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Facing clear and present danger

It’s time Miani Hor is declared a marine protected area and the local community included in all future plans

Facing clear and present danger

There are mothers, and then there are mothers. No matter how angry you make them, or hurt them, there remains somewhere in the deep recesses of their heart atoms of love and forgiveness, or at best, an acceptance of errant behaviour of their offsprings. Not so with Mother Nature! You mess with her, and she comes right back at you with a force that can annihilate.

To their cost, this is what the people of Damb, a small coastal town in Miani Hor lagoon, north of Sonmiani Bay in Balochistan have learnt. This is one of Pakistan’s two main lagoons, the other being Kalmat Hor. Inhabitants of an exposed coast which clocks the fastest current anywhere in Pakistan, at three metres per second, have faced the wrath of Mother Nature due to ill planned human interventions.

Siting of a harbour planned at the cost of Rs220 million has resulted in severe erosion on the other side due to the blockage of the natural current, and has swept away at least 1,000 small shops and fish processing plants. The Coast Guard office that was situated well inland now lies inundated and abandoned.

The residents of Sonmiani, Damb and Bera are the direct affectees as well as beneficiaries of whatever happens in Miani Hor. But there are other stakeholders who hold control, like the army and navy.

The next in line to be hit are the residential areas of this small but important fishing town that is in an ecologically rich, unique and fragile area. Unique because of the biodiversity present here, this is the only area in Pakistan where the three varieties of mangroves, Avicennia marina, Rhizophora mucronata and Ceriops tagal, are present naturally. Elsewhere humans have planted them.

The mangroves serve as an ideal nursery for shrimps and mud crabs. The area is host to more than 300 species of fish species, and 100 species of crab, shrimps and mollusks.

This is on the Flyway No. 4, also called the Indus Flyway, which is an important route of the migratory birds from Siberia to Rann of Kutch. Various species of flamingoes, cranes and pelicans are resplendent on its shores and scurry around on its mudflats, along with colonies of resident birds thriving among the stands of mangroves, which are also home to jackals, foxes, dogs, falcons, ospreys, kites and other predatory animals — showing a healthy biodiversity, ensuring an unbroken food chain.

This is the only lagoon where the humpback dolphins, which are listed as ‘near-threatened’ in the IUCN Red List, feed and breed. It is estimated that the number is anywhere between 80-200. These are seen as human-friendly and are not hunted by fishermen. On the contrary, if any get entangled in the nets, they are carefully released back into the lagoon.

A few Indo-Pacific finless porpoises have also been spotted, and they are considered vulnerable, according to IUCN Red List. The dolphins delightfully prance around the boats, completely unmindful of human presence, and at times, seem to be putting up a show for them.

For these reasons and more, Miani Hor has also been declared a RAMSAR site. However, as Pakistan is a signatory to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on BioDiversity, it had to take action to meet its commitments to declare at least 10 per cent of its area as marine protected area (MPA).

The consultation between working groups formed of the Ministry of Climate Change and important environmental organisations like WWF-Pakistan and IUCN-Pakistan, NGOs and community organisations had short-listed the potential sites that needed immediate designation as such. However, it took a lot of to-and-fro since 2015 when the discussion started, to June 2017, when finally the decision was taken to put Pakistan on the MPA map.

Strident voices of the environmental organisations and individuals led to the declaration of Astola Island off the coast of Pasni as Pakistan’s first MPA. Of course the other recommendation is for the very ecologically fragile Churna Island, and now Miani Hor has attained urgency because of the clear and present danger that the human interference and subsequent push back from the nature is posing to it. Astola was probably the easiest because of no human settlement there and the federal and Balochistan governments moved swiftly to cut through the jurisdictional web.

The residents of Sonmiani, Damb and Bera are the direct affectees as well as beneficiaries of whatever happens in Miani Hor. But there are other stakeholders who hold control, like the army and navy. They all need to be across the same table to understand the need for protecting this environment from the ravages of nature that are being exacerbated by human development and greed.

Public representatives and public officials all need to be vested in the mission to safeguard this pristine environment. Sources say that the Chief Minister of Balochistan has to take the decision. According to marine expert Dr Moazzam, “the land and jurisdiction has to be transferred to the Forest and Wildlife Department of the government of Balochistan. There is marginal land that is with Pakistan Army and private owners. The matter is being perused by the Forest and Wildlife Department. In fact a big push is needed from say the chief minister to get this done as was been done in the case of Astola Island.

“I think once the land issue is sorted, the area can easily be declared as MPA and a management regime can be placed. There is already declared forest land in the area and local community is supportive, therefore, I do not see any hitch,” he adds.

The support from the community is evident when organisations take decisions when to fish, which species to fish, and when to declare the no-fishing season to allow the stock to regenerate. They have also been part of a very successful experiment of establishing a notified ‘no take refugia’, named Safe Dori, which means an entire creek has been fenced off and no human activity takes place to allow for the fish, crab and shrimp and jellyfish stock to multiply to healthy levels.

Other than the consent of the political leadership and buy in of the communities, the role of the administration is key to the implementing of any such decisions. The Commissioner of Kalat Division, Hashim Ghilzai, who himself is a natural resource management expert, has already taken proactive steps to assess the damage being caused by erosion and has held consultations with the local communities for mitigation.

He says, “In declaring any area as MPA, the District Administration can help in the process in multiple ways, like facilitation to visiting teams, provision of data and security, advocacy, community awareness and surveys. However, at the same time, the DA would like to protect the basic rights of the local people particularly their livelihood needs to be properly addressed in the proposed MPA.“

This is the key — the rights of the people to benefit from the environment. This will also take the longest to settle — how the community will view the ‘hands off approach in the event of a no take zone?’

According to Dr Moazzam, “A difficult question to answer because the community is dependent on the resources of the lagoon, therefore, if we make many other creeks and areas (although I fully support more area to be refugia) then there may be a crisis, and resentment from the community. I am working with elders of the area for declaring a few more areas as ‘no take zone’. I hope it will work. But if we declare Miani Hor as MPA, then there may not be any immediate need to declaring more refugia.

When asked about the disastrous structure of the harbour at Damb that accelerated the erosion in the first place, he says, “Even if it [Miani Hor] is declared as MPA, still fishermen will be needing a landing jetty. To me it will require huge investment to have any viable solution for present structure but it has to be done because it cannot be dismantled and has to be improved to make it viable.

“An advertisement has been published for construction of floating jetty at Damb. The community has some reservation, and I am also a bit disturbed because I am not aware of the design and location. Hope it is not another ‘Damn Harbour’ at Damb!” he adds.

This is why side by side with sorting the legal wranglings, alternates like ecotourism should be looked at for the community members because less than a 100km from Karachi, a good road makes this an ideal bird-watching spot and to see the cavorting dolphins.

Afia Salam

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The author is a freelance journalist who writes on Environment, Climate Change, Gender, Media Ethics & other social issues. Her blog is www.afiasalam.wordpress.com.

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