How Trees Could Save Karachi, Pakistan from Climate Havoc

OA group of schoolchildren from Pakistan walked down a wood walkway to reach a mangrove forest on Tuesday morning. The children jostled to find space on a tiny viewing platform, and excitedly pointed out the fish that were darting among exposed tree roots. As the rising tide inched ever closer to the crabs and mudskippers resting on shore, the children’s guide launched into a detailed explanation of the unique marine ecosystem fringing the coast, and how it provided both a vital nursery for ocean fish and protection from tsunamis and storm surges. If mangroves are so important, wondered one child out loud, “Why are they in here, and not out there?” By in here, she meant the soaring glass atrium of Karachi’s newly opened MagnifiScience Centre, where the high-tech centerpiece is the living mangrove exhibit—complete with real trees, live fish, plastic crabs, and an accelerated tidal ebb and flow maintained by underground water pumps. There are manyKarachi’s crowded coast megacity is where most of the Indus delta port towns have been demolished and replaced with paved roads. These high-rises and golf courses offer breathtaking views of the ocean and are also home to container ports.

Mangrove forests go beyond any other type of forest. They are one of the most powerful natural tools we have to simultaneously reduce climate-change risks and protect ourselves from the impacts that are already here—and those to come. Karachi, a city on the warm coast of Pakistan is a prime example.

In what’s left of Karachi’s original mangrove swamps, one of the museum exhibit’s designers is documenting, in forensic detail, the piecemeal destruction of a once pristine forest for his weekly social media dispatch. “There are days out here when you can’t hear a single bird because the chainsaws are so loud,” Tariq Qaiser murmurs into his iPhone with a David Attenborough cadence as he pans the camera over a clear-cut swath of stump-studded silt. Just a few weeks ago, he continues, “the tree canopy was overhead, and the light filtered through as if you were in a cathedral. Now …” He shakes his head mutely as he steers his small boat past a pile of cut branches destined for the city’s back-alley firewood markets and charcoal kilns.

Pakistan’s Indus River Delta is home to hundreds of thousands of acres of mangroves, and the country boasts one of the most successful mangrove reforestation projects in the world. Few remain, however, in Karachi, the capital city. Here 16 million inhabitants are forced onto low-lying parcels of land. Qaiser, an architect of some renown, with thick gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a late-middle-age paunch he attributes to COVID-enforced inactivity, has spent the past half decade fighting for the protection and expansion of a small patch of mangroves rooted at the tip of a tidal island directly facing some of Karachi’s most valuable land.

Bundal Island could be redeveloped by developers. It would link Bundal Island to the mainland through a causeway and become prime real estate. Qaiser views the island as the terrestrial manifestation of Abdullah Shah Ghazi (the patron Sufi saint from Karachi), who guards it against storms and disease. “I don’t want to fight with the developers,” Qaiser says. “But I do want them to think about the future of this city.” In a congested metropolis already plagued by the urban heat-island effect, in which endless expanses of concrete buildings and paved roads amplify the already sweltering temperatures by several degrees, trees are a threatened resource. Mangroves, says Qaiser, “are our air-conditioning, our oxygen supply. If you just increase the mangrove cover, Karachi’s next 30 years will be much better than if you build over them.”

We will all live in a more peaceful world. The mangroves reduce climate change by sequestering CO2. These mangroves protect people from the effects of rising sea levels, increasing storms and other environmental changes. Qaiser’s quest to save Karachi’s last intact mangrove forest comes against the backdrop of a growing global movement to preserve those that remain and replace what has been lost. In this battle, his weapon of choice is a series of short, stunning nature videos filmed in and around Karachi’s mangroves. They are distributed weekly by Whats-App to around 2,000 contacts and urged to be shared widely. These are shared widely. They do. His daily 90-second messages, which are the maximum WhatsApp allows, have increased awareness and, in certain cases, even prompted officials and security officers to send in reinforcements to help stop illegal woodcutters. However, in a city with limited land resources, there is a greater danger of development. Bundal Island must be preserved. This requires educating the next generation of Karachiites on the importance of mangroves and the surrounding ecosystem. That was the impetus behind the museum’s mangrove exhibit, says Qaiser. The problem is that by the time the schoolkids are in a position to make any decisions, it might be too late—not for Pakistan’s mangroves, which are flourishing, but for Karachi’s, which are not.

Stretched over approximately 600 acres, Bundal Island’s mangroves account for less than 0.2% of Pakistan’s coastal forest cover. The mangroves remain largely unaccessible and are only accessible by boat owners such as Qaiser or illegal woodcutters. Also, camel herders swim over the islands to feed their livestock at low tide. You can see the thicket from Karachi. It is a blurred line of green on the horizon that has been smuggled by smoke and haze. Given the immensity of Pakistan’s problems—political instability, economic crisis, the perpetual threat of terrorism, and the deleterious impact of climate change—saving this tiny sliver of an island may seem a quixotic exercise, tilting at construction cranes when far more dangerous threats loom.

