Karachi is the largest and the fastest growing city of Pakistan with an estimated population of over 16 million in 2006. This figure is expected to reach 27 million by the year 2020.
The total land area of the Karachi district is approximately 3600 square kilometres, of which about 1300 square kilometres are occupied by the built-up area divided into 15 towns. The coastline in the district is about 135 kilometres long extending along the Gharo Creek westward beyond Cape Monze to the estuary of the Hub River.
Karachi that has a busy seaport is a hub of economic activity and contributes substantially to the national exchequer. Since 1923, five master plans were formulated, but none of them were backed with legal cover, resulting in huge urban sprawl, unplanned katchi abaadis and slums and lack of proper infrastructure and utilities. There has been mention of plans to increase green cover of the city but unfortunately these could not be materialised.
Over the last few years, mega development projects have been launched in the city including construction of fly-overs, signal-free roads and mass rapid transport service. Besides, several residential colonies and housing projects have been announced by builders to accommodate aspiring buyers and investors.
This activity has led to shrinking or elimination of green belts in the city and cutting of a large number of trees, further reducing the already scant green cover. For example, environmentalists have pointed out that around 19,000 trees along the route of the Green Line bus have been chopped off to facilitate construction of this corridor.
The practice of cutting trees in the name of development has been criticised by different segments of the society who have seen the adverse impact of heat wave hitting the city last year and claiming hundreds of lives. In the absence of sufficient tree cover, the affected people could not find shade to save themselves from the adverse impact of this heat wave. Air pollution level has also gone up as a huge number of trees that absorb pollutants and purify air have been axed.
Against this backdrop, there have been calls to plant more and more trees and save the city from the looming environmental disaster. It is highly imperative to do that as a City District Government Karachi (CDGK) report prepared in 2008, using satellite images, had put Karachi’s green space to be only seven per cent of its total area. Independent experts and development sector professionals, who have carried out surveys in the recent past, claim that their findings suggest that this cover has been further reduced to hardly 3 per cent.
So, in this situation, one wonders where lies the solution and how can the disasters like the last year’s heat wave be averted.
Rafiul Haq, a senior ecologist and CEO Coastal Restoration Alliance for Biodiversity (Crab), points out that for every one resident there shall be seven trees. As per this formula, he says, Karachi which has a population of 20 million requires at least ten million trees.
He says it is in everybody’s knowledge that trees improve the quality of air and cleanse it of impurities but unfortunately Karachi has become a concrete jungle. The green areas that have existed in the past are being encroached upon by the builders’ mafia and there is very little resistance, he adds.
Haq tells TNS that though solution lies in planting more trees, it shall also be ensured that the right type of plants is selected and alien invasive species are avoided. But, he says, unfortunately Conocarpus, a totally alien species, has been planted at a huge scale in Karachi despite the fact that it carries allergens and causes increase in pollen count in the air. “The only consideration of the government in making this selection seems to be that this plant grows very fast and shows impressive results.”
CDGK records that more than two million Conocarpus plants were planted across the city, in parks, along the roads, in green belts and so on during the tenure of district nazim Mustafa Kamal. Initially, the trees like Pipal, Banyan, Coconut, Neem and tropical tree species such as Siris, Ashoka, Amaltas, Indian Badam, Gulmohar, Palm and Lignum had been shortlisted for this purpose but later on the officials introduced Conocarpus which is actually mangrove specie and is imported from Ethiopia.
Amar Guriro, President, National Council of Environmental Journalists (NCEJ), believes cutting trees is not seen as a crime in the city that has become an urban hell due to the environment unfriendly activities. He laments a large number of Neem trees that are a slow growing indigenous species have been cut down in the city without realising the environmental cost of this act. Neem tree was officially declared ‘Tree of Sindh’ in 2010 but not much was done to protect it.
Citing an example, Guriro says a private company cut down 540 fully grown Neem trees on Superhighway in the first week of August this year, just to establish cattle market to keep sacrificial animals for sale on Eidul Azha. This criminal act was carried out right under the nose of the authorities who should have acted against the culprits but hardly any action was taken. “They were not able to realise that the city lost a source of 54,000 kilogrammes of oxygen that these trees were producing every year,” he adds.
Nadeem Mirbahar, an official at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), thinks that planting one type of tree creates monoculture that also affects the bird population of the city. “Since different birds have varying nesting habits and prefer different trees, they simply migrate.”
In this scenario, the need of the time is that the government and the citizens must join hands and plant trees that increase the green cover as well as improve the environment surrounding them. Development is not a bad idea provided it is sustainable and comprehensive and not at the cost of health and environment.