, claiming 30-50 metres of land each year?. Dams, barrages and canals necessitated by agriculture and human consumption have reduced this flow to a mere 1-3 million acre feet.
The ensuing effects created coastal wetlands, comprising of the largest coastal forests in the arid zone. Mangrove forests are a unique natural wonder as they grow on inter-tidal coastlines, meaning every 24 hours they are inundated by sea water. The trees have high salt tolerance, possess aerial roots to collect oxygen. ?There used to be eight species of mangrove but as the delta became inactive, the subsequent salt levels have wiped out all but one specie, the rhizophora mucrnata locally called Kumri,? informs Tahir Qureshi. This particular specie has the highest salt tolerance and an average life 40 years.
The economics of mangroves is their high biological productivity as they excrete or ganic matter providing a nutrients not only for themselves but for animals in their habitat. ?There are about 100 identified species of fin-fish and crustaceans that breed in these waters and 25 of them have commercial value? says Tahir Qureshi.
Mangroves play a significant role in the lives of indigenous coastal dwellers, all of whom are dependant on these for survival. ?All villagers directly or indirectly find their employment in mangroves?, states Tahir Qureshi. Most villagers are fishermen while others are associated with boat building, net making and fish trade. While a limited number are employed at coal producing kilns.
Untreated industrial and sewage waste released in the delta take a heavy toll on biodiversity. ?There used to be a lot of birds and dolphins in these waters but raising pollution levels have caused them to migrate elsewhere,? laments Tahir Qureshi. The area falls under the jurisdiction of Port Qasim Authority, which unfortunately claims to be cash-strapped and does not commit to mangrove protection. There has also been no serious commitment by the industries located in the area, all of whom have their contribution in this destruction? he adds.
Mangroves which once occupied 600,000 hectares now cover only 80-90 hectares of coastline. The exponential decline is due to water shortage, rising pollution, poor governance and poverty. ?Locals (indigenous coastal dwellers) have long been using mangroves for burning fuel despite coal producing kilns. However, the only difference is that earlier, freshwater inflow was high, there was minimum pollution and coastal population was limited.
?These are natural barriers to shoreline erosion as they stabilise fine sediments and to some extent ward off effects of storms, hurricanes and tsunami. Earlier such claims were snubbed by the industry while concerned authorities paid little or no heed. However, a recent study has calculated the impact of this claim by assessing losses incurred in the Indian state of Orissa. In 1999 a powerful cyclone of T7 category struck the Indian state killing 9,893 humans destroying 441,531 livestock in addition to damaging 1,958,351 houses and approximately 1,843,047 hectares of crop.
Saudamini Das of Swami Shradhanand College, University of Delhi examined the impact of natural shield provided by the mangroves considering meteorological, geophysical and socio-economic factors; land elevation and immovable asset holding. the study concluded that the opportunity cost of each hectare forested land is $8,670 while the cost of regenerating the same amount of forest is $110. If their had not been deforestation after 1950, the casualties would have been 92 per cent lesser in addition to lowering damages to areas within 10 km of the coast.
So how much does it cost to regenerate these forests in the Indus Delta? ?A bag of 600 seeds costs PKR 1100 approximately $13.10 and we have been planting an average of 500 bags per year? explains Tahir Qureshi. The former divisional forest officer claims, ?We initiated an experimental plantation in 1987 and have cultivated innumerable trees.? According to a leading ecological economist and environmental advocate, Dr. Parvaiz Amir, ?From being a water scarce country, Pakistan has become a water stressed country. There is not enough water for agriculture but there are feasible alternatives such as plantation, better governance and releasing lesser pollutants into the area.
The waste generated by industries situated along the coast should be treated before discharged in the water and corporations should be mandated to allocate budgets for wetland restoration. Conversion of the area into an environmental park, attracting tourists is another alternative that can be looked into for generating finances.
It is in the best interest of the government, industrialists, agriculturists and citizens to protect this natural habitat