The Sad State of Karachi Beaches
Karachi must be one of the few waterfront cities in the world to have no waterfront at all. Karachi is a city by the sea, but considering the amount of water activities which takes place, it could well be in the Sahara. The primary reason is that most of the beaches in Karachi belong to the military or some other government scheme, and are off limits to civilians, or are private property and once again off limits.
The Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force have taken over practically all the beaches in the city.
Churna island is the only coral reef near Karachi, and in keeping with the Navy's wonderful environmentally friendly record they use it as a bombing range. The seas nearby are littered with unexploded ordnance, and the coral reefs mostly dead. The Pakistan Navy treats the waters of Karachi as their personal trash dumping ground, and over the years the waters near the Naval dockyard have become so polluted that even some Naval people with sense have started speaking up about it, as their own ships are dissolving in the toxic mess which used to be a sea. More than 200 million gallons of untreated highly toxic sewage glow into Karachi harbour every day, and the rest of the city churns out much more sewage which is dumped elsewhere along the coastline.
The Pakistan Air force doesn't have any need of the sea, but even then they've built a couple of bases smack on the waterfront. Not only do they have bases on the waterfront, they also have housing colonies taking up valuable beach land. To add insult to injury, they've even got a a bombing range along one of the best beaches in Karachi! Pakistan's largest national park is west of Karachi, and includes over a hundred miles of coastline. Since there was no more land left anywhere else, with the Army controlling the coastline near the cities and the Navy claiming everything else, the Pakistan Air Force is hard at work trying to take over the Hingol National Park.
The Army, as usual, has the most beach front area. Not that it needs it, but it has too much ego to be left behind by the other "inferior" branches of the military. One of the best beaches in Karachi, possibly the best, is an Army tank training and weapons testing ground. Once again, it's spread out over a few miles of prime beach, with sand traps, bunkers and trenches thrown in for good measure.
Now, this beach is a narrow strip bounded on one side by the sea and the other by the highway. Even a non-military person can immediately see that tank battles don't take place on narrow strips, but the Pakistan army insists on using the beach to run around in tanks. Years of tanks running around shooting stuff have taken it's toll on the beach, but the beach is still usable. Besides playing with tanks, there is also a nice area for the generals to 'relax'. Once again, this is off limits to the public.
Now we have the DHA, a land grab front for the Pakistan Army. They own the the largest beach front area in Karachi, and have leased out every inch of it to various Arab and Pakistani developers, who are all building "7-star" hotels and apartment blocks smack on what used to be a beach. Nearly all of this too is completely off limits to the public, and those areas that used to be publicly accessible have started charging a small fee to cross the fence that limits access to the so-called parks. An army general once said, when questioned about the fact that the DHA had sold off all the beach front area to commercial developers, thus limiting access to the public: "Nothing stops anyone from forking over the money to any of the numerous 7 star schemes and thus gaining access to the beach". To add insult to injury, the DHA is also draining raw untreated sewage into the sea, and hasn't put up any treatment plants for the numerous high rises springing up on the former beach. To rub salt into the wounds, the DHA is setting up a small fake beachfront area for the "public" so it can claim that there is public access to the beach. This is basically going to consist of a lot of shops, and to make sure no sand goes into the plastic they sell, the DHA is paving over part of the beach! In another first, the DHA is using this so called "public beach" to mine sand for their various building projects, thus rendering the beach completely unusable for any water activities.
SUPARCO is another interesting land grab organization. It was originally set up back in the stone age to do something about space. It was never really sure what exactly they were doing, but one time they managed to fire off a toy rocket called Rehbar 1 a few thousand feet up into the air. Those were the glory days, when they somehow managed to allot themselves miles of prime beach land to conduct their rocketry research. After building a wall and running barbed wire all around their now private beach, they ran out of stuff to do, so after much head scratching, they decided to go into farming. So here is a space research government organization, farming on the damn beach! Farming on prime beachland! This is why Dilbert never took off in Pakistan, as we go far beyond cubicle madness here.