Qaiser is a warrior, ready to fight as though the city’s future was at risk. It is in a certain way.

Qaiser views Bundal’s former wooded area that was once home to mangroves.

Matthieu Paley for TIME

Mangroves can be mistaken for unproductive, mosquito-ridden swamps. However, they are bio-diverse ecosystems that provide more carbon-sequestration benefits per dollar than any other intervention. Though they occupy only 0.5% of the earth’s shorelines, they account for up to 15% of coastal carbon-storage capacity, holding the equivalent of more than 21 gigatons of CO2, roughly as much as China currently emits over two years. The salt-tolerant trees are adept at filtering pollutants from seawater, and their extensive root systems are important nurseries for fish, home to a wide variety of crustaceans, and the feeding grounds for migrating birds, crocodiles, and even big cats—mangrove aficionados claim that Rudyard Kipling’s fictional The Jungle Book with panther Bagheera and tiger Shere Khan, must have been set in the Bay of Bengal’s Sundarbans, the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world.

These roots can also hold sediment. This prevents erosion and protects coastal communities during storms. The mangrove forests that were still in place during the 2004 tsunami which devastated parts of India and Indonesia’s coastal cities, saved a lot. Mangroves play an important part in protecting cities such as Karachi from flooding, since sea levels will rise due to global warming. Mangroves are estimated to provide ecosystem services for humanity in the range of $462 billion-$798 billion each year, according to UN environment program.

The problem is that mangroves grow in tropical regions where river deltas meet the sea—often the type of oceanfront property prized by developers, the agriculture industry, and shrimp farmers. As a result, more than a third of the world’s mangroves have been chopped down for firewood and construction materials, cleared to make space for development or aquaculture, or poisoned by pollution resulting from nearby industrial growth.

The mangrove wood is cut from Bundal Islands and loaded on a donkey cart at Ibrahim Hyderi. This timber is likely to be used as fuel and construction material in the poorer areas of Karachi.

Matthieu Paley for TIME

Mangroves have been enjoying a moment of brilliance these days. Their astonishing carbon-sequestration capabilities—acre for acre, they store up to four times as much as terrestrial forests do—has spurred interest from carbon-capture investors. Steve Crooks was a British marine scientist who started to develop mangrove restoration programs ten years ago. He struggled for funding. Now he regularly gets calls from investors seeking to put $100 million into carbon-capture projects—with some such proposals edging into the billion-dollar range. So-called blue-carbon projects that tap the sequestration potential of the world’s oceanic and coastal ecosystems are in high demand, says Crooks. They are even more attractive because mangroves have other benefits that can be linked to climate change. Private investors as well as major global corporations such as Microsoft and Amazon, he says, “are all realizing that they need carbon credits, but they don’t just want any carbon credits. They want carbon credits that are socially and environmentally impactful.” Mangroves are the perfect one-two punch investment, says Crooks: sequestering carbon while protecting communities, and providing food and livelihoods. “It comes with a bright shiny halo.”

The number of mangrove restorations is increasing. The Global Mangrove Alliance reports that mangroves, which were once one of earth’s most endangered habitats, have become one of its best-protected. 42% are now under some type of protection. The rate of mangrove loss, once more than 3% a decade, is now down to less than 1%—and in some places, like Bangladesh and Pakistan, coverage is actually increasing. While restoring mangroves to their full 1980 extent—when global measurements were first taken—is difficult because of the irreversible growth of cities like Karachi, returning coverage to 1996 levels is “probably likely,” says Catherine E. Lovelock, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Queensland, Australia, and one of the world’s foremost experts on mangrove restoration.

Many mangrove restoration efforts have failed in the last few years. In some cases, that’s been because the seedlings were planted in places that didn’t support the unique needs of the trees—mangroves may tolerate salt water, but they still require a source of fresh water to thrive. In others, it was because the planting projects didn’t get adequate buy-in from local communities. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake, Sri Lanka’s government launched a $13million donor-funded project to restore mangroves. It included national planting parties, media coverage, and a wide range of other services. But the projects didn’t include adequate planning, long-term monitoring, or post-planting care, so the nascent forests were not protected from wood harvesters and herders. A 2017 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that these projects had an average failure rate around 80%. Restoration Ecology.

