Challenge of maritime blindness for Pakistan
THE term “maritime blindness” also known as “sea blindness”, refers to a state where large segments of the population in a country remain oblivious and unaware of the sea and the ocean-related potential.
It is a very common phenomenon in developing nations including Pakistan. The maritime power of a state encompasses its national security, ports and harbor, fisheries, transport, industries, and associated facilities.
Pakistan is considered as a maritime state as it has an over 1000km coastline on the Arabian Sea, a part of the Indian Ocean. It has its 95% trade done through maritime sectors via Karachi, Bin Qasim and the newly operational Gwadar Port.
However, unfortunately, this sector has been neglected in Pakistan due to the land-oriented mindset of our decision-makers.
There is a lack of understanding of the importance of the maritime sector which has resulted in harming the economic and overall growth of the country.
As an ally of the USA in the cold war, it is a bitter reality that Pakistan’s foreign policy remained tilted due to inappropriate vision and short-term policy measures by serving behind the parties’ agendas.
Overall, pre-requisites for Pakistan’s traditional and non-traditional maritime security were not given much importance. There is an absence of a long-term vision-based strategy and course of action, although the national maritime policy of 2002 is in place.
This policy is however now outdated and needs to be revisited for the incorporation of many developments along with international obligations and new knowledge additions in the field.
Overall, this situation has arisen due to lack of awareness by the government and general public as all the components of the maritime sector have not been utilized to their optimum utility.
The most important and unattended issue is maritime transportation which has a very important role in national security considering the energy security in the backdrop of any unforeseen war in the Indian Ocean Region.
Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC) which is also the national flag carrier, only has 11 ships (six oil tankers and five bulk carriers) to carry cargo at the moment and is carrying less than 10% of the total quantum of sea-borne trade of Pakistan over 100 million tons per annum.
In recent times, the transportation of freight via sea has increased massively due to vast development in international trade.
During hostilities/crises, an inadequate number of fleets in Pakistan can cause problems in cargo handling.
At the same time, war risk surcharge could be another issue that has linkage with the balance of payments thus ultimately putting pressure on the country’s foreign exchange reserve.
This indicates a lack of vision and strategy towards maritime transportation viz-a-viz development of the appropriate size of national fleet.
Maritime blindness is not only obvious for the maritime transportation sector but it has also adversely affected other sectoral economies, such as marine fisheries, maritime tourism, on-shore, and off-shore resources, the livelihood of coastal communities, and development of energy resources, etc.
The case of marine fisheries is quite unique and significant in terms of the current and upcoming challenge of food security. It is evident from the National Nutrition Survey of 2018 that 36.9% of the population of Pakistan is currently facing food insecurity.
Parallel to this our population is also experiencing a rapid growth rate, due to which the scale of food insecurity would become very high in the years to come.
To make matters worse, it is foreseen that the dietary trends will also change in South Asian countries particularly in Pakistan due to an imbalance of supply and demand for the food crops. This would ultimately shift the consumption patterns with increased reliance on seafood.
Thus sea-food or marine life will become an important part of food security considering population growth and as an alternate source to fulfil the vital biological needs of human beings.
In 1960, a team of the United Nations visited the Maldives on a mission for the country’s development. They judged that the Maldives was not a suitable country for tourism.
However, their judgment was proved wrong as the tourism industry took off in Maldives after the 1970s. This was because of their excellent governance, effective strategic planning and its execution.
Today, a similar narrative also exists for Pakistan assuming that it is not the right destination for maritime tourism.
Comparing Pakistan’s current situation with that of the Maldives in the late 1970s, Pakistan lacks proper vision and strategic planning to harness its maritime tourism sector. Thus, maritime blindness is quite visible in this sector where enormous potential exists.
Pakistan has an over 1000 kilometers long Makaran coastal highway and beautiful scenic views all along. The only thing required to overcome this blindness is proper attention and supervision by the government.
The Indian Ocean contains a rich amount of energy and mineral resources. In developed countries, a major quantity of natural gas and oil has been extracted from the sea. This shows that if these resources are managed properly, they can have a lion’s share in the growth of the countries.
Unfortunately, Pakistan was not able to utilize the full potential of marine resources. Lack of awareness/clarity about the maritime potential in general public and government circles is quite obvious.
There is a need to develop and execute a clear road-map to harness the actual maritime potential.
Summing up, it can be said with clarity that maritime blindness is quite visible in almost every sector of the maritime industry.
The present situation of our economy requires a boost up and this can be achieved if the government focuses on the advancement of maritime economies, works on positive policy-making within its financial resources and improves infrastructure along the coastline.
Now is the time that we focus on this industry and try to make up for our years of neglect. The only thing required is an understanding of the importance of the sea by changing our mindset from land-oriented to sea-oriented.
—The author is associated with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs, Islamabad.