KARACHI: Karachi remains a city by the sea when it could be so much more - only if it became one with the sea. The neglect that the city’s coast has suffered is highlighted by the fact that there isn’t a single pier with recreational facilities for the public.
In this atmosphere of apathy, Yousaf Ali has taken it upon himself to look after the coral reef near Churna Island, located off the coast of Mubarak Village, which is near the border of Sindh and Balochistan. “Back in 1979, I was on my way to work when I heard an advertisement on the radio about scuba diving. I turned around at that moment and now I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” said Ali, speaking at his office in the Karachi Scuba Diving Centre (KSBC). Here, he teaches Karachi’ites as well as expatriates how to scuba dive and take care of the marine environment.
He said that one reason why people don’t take part in water sports is because they have an “unknown fear of the ocean and water.” Many people take a dip during