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Dredging deep into nature

Dredging deep into nature

In the drive to increase economic activity, the impact on nature often takes a back seat. Dredging in Pakistan is an example of such activities and their resultant side effects. Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of the world’s Green House Gases, yet it is the eighth most vulnerable nation to the climate crisis.

In 2022, Pakistan experienced its worst flooding in decades. Entire villages were wiped out, lives were lost, and people’s homes and livelihoods were in jeopardy as a result of unprecedented rainfall. Massive storm water surges swept across a defenseless landscape, natural or otherwise, inundating about a third of the country.

Therefore, it stands to reason that Pakistan has indeed fallen victim to climate change, caused primarily by massive emission-happy developed economies (in both East and West) of the world, which is arguably the main culprit for natural disasters, including rapidly changing weather patterns, flash flooding and torrential rains.

However, in the case of Pakistan’s manmade changes to coastal regions which are exacerbating coastline erosion through the destruction of natural coastal habitats in the name of development, dredging practices to deepen shipping channels and filling in wetlands, Pakistan is very much a perpetrator and not the victim.

The global economy relies on seaborne trade to fuel worldwide growth and in furtherance of that objective, continuous technological advancements enhancing cost-effectiveness have birthed larger, more efficient vessels, creating the need to deepen river beds and aquatic highways to provide sufficient access. At some point, almost all major ports in the world have required dredging to enlarge access passages for larger vessels to dock.

Dredging is carried out to remove unwanted deposits from waterways. However, even though the activity is a regular practice and aids in marine traffic, it is not without its dangers. Unrestricted dredging poses a massive threat to aquatic flora and fauna and if not carried out sensibly, can spell long-term disaster for the marine environment.

Changes to the sea floor from dredging may impact underwater currents in unexpected ways. A change in currents can have disastrous effects not only on the navigation and docking of vessels in the channel but can overwhelm and erode natural and even man-made structures. An example of this would be Pasni Harbor where less than adequate hydrological studies underestimated the impact of changing currents from construction activities, which eventually resulted in the entire harbor being silted and eventually becoming naturally sealed.

Dredging to make space for deeper vessels or reclamation in our wetlands to build high-rise residential buildings creates instability in the coastal belt resulting in coastal erosion and mangrove deforestation.

Dredging kicks up sediment in the waters under its effect increasing turbidity (being cloudy, opaque, and thick with suspended matter). This poses an additional challenge for marine life relying on clarity in the waters for survival in order to feed.

Pakistan has been blessed by natural shoreline barriers, with mangroves acting as the first line of defense against any coastal disaster, such as stormwater surges, tsunami waves, and flooding. Mangroves are nurseries that sustain numerous endemic species of Pakistan. They break the impact of water surges minimizing inland water damage and serve as a valuable source of nutrition for our local communities who derive a large chunk of their food supply and incomes from fishing to keep themselves afloat.

Regardless, mangroves’ role in protecting and sustaining Pakistan’s shores is widely acknowledged. However, the local marine life, its human dependents and the larger habitat may be put at risk from further disturbance and ingress arising from construction and dredging, with the possibility that many sea species in the region may end up going extinct.

It is mind-boggling that a new and substantially large dredging contract is being contemplated by Port Qasim to accommodate larger vessels in DP World Terminals. This proposed dredging project would destroy precious mangrove habitats and ecosystems in the Indus estuary.

Is Pakistan prepared to renege on its promise to plant 10 billion trees across the country? Undertaking this damaging dredging project will set a wave to reverse all sustainability commitments the country has made. Would we be signaling to our future generation that the environment is just an inconvenient by-product at the expense of insensible and unjustifiable infrastructure developments?

How can we put ourselves in a position to ask the western world for reparation as we did at the COP27 Conference for their expansive carbon footprint when we are not mindful of protecting our own natural habitat and resources?

Damaging our environment, and adulterating our beautiful coastal regions and the many elements that depend on them is unacceptable. We must do our best as a nation to preserve Pakistan’s natural prestige along with the unique ecosystems that dot the coastlines and waterways of this beautiful country. If we don’t owe it ourselves, we at least owe it to our future generations.

(The writer is an advisor to the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry),

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