KARACHI: Pulling off his yellow uniform shirt swiftly, 47-year-old local lifeguard Muhammad Anwar runs to the shore with a rescue tube under his arm and smoothly dives into the sea to rescue a boy from drowning.
This might seem like a scene from the famous 90s television series Baywatch, in which actor David Hasselhoff, who played the character of Mitch Buchannon, rescued people without breaking a sweat. However, in reality, it is a matter of life and death for Anwar everyday as he puts his life at risk to save people from drowning.
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Anwar, who is the incharge of lifeguards at Sandspit beach in Karachi, belongs to a family of fishermen who reside along the coast. Anwar became associated with the Pakistan Life Saving Foundation (PALS) in 2004, which is the only professional lifeguard and drowning prevention service in Pakistan.
Anwar dries himself off with a towel as he comes back to the hut - the office of PALS, from where he keeps an eye on the activities going on at the beach. "These people [swimmers] are fools as this is not the season to challenge the sea," Anwar says, referring to the people who go swimming in the sea in this weather.
The mercury had increased to 38° Celsius but the hut was cool due to the sea breeze. Anwar's office had all the necessary equipment that a lifeguard needs, such as first aid kit, rescue tubes and cans, ring buoys, while double cabin 4x4 vehicles were also parked outside.
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"I am 47-years-old now and too old to handle this. However, we are no less than the lifeguards of Baywatch," he says with a grin. He believes that the suitable age for a person to become a lifeguard is between 16 and 35-years-old, as swimming requires great stamina.
The government does not bother spending on rescue services at the beaches, so the people must at least educate themselves about these things, Anwar says. "From May till September, people can drown in the sea because of the high tides and very few people here know how to swim," he said, adding that this is why around 20 people lost their lives in last 15 days at the beach.
Speaking about the reasons why people drown, Anwar points towards the sea between two waves and says this wave is a 'rip current' but hardly any people know about it.
According to him, as waves travel from deep to shallow waters, they eventually break near the shoreline. The waves break and generate currents that flow in both the offshore (away from the coast) and the alongshore directions. "These rip currents can be so strong that they can sweep away even professional swimmers," the lifeguard says.
"However, there is a way to survive during this and usually we try to swim back but fail and panic as the waves are very strong," Anwar says, adding that the only way to escape is by swimming parallel to the rip current and not panicking.
According to him, most of the lifeguards at the beach are local people, since they belong to the families that are involved in fishing. "It is us who save the people from drowning or recover the body of victims from the water but we are never acknowledged," Anwar claims, adding that the media shows ambulance services or the navy but very few people know that even the navy takes help from them during rescue operations.
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Speaking about the how PALS was established, the operation manager of PALS, Muhammad Ahsaan, said that founder Raza Samad got the idea of launching this foundation after an incident when he rescued a drowning man at a beach. "That is when Samad realised the dire need and importance of lifeguards at the beaches of Karachi," Ahsaan said.
"We wrote to all the lifesaving organisations located across the world, including in United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand. The response from New Zealand was great as a 10-member team came to Karachi and trained around 500 locals, of which around 200 became certified lifeguards," he said, adding that after this corporate sponsors have helped PALS pay the lifeguards' salaries.
According to Ahsaan, things get difficult sometimes when they are left with no sponsors. Recently, our five-year contract ended with Aman Foundation, which is a welfare organisation, in December and they were of great support. He added that now they are seeking sponsors for PALS, as it is necessary to pay salaries to lifeguards. PALS has more than 500 trained lifeguards, he said.
Ahsaan was of the opinion that they need to teach children and students about safety and rescue methods and hold awareness programmes related to this.
Lifeguards of other municipal organisations
Hawke's Bay, another famous beach of Karachi, usually has only three to four lifeguards on duty, who were recruited by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC). One of them, on condition of anonymity, said that he does not know about others but there are apparently around 40 lifeguards on duty at Hawke's Bay.
Despite several attempts, the KMC municipal services senior director was not available to comment until the filing of this story. On the other hand, the spokesperson of Clifton Cantonment Board said they are currently working with 10 lifeguards deployed at Sea View, adding that they usually recruit more lifeguards during the monsoon season.
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