ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS TO GWADAR

SYED FAZL-E-HAIDER
Sep 22 - 28, 2008

Seawater of Balochistan is pollution-free due to the absence of maritime navigation and industries along the coast. But, it is not going to remain pollution-free, as Gwadar port has become operational with the arrival of first vessel in March. The project would serve as a transshipment hub. It will form the basis for development of a refinery and petrochemical complex and other industries. The coastal shipping or ferry service would be developed along with the development of Gwadar port to facilitate marketing of fish products and reduce the cost of moving goods overland over long distances by the passage of time.

Whereas the development of Gwadar as mother port of the region will bring enormous economic benefits for the country, it would also exert tremendous pressure and burden on the environmental economy of coastal Balochistan causing erosion of coastal resources, oil pollution, degradation of marine ecosystems, destruction of critical habitats and marine species. Located on the mouth of Arabian Sea, Gwadar is exposed to serious threat of oil pollution after the development of deep-sea port. The oil tankers, fishing boats and merchant vessels are considered major sources of oil pollution in Arabian Sea. The waste from future industrial estates to be established in Gwadar, also poses threat of water pollution. It is therefore inevitable to put all the economic activities and development projects going on in coastal Balochistan subject to review under the entire provisions of Pakistan Environment Protection Act 1997.

The environmental catastrophe brought about by oil spill from Tasman Spirit (the Greek oil tanker stranded while entering the channel at Karachi port) in 2003 at Karachi coast should be an eye opener for the decision-makers and economic planners in Islamabad. The oil spill from the grounded oil tanker caused worst environmental degradation posing serious threat to marine life including fish and mangrove forests. In the given potential threats, there is a vital need for development of oil spill response mechanism and contingency plans to deal with the critical situation and future environmental losses on Balochistan coast.

Experts emphasize the need for reviewing the known information about coastal and marine life and resources, baseline surveys of biodiversity, mapping of habitat, monitoring of key pollutants, studies and stock assessments of declining fisheries species and undertaking of research on key issues. A comprehensive strategy needs to be developed for preventing the decline of marine environment and falling fish stocks. The sites proposed by the experts for the establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Balochistan include Jiwani, Gunz, Ormara, Hingol River Estuary and Sonmiani. The MPA is an area in the coastal zone particularly dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity and of natural and associated cultural resources and it is managed through legal means.

The coastal areas of Balochistan will become the worst polluted until and unless the Gwadar deep-water port and the projects associated with its development coastal highway, development of transportation corridors, communication development, Mirani dam and other water resource development schemes are subject to the provisions of Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997. Gwadar port will require effective town planning to protect valuable coastal resources, otherwise the haphazard development of coastal settlements and pollution of coastal beaches would be the important problems to be confronted by the people in coastal areas in future.

Water scarcity is a big problem in coastal towns of Balochistan. There will be an urgent need to install desalination plants at different points along coastal belt in the province. Gwadar port project would necessitate augmentation of water supply to ensure a safe source of water for the population and the Agriculture. There is also a need to augment water supply for industrial, commercial and domestic use.

A number of mega projects around the country, including the Gwadar Port development project in Balochistan, had been initiated without carrying out an EIA. The capacity of the provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to process such EIA reports is also questionable, as most of such reports and surveys are headed by non-technical bureaucrats. The EPA lacks the resources to properly evaluate an environmental impact report. There is an immediate need to undertake environmental, economic and social assessment of mega seaport project at Gwadar in Balochistan.

Pakistan is committed to the international community vis--vis the establishment of MPAs. At the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002, governments had agreed to establish representative networks of MPAs by 2012. Pakistan is also a signatory to the Summit's resolution. It is obligatory on the government of Pakistan under an international biodiversity treaty to establish MPAs by the year 2012 and ensure protection to most valuable sites along the coast.

Marine scientists and coastal zone management experts have identified at least 11 potential sites for the establishment of MPAs in Pakistan. The MPAs would prevent extreme depletion of fishery stock and protect their genetic diversities. An MPA may be any marine area to be reserved under legislation to protect marine values. According to the experts, it is an area of inter-tidal or sub-tidal terrain together with its overlaying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which can be categorized as marine park, marine reserve, marine natural reserve, marine habitat reserve, marine protected area, national seashore, high-seas areas, marine wildlife reserve, marine wildlife areas, maritime park, marine sanctuary, marine life refuge and marine conservation area.

The ecology of Gwadar region can be described as semi arid and coastal environment. While, the semi arid mainland has limited vegetation and biodiversity, the coastal zone is a valuable ecological resource. Mekran coast is known to be an important breeding ground for turtles. The turtles to lay and incubate their eggs use the beaches around Gwadar. The turtles are very sensitive to light pollution. The major environmental constraints are focused on the coastal zone where the most sensitive ecosystems are located. The port operation and economic activity should remain undisturbed. Inevitably, the port development at Gwadar will bring about changes in the environment. All new development needs to adopt the highest standards of environmental protection. The ecology of East Bay will be more directly affected by the port development. There is a need to take steps for conservation of habitats along the East Bay.