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Mangroves Are Karachi’s Oxygen

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Tariq Alexander Qaiser on his passion for the open seas and the magic of Karachi’s mangrove forests.

AURORA: Would it be fair to say that you are an architect by profession and an ecologist by passion?
TARIQ ALEXANDER QAISER: I am an architect, but at heart, I am a writer and a poet. If you gave me a choice about what to spend my time on, it would be spent on writing. I don’t paint as much as I used to, but I do a lot of photography and I have started making films. But I also absolutely love architecture.

A: What kind of architecture do you specialise in?
 Schools, hospitals and design in general; we do specific projects. I work for very few developers. I trained myself in hospital design. I am a founder of Indus Hospital. My first hospital was OMI. I also built the new building for Lady Dufferin Hospital. When I was 17, I wanted to be an ecologist; I wanted to study environmental science and become a naturalist. However, because I wanted to live in Pakistan, my father advised me to pick something else as a profession. I was interested in building design, so I picked architecture. 

A: In terms of your ecological interests, you are most closely associated with Karachi’s mangrove forests. How did this develop?
 I have been focusing on Bundal and Khiprianwala Islands, which are part of Korangi Creek since the late nineties. Before that, I used to fish a lot out in the open sea. Fishing, sailing, scuba diving – anything to do with water. Water is my obsession. I have created my working spaces around water; ponds, water bodies and wetlands. In the late nineties, the government gave out licences to foreign fishing trawlers and within a year they cleaned our waters of fish. It takes about 10 years for the marine ecosystem to recover and for the fish to start coming back. When I used to sail around Cape Monze, I knew where to find the barracuda schools, where the yellowfins would be and where the flying fish were jumping. It was spectacular and then, suddenly within a year, they were all gone. I was so heartbroken, I stopped going there.  

A: Did the fish ever come back?
 They have. The tuna came back last year; the whales are here again because the krill is back and the dolphins are back too. And guess who else came back? The fishing trawlers.

A: Isn’t there anything that can be done about the fishing trawlers?
 Some people are trying very hard. The fisherfolk association is working hard at it because their livelihoods depend on it. Pakistan does have laws in this respect; the problem is in the enforcement. It is a question of respecting the law and a matter of education; a matter of being brought up to work and live as a community and not just as individuals. Today, what is happening is that because the large fish are becoming harder and harder to find, kachra nets – tiny nets that are almost like muslin-like in appearance (and which are illegal) – are used to pull out one-inch fingerlings – one-month-old fish – that emerge from the mangroves. They are caught for chicken feed. If they waited six months, these one-inch fish would be eight to 10 inches and after a year, they would weigh about two kilos.

A: Can’t this situation be managed without depleting all the fish?
 It is a question of numbers. Karachi’s population is growing so fast and there is a huge demand for chicken. However, it does not make sense to deplete the seed stock before the fish have a chance to grow and reproduce. Imagine how many more fish we would have if we allowed even half of the fingerlings to grow to maturity. The loss to the fisheries is mind-boggling. So many fish are born in our delta and we remove huge volumes of them before they have a chance of growing to more than an inch. If we did, our export markets would explode. It doesn’t make sense. These fish are prolific in their growth, thanks to the mangroves and our incredible delta that acts as their nursery. Everything in nature is linked. If you break one part, the rest starts to crash. Nature will compensate with what is known as ‘species change’, but if you work at a much faster pace than nature does, then the change in species will be drastic. For example, there have been vast increases in the number of jellyfish.

A: Why?
 Jellyfish can survive in more polluted waters. They represent one of the big species changes around the world. The Chinese harvest them. They are used in some form of processing. In June and July, the waters are full of jellyfish. The delta is so prolific.

A: As prolific as it used to be?
 It is still prolific, although less so than before. The mangroves are the nurseries of the oceans. The government, the Forest Department, agencies such as IUCN, as well as many private companies have been planting mangroves. It has become a consciousness, rather than a fashion, and they are making huge efforts.

A: So the government is actually doing something?
 Yes, and the data they present about the increased mangrove cover seems to be correct. It is very commendable. However, in the parts of the delta where there is no sweet or brackish water – and it is a substantial part – mangroves grow at a much slower rate. For example, in 2017, Pakistan won two or three Guinness Book Awards for having planted the largest number of mangroves in one go in Keti Bunder. Yet, after nine years, those mangroves only grew to three to four feet, because the water is salty. The Indus does not have sufficient water outflow, and seawater is entering the agricultural lands around Badin. Salt content slows growth. The highest amount of growth takes place near the urban populated areas because so much water is poured into the waterways and the pH works for the mangroves. The highest growth is around Bundal and Khiprianwala islands, the Port Qasim Authority area and towards Gadap. However, as the location moves further east, the mangroves seem to grow to a maximum of three to six feet in height, even after 70 or 80 years, because there is very little sweet water. The Port Qasim Authority cut about 18,000-acres worth of mangroves, but later replanted a lot of what was cut. But what is the sense in cutting a 40-foot tree to plant a sapling in an area where it will not grow to more than six to seven feet? We need to keep emphasising that the old growth (larger trees) needs to be protected as much as new trees need to be planted; you cannot ignore one at the expense of the other. Some of the most glorious mangrove forests are in Bundal and Khiprianwala islands.