Lovelock says Pakistan is an exception. Over the last three decades it has experienced a tripling of mangrove cover, from 477 km (484 sq. mi.) In 1990, approximately 1,464 km (565 sq. mi.) 2020. Rafiul Hq, an ecologist and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Commission on Ecosystem management for Pakistan, said that this success is evidence of Pakistan’s ability to both land and support communities.

The country also has—at least until recently—strong government commitment. Imran Khan, a former cricket player and politician, launched an initiative to plant one million trees as a way to reduce the impact of climate change on the mountainous region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where his party was in power. His effort was so successful—the province says it reached that goal in two years—that when he became Prime Minister in 2018 he took the program national, announcing a “10 billion-tree tsunami” in 2019. Of the 3.2 billion trees set to be planted by 2023, nearly a third were to be mangroves, says Malik Amin Aslam, Khan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change. Khan was overthrown in April. However, Aslam claims that Khan’s ambitious plans have already begun to take root. Mangrove coverage has grown by 214.93 square kilometers (82.98 sq. mi.) Between 2015 and 2020. Aslam says that continuing the mangrove expansion is vital: “This is in the interest of Pakistan, not of any one political party.” But it’s not clear if the progress will continue; the incoming federal government has said that tree planting is no longer its “core policy on global warming.”

A provincial-level planting initiative, in conjunction with Indus Delta Capital private venture capital group, plans to preserve and reforest approximately 865,000 acres of tidal wetlands to the southeast Karachi, as part of a Blue-Carbon Credit Initiative. Crooks is a marine scientist and helped to design the project. Nearly 100,000,000 trees were planted already. The VC group claims that the Delta Blue Carbon Project will become one of the most important mangrove-restoration projects in the world once it is completed. It can sequester almost 150 million tonnes of carbon within a period of 60 years.

Most of the world’s mangrove-restoration projects are much smaller, both in acreage and carbon-sequestration potential. Few countries have Pakistan’s wide expanses of largely uninhabited and suitable delta terrain. But hundreds of small projects are flourishing around the world, from Kenya—where 3,000 residents of the coastal town of Gasi Bay have given up mangrove logging in favor of planting jobs paid for by carbon credits—to India’s Karnataka state—where locals are leading a new conservation program in a mangrove forest spanning 300 hectares—to southern Thailand—where villagers are promoting natural mangrove regeneration in abandoned shrimp farms.

For livestock feed, mangrove trees and leaves can be brought back from the shore.

Matthieu Paley for TIME

Lovelock states that it is more challenging to restore mangroves around urban centers than in the countryside. The potential is constrained by the density of people, high property prices, and competition for land use. Still, there are successes: Miami and Brisbane have both implemented robust restoration programs, and Singapore defends its “tiny little patches like crazy against the developers,” she says. “And you can imagine how much a meter of land in Singapore costs.”

Karachi’s mangroves don’t get that kind of support. The provincial capital, despite all its successes in Indus Delta is an exception. Decades of development, illegal logging, badly managed irrigation projects, and the steady stream of untreated sewage and industrial pollutants have taken a toll, leaving the metro region’s once luxuriant forests in a precarious state. Karachi, on the western bank of Indus, has experienced a drop in mangroves coverage for the past ten years. As sea levels rise due to climate change Karachi will need the natural protection of mangroves even more. Already the city is prone to flooding. In the summer 2020 record rains inundated the downtown area and flooded the streets. Aslam, the Climate-Change Minister under Imran Khan, blames the flooding on the city’s voracious real estate developers and acquiescent officials who look the other way when mangroves are ripped out to make way for seaside high-rises. In turning a quick buck, he says, they are undermining the city’s future. By law, all of Pakistan’s mangroves are protected, but enforcement is weak. “The land mafia”—Aslam’s term for corrupt developers—“are selling a view, but their foundations are on fragile ground. The city’s only protection against flooding is the mangroves. Sooner or later, the city will realize that nature always wins.”

Near the center of the city, the few remaining mangroves are filthy swales of raw sewage that have been left behind by residents who view them as a simple garbage dump. On the city’s offshore islands, it’s a different world. Mangroves are in full bloom, making the air fresh and oxygenated. The shallows are inhabited by migrating flamingos as well as herons. Fish eagles nest high in the branches, and fish eagles hover over them. Fish shoals leap out of the still waters to escape unseen predators. Although the Karachi skyline is visible on the horizon to the west, the city noises are replaced with birdsong and the constant snap, crackle and pop of the settling mud. “These mangroves are magic,” says Qaiser. “According to everything we know about trees, they should not be here.” They thrive despite the constant exposure to the city’s untreated sewage and industrial pollutants, turning human waste into green gold, he says. “We have to do everything possible to protect them.”