There is a small nuclear power plant on the beach, Kanupp-1, which is also squatting on a lot more land than it needs. It has far outlived it's life expectancy, and is non-functional much of the time, yet not only is it fissioning along, but the federal government is using even more beach land to build another, bigger nuclear plant. When the plant was originally commissioned, it was outside the city, but now it is well within city limits. Besides taking up a whole lot of beach land, it is a potential disaster in the making. I also suspect that a number of disasters must have occurred in the last 3 decades which have been covered up - everything from nuclear waste being dumped into the sea to radioactive containment cooling water being dumped straight into the sea without treatment. So perhaps the extra beach land they've taken next to the plant is to make sure the radiation has time to dissipate before reaching beach goers. Somehow, this nuclear plant hasn't blown up yet, so fingers crossed, the federal government is now building two more much bigger ones right next to the older one, on land which is now inside city limits. These new nuclear plant need a new set of beaches to fence off, so while the plant may not get built, miles of beach land has been grabbed, fenced off and reinforced with machine gun toting soldiers to keep out burkina-clad beachgoers.
The Karachi Port Trust is another government organization, originally set up by the British to run the ports, but in typical Pakistani fashion it slowly morphed into yet another regular corrupt govenment bureaucracy thriving on the monopoly rights granted by a bad law. The KPT owns huge swaths of land all over Karachi, including much beach front, and once again it's all off limits to the public. The KPT runs possibly the most polluted port in the world, which like the organization is slowly falling apart. The problem here is that they own a lot of beach front, and are busy tweaking spreadsheets to figure out how to sell it to make money to cover up the fact that they can no longer actually run their primary business, which has been falling apart for many years now. One beautiful stretch of beach that comes under the KTP faces the crystal clear waters of Oyster Rocks.
There are two nice beaches in Karachi not claimed by the military, but that's because they were claimed by someone else before the military could gets its hands on them. They are the French beach, and Mubarak beach. Both of them are privately owned, and entry is severely restricted. Through some dubious ownership claims, the people from the fishing villages near these beaches have claimed ownership, and the government in its infinite wisdom has given it to them. Both these villages have numerous descendants, and since they are always squabbling, the beaches are rotting away while they figure out which Arab to sell them to, lock stock and smoking barrel. At Mubarak, no one is welcome, while at the French beach if you pay them approx 50,000 rupees a month as rent you get access to the beach. 50,000 rupees is slightly more than the average yearly income of Pakistan, so this beach remains closed for public use.
There are only two beaches I know of which used to be public, but over the years they too have been parceled into plots and leased to private owners, many of whom have built walled-off monstrosities. The few remaining dribs and drabs are the worst beaches possible for any sort of water activity. Sandspit for example, is a long and narrow sandbar jutting out into the sea, and has a extremely strong tide, making it unsafe for any water activities. Besides that, since so much of the beach is walled off, it's now an ugly concrete jungle. Hawkesbay has been sold off to a Arab developer, and the public is no longer welcome there.
Perhaps it's a good thing no one goes to the beaches in Karachi anymore, as there aren't any to go to.
The beach has long been considered a public good, dating back to Roman times, when Roman Emperor Justinian, in 530 A.D, wrote down the "Institutes of Justinian," the body of Roman civil law. "By the law of nature these things are common to all mankind; the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea." No one, therefore, was forbidden to approach the seashore. This tradition continues in all civilized countries.
As a famous urban planner and architect keeps saying, there's nothing wrong with high rises, and they can build them a mile high and a thousand miles wide, as long as they're set a 100 feet back from the beach. Oh, and build sewage and waste treatment facilities for the waste these developments generate.
Can anything be done about it? Somewhere on the law books we have the Doctrine of Public Trust, which guarantees public access to the beach front. Given that the law is already there, going to the courts is the only viable option. Institutions like SUPARCO have no business farming on the beach, and the Pakistan army doesn't need to drive its tanks up and down the beach all year around, nor does the air force need a bombing strip on prime beach land. The military already owns much of the country - they can easily do without owning the beaches as well.
January 30, 2008, by Khalid Omar