A: Why did you choose to focus on Bundal and Khiprianwala islands?
 After I was so heartbroken about our depleting fish stocks, I started to take an interest in a little green line I saw in the distance every time I went out into the ocean. I decided to explore further. I was astounded by what I experienced. It was so beautiful. When you enter the mangroves and the canopy closes over you, you start to feel smaller and smaller. I totally fell in love with the place. At first, I went there for pure pleasure and then I gradually began to notice changes. Where once there was a big tree, suddenly there is a stump and then several stumps and then a clearing was formed. That is when I decided to start documenting these forests and the changes I saw. For a couple of years, I just took photographs. I started to notice the extent of the cutting. The more you know about an environment and its ecosystem, the more detail you see. I began to recognise trees. I love trees; I talk to them. I am a tree hugger at heart. There was one particular tree, which I called ‘The Tree’. Every month, I just had to make a chakar (detour) to see it. I have photographed this tree so many times, in all its moods and growth. Then one day in 2016, I couldn’t find it at first and when I did, I realised it had been cut. I took a photograph, but it was a really bad photograph; in that moment, it was just impossible for me to take a good one. It was a life form with which I had empathy for, and a relationship with. When I went home, I told my wife I would no longer be able to go back to this forest and I didn’t for six months. When I returned, the area surrounding the tree had changed.

A: What happened?
 A mangrove tree that is both old and large has very wide roots, and when you cut it, its aerial roots spread out to about one and a half times the size of its canopy. In this instance, the canopy was about 34 feet across. When you cut a tree like this, the network of its roots dies and the entire surrounding area dies with it. I don’t know the science behind it, but I have witnessed this many times. After a massive mother tree dies, nothing will grow around it for a while. Eventually, things will start to take root and grow again. But for a fairly long time, there is no healthy growth around it, just an empty pocket of roots. The entire shoreline changed and now I cannot even find the stump. I know these islands like the back of my hand. I know when to go in, when to come out, how long to stay. The channels form a very dynamic network, almost three dimensional, because their depth varies. There is also the fourth dimension of time, due to the tide, and the water rising and receding. The time changes by about 40 minutes every day because of the sun and the moon, and because every season is different; sometimes the waters rise faster, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. I feel wonderful there. It is my habitat of comfort. I understand this place and its dynamics and I am respectful of it. It is beyond adventure. The feeling of belonging to an environment that is actually not one’s own.

A: Do any people or animals live out there?
 There is the natural ecosystem and then there is the exploitative ecosystem of humans – our ports and our shipping channels – and a symbiotic relationship that has been developed. Along the coast of Sindh and Rajasthan, there is a tradition of camel herding. Camels are born near the coastline and swim across the channel at low tide and then walk from one island to the other, foraging on the halophytes, the little grasses and succulents growing along the sandbanks and in the saltwater. These are intertidal lands, which means that water rises up at times in Bundal Island, and the channels are more than eight feet deep. Then when the water flows out, it carries along with it all the nutrients in the sand, which the birds and turtles have dropped, and wash them through the mangroves. These sandbanks act like a natural fertiliser factory for the mangroves and are extremely important to their survival. I am convinced that the botany of these islands is very different from that found in any other delta.

A: Do people go there to explore the mangroves?
TAQ: I would not recommend people doing so without a guide. The channels are so deep and convoluted that one loses one’s sense of orientation. No matter how windy it may be outside, the moment one enters the canopy, the water is calm, like a mirror. The only movements are the tidal movements and when the tides are still, the difference between what is reflected and what is real disappears. It is one of the most magical places I know. I kept this place to myself for years, just documenting it. However, I have realised that we cannot save these forests until there are enough people who want to save them, and people cannot be expected to save what they don’t know exists. We need to create natural marine reserves that are protected and encourage controlled tourism. We need to use education as a tool. The awareness that we are part of this important ecosystem needs to be inculcated into children. If we do not do something to save our mangroves, we will lose them within the next seven to 10 years. People need to understand what it is they are about to lose. The mangrove forests are Karachi’s single biggest producers of oxygen. They pump out oxygen and produce the second largest amount of oxygen per unit area (phytoplankton can produce more), even more than the rain forests. Take away these forests, and you take away a large percentage of the oxygen available to Karachi. The sea breeze will still be there, but it will not carry as much oxygen. We absolutely need this resource.

Tariq Alexander Qaiser, Principal Architect, TAQ Associates, Architecture & Design, was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: