Life in Pakistan is like a rollercoaster ride. The highs and lows come thick and fast. This is true in whichever field one functions in. Just about a couple weeks ago, I was writing in this very newspaper about the wonderful move of declaring Pakistan’s largest island, Astola or Haft Talar, as the country’s first marine protected area.
Well we were not even done celebrating that success when environmentalists in the same conversation scared the bee gees out of me by sounding a note of warning regarding the fate of Pakistan’s second largest island, Churna, also off the coast of Balochistan.
Now it is possible that some of my Karachi friends may raise their eyebrows at that because many of the cityslickers consider it ‘their’ island, just a couple of hours drive away; the weekend getaway where they experience the joys of scuba diving and snorkeling, enjoying the views of the rich marine life, and cliff jumping, which is illegal whichever way you look at it!
Legally, the island is off the coast of Balochistan, and that is why the alarm bells need to stir the authorities in that province to save it from the potential damage that is being wrought by unrestricted tourist and proposed industrial activity.
Earlier it was used as a firing range by the Pakistan Navy so there was no unrestricted access. However, the deactivation of the range seems to have opened the floodgates of interest for the residents of adjoining Karachi who are always hungry for sports and recreational activities.
The damage done by the unmindful tourists, as well as the fishing boats is very evident in the form of trash, and ghost nets. Through putting in place ecotourism protocols, and educating the fishermen, this problem can be overcome. Not all tourists are generators of trash. There is a responsible group of scuba divers, belonging to the Indus Scuba Club that regularly undertakes trash cleaning activities; voluntarily! If only we had more of such conscientious citizens.
The bigger problem, rather, the clear and present danger is from the industrial activity on the shore that is impacting, and likely to impact, or even destroy the ecology of this island that too has coral colonies.
In a research paper written by Amjad Ali, Rupert Ormond, Wera Leujak and Pirzada Jamal A. Siddiqui, in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom published in 2013, titled ‘Distribution, Diversity and Abundance of Coral Communities in the Coastal Waters of Pakistan’. It mentions “moderately rich coral communities were recorded at Churna Island.” “Corals are a diverse group of organisms. These organisms generally build a hard skeleton of calcium carbonate or lime and corals and coral reefs are the most complex marine ecosystem supporting rich biological diversity.”
The report indicates that the “bottom rocky constituted of uplifted rocks. Hard corals assemblages, growing on coral rock mounds and ridges. They were of following genera, Alveopora sp., Dendrophyllia sp., Goniopora sp. Favites sp., Leptastrea sp., Coscinaraea sp. and Psammocora sp. No soft corals recorded. On the north-west side hard coral species were recorded in genera Alveopora sp., and Goniopora sp. No soft corals were recorded.”
Other than the corals, Churna Island has been known as the basking area for whales, whale sharks and large rays. Historical records exist of it being the hunting ground of whales and whale sharks some 150 years ago.
Even right now, the ecology is being threatened by the single point mooring of an oil company. The recent oil spill is also alleged to have originated from this spot. Other than this, the coal fired power plant is another source of damage. The biggest danger to the fragile island is the proposed LNG terminal, that, in the opinion of the environmentalists and oceanographers, will completely finish off the coral colonies to the North of the Island. They say the only way this island can be saved is by declaring it as a Marine Protected Area, on the lines of Astola.
Churna Island has been known as the basking area for whales, whale sharks and large rays. Historical records exist of it being the hunting ground of whales and whale sharks some 150 years ago.
In any case, the Aichi protocol Pakistan is a signatory calls for dedicating 10 per cent of area as MPA. With the declaration of Astola, Pakistan has taken the first step, but that still constitutes barely 2 per cent. Churna would also be a minor percentage point addition. Probably the Government needs to move more robustly on the call of the Convention on Biodiversity decision taken in December 2016 to designate EBSAs (Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas). It is encouraging to see Indus Delta, Center of Arabian Sea, Turtle Beach Sandspit, Churna complex, Astola, and a Transboundary one spanning Jiwani/Iran in that list.
The Balochistan government needs to become more proactive on the matter as this island comes under its jurisdiction. Just because it is away from the seat of its government does not absolve it of the responsibility to be the true custodian of its flora and fauna. The LNG terminal poses a clear and present danger, but I could not find any Environmental Impact Assessment report on the website of the Balochistan Environment protection Agency, and neither could I find any reports of a public hearing on the topic.
How is it that the terminal, said to be a project of the Bahria Foundation, is progressing without due process to the environmental laws? Where are the questions and who is giving the answers? This is a shared asset of the world. No organisation should be able to bypass rules and regulations of the country and damage the environment.
We need to look at the human cost involved as well. According to Shahid Sayeed Khan, of Indus Earth Trust, whose organisation has worked with the coastal communities, the livelihood of around
3500 persons of two villages, Goth Mubarak and Manjhaar depends on this island. Almost 60 per cent of the males of Manjhaar village are small boat owners who depend on fishing in and around Churna; the rest work on fishing boats which go further down the coast of Balochistan. The making of the LNG terminal will completely starve them of this source of their livelihood other than damaging the marine life in the area.
If the island is declared as an MPA (Marine Protected Area), however, the Management Plan will have to take into account their benefits by drawing up detailed alternate livelihood plans for them. It is these people who must also have a voice in any kind of ‘development’ activity taking place in their vicinity. And while the legal jurisdiction may lie with the Balochistan government, what is stopping other concerned Pakistani citizens ask the tough questions — because the environment after all is without any borders? We have seen citizen activism taking the judicial route to safeguard rights. Maybe there needs to be ‘Friends of Churna Island’ who need to take action to save it.