Prevent, halt & reverse marine ecosystems degradationa
PAKISTAN received a singular honour when it hosted the main ceremony of World Environment Day (WED) on 5th June 2021.
On that day, the Prime Minister of Pakistan called for the world to correct its course by fighting back pollution, ensuring clean water and reducing carbon emissions.
This year’s WED also marked the beginning of the United Nations’ Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
We must prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems not only in Pakistan but worldwide. WED ought to rally us to focus all our efforts to heal our planet.
The question is, “Are we sincere and can we save the planet”? Some experts say, “The scary thing is that after 2030 it basically does not matter what humans do.
The tipping points of the world’s ecosystems can slide into a domino effect on each other, and we will lose total control.”
These tipping points are daily in the news such as accelerated melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, altered ocean circulation patterns, rising sea levels, functioning of the monsoon rainfall systems, droughts and forest fires. We are getting close to hitting the ceiling of the earth system’s capacity to remain stable
. Are too many of us ‘alarmists’ or far too many of us are not nearly alarmed enough?
Can environmental performance only be ensured at the cost of economic performance? Many experts think both go hand in hand.
They are two faces of the same coin. Nevertheless, you can observe all around many examples of duplicity and hypocrisy. The United States under President Trump was virtually in denial of climate change and Earth’s environmental degradation, and withdrew from the Paris Accord.
Highly developed countries such as Japan routinely employ destructive fishing practices seriously degrading the sustenance of marine life.
In the backdrop of ‘Restoration and Preservation of Marine Ecosystem of Pakistan’, unfortunately, the marine ecosystem of Pakistan has been degrading right in front of our eyes.
They are under attack through discharge of massive amount of untreated sewage and industrial polluting effluents into the sea, horrific fishing practices and the paradoxical governance system for environment.
Pakistan is the world’s 6th most populous country and understandably uses a huge amount of water.
Sadly, less than 1 % of our sewage and effluent water is treated before draining into streams, canals, rivers and lakes which ultimately flow into the sea.
The blackish green seawater off the Indus Delta and Karachi coast is proof enough of our careless attitude.
Even in our capital Islamabad, only one sewage treatment plant is working out of the installed three.
All of us have been hearing for decades about the four or five combined effluent treatment plants that are to be established in Karachi. All our agencies are culprits in this mismanagement to some degree.
It is hoped we can create a model in Gwadar city and also not allow any marine tourism sites to add to the pollution of the sea.
If anyone wishes to see the naked disregard of the marine ecosystem, they should visit the Karachi fish harbour.
The catch of juveniles, destructive fishing practices, nearly 70% of the fish catch being unfit for human consumption, deplorable sanitary conditions, discharge of oily waste from fishing boats into the sea and the overpowering stench are enough to raise the loudest alarm.
This is a daily practice and going on for decades. We only bring improvement in piece meals to meet fish export restrictions. Otherwise, the industry, the local government and the fishermen just don’t care.
Then, Pakistan has some industries that are heavy polluters of wetlands and water bodies. Sugar mills and tanneries are a major culprit in polluting their surroundings.
Our ship breaking and dismantling industry on the seacoast is also an offender where best practices are required, along-with development of necessary infrastructure.
The recent suspicious case of a ship brought into Pakistan after a change of its flag and identity for dismantling is a case in point.
This ship was denied permission for dismantling in Bangladesh and India for more than a year because it was carrying 1500 tonnes of highly toxic mercury-contaminated sludge, about which, Interpol had alerted Pakistan government.
My parents taught me if I create a mess, I must clean it up myself and nobody else will do it for me.
However, our industry has enjoyed a free lunch and the liberty that the large effluent treatment plants will be funded, installed and operated by government bodies. The industries can pollute water-based ecosystem with impunity.
We find ourselves in a paradoxical governance system for the environment after the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.
It abolished the Federal Ministry of Environment and transferred the responsibility of protecting and improving environment to the provinces, along with the control of 12 nautical miles territorial sea.
This shift of responsibility has made environmental protection and marine ecosystems a political football, at least in the province of Sindh.
On WED, Sindh Government Advisor on Environment castigated KPT, a federal agency that it should own up the responsibility to clean up the harbour.
He forgot to mention that the harbour is badly polluted because of sewage, solid waste, industrial wastewater, and the discharge from the Karachi fisheries. Similarly, the two-month ban on trawling is hardly enforced by the provincial government.
For 73 years, we have heard the same excuse that fishermen have no alternative employment for 2 months.
In this environment of doom and gloom, we do have several silver linings. The 10 Billion Tree Tsunami including the restoration and increase in mangrove forest cover are world-class programs to restore our ecosystems and ameliorate the coastal ecology. However, here also the federal government’s hands are tied.
Most of the required land belongs to the provinces. Therefore, we hardly see concerted tree plantation efforts in the province of Sindh.
There, forest lands have been occupied by the influential for their benefit. However, the efforts of Pakistan Navy are noteworthy in planting the mangroves.
In 2017, the government of Balochistan notified the first marine protected area (MPA) on Astola Island.
This was a historical first.
However, no part of seawater has been declared as MPA so far. One hopes that we will achieve the target of 27,000 square kilometres of marine protected areas around Churna Island, Miani Hor and the Indus Canyon soon.
The other bright spot is the realisation of the importance of the environment in our youth as well as among key industries.
The youth realise that they need to take the front seat in protecting the environment and participating in 10 billion Tree Plantation drive.
In Sha Allah, Pakistan will fulfil its role in restoring the environment as well as the marine ecosystems despite many impediments.
We ought to meet this challenge head-on and spare no efforts in ensuring a green and eco-friendly Pakistan.
—The writer who is former Vice Chief of the Naval Staff and currently affiliated with National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA) as Honorary Fellow.