Qaiser with his assistant in a small boat inside the Bundal Island mangroves near Karachi

Matthieu Paley for TIME

Qaiser found the Bundal Islands mangroves by chance. Professionally, he’s an architect, with a specialty in hospitals and schools. But he’s also an amateur photographer and sport fisher, and he used to pass the mangroves on his boat trips into deeper waters. He noticed a tree that was particularly majestic in 2012, and he decided to take a picture of it. Avicennia marina, The white mangrove or gray mangrove is a common name. Its crown stretched several hundred feet. The mangrove became his inspiration, and he would return every week to take photos of it, as the seasons changed, the tides rose, and finally the years passed. It was reduced to a stump by him in January 2016. There were still traces of sawdust on the rising tide.

“I didn’t go back for six months,” he says. “I was in mourning.” When he finally returned to Bundal Island, it was with a mission: “There was a need for action. It was a calling.” He and a fellow photographer started systematically documenting the illegal harvesting, going out to the island mangroves several times a week to note new cuts, and learning the marks that loggers would leave to indicate which trees would be next. Qaiser made friends with local camelherders, who used the mangroves as animal forage. He also got to know some of the fishermen. He even visited the Karachi lumberyards and charcoal kilns that buy illegally harvested wood for 40 rupees (about $0.50) a kilogram, learning to his chagrin that his beloved tree probably fetched little more than the equivalent of $800 in total—“not even worth the manpower and the petrol.” But he never directly confronted the “timber mafia,” as he calls them. In Pakistan, environmental activists have been killed for less—for example, social-rights activist Parveen Rahman was murdered in 2013 for her work, it is believed, documenting the predations of both Karachi’s land and timber mafias. Qaiser used his research to create an educational program and then a video campaign via social media.

He has seen some results from his hard work.

The High Court was established in February.Karachi’s Sindh province declared Bundal Islands mangroves protected forests. They cited their contribution to coastal protection, biodiversity preservation and carbon-capture potential. However, the remaining unprotected island is still unprotected. In 2020, Imran Khan’s government announced a $50 billion development project on Bundal Island that would “surpass Dubai,” the idea being that building infrastructure there would ease the congested city’s housing crunch while bringing in much-needed revenue. It’s the fourth such project to have been put forward since 2000, and none has come to fruition, largely because of debates over ownership rights between the federal and provincial governments. Aslam, however, sighs that the development of these islands is inevitable. “They are small specks, and they have got real property value.” His fellow Cabinet members in the Khan Administration have argued that development would bring in billions, and that the revenue could be used to plant more mangroves elsewhere. Aslam, an environmentalist, would prefer to preserve the islands, however, as a politician, can see the arguments for developing them.

Qaiser argues that the development of the islands will result in the destruction of mangroves. Bundal Island is prone to flooding at high tide. Construction would require environmentally harmful reclamation of the sandbanks around it. This could disrupt the natural tidal exchange between fresh and saltwater that maintains the tree’s health. “This is a really resilient plant—it will grow in raw sewage for half a decade—but you have to be very careful that you don’t disturb the ecology,” he says. Further, Qaiser believes the development plan doesn’t adequately account for the missed climate-adaptation opportunities. He has mapped out Bundal Island using his architecture firm’s AutoCAD software and has found that currently the forest occupies 10% of the island’s 24 sq km (9.2 sq. mi.). According to him, 40% more land could be planted if there is no flooding. “In terms of carbon sequestration, that’s mind-bogglingly huge. For a city like Karachi, it’s a godsend, a real gift.”

Qaiser believes that Bundal Island must be made a protected marine reserve. “I want the impossible,” he acknowledges. “Karachi is in crisis. For us to continue living for the next couple of decades, we will need a natural wilderness. This isn’t about saving the mangroves; this is about saving Karachi.”

Haq, the IUCN consultant who also worked with Qaiser on the museum exhibit, appreciates his “extraordinary work” educating the public, and his ambition. Haq fears Bundal Island will be abandoned and wishes Qaiser could see the whole picture, instead of focusing on failures elsewhere in Pakistan. Karachi constitutes only 7% of Pakistan’s mangroves, Haq points out. “It’s not justifiable to focus on the losses in 7% while ignoring the success in 93%.” Lovelock, the mangrove expert, says there is worth in both large restoration projects and small preservation efforts, which are typically more accessible to the general public, and so make for excellent venues for education and recreation. “We need these small slivers so we can learn to appreciate the big ones.”

Qaiser thinks it’s essential to protect every bit there is. “When you say, ‘Why bother with the 7%?’ you are reciting a death sentence for the rest,” he says. Karachi’s appetite for growth is insatiable, he points out. “If you make it acceptable to destroy the forest right in front of the city, what happens when the city expands? It’ll become acceptable to use those islands too. It stops where? When the only mangroves left are the ones in the museum?”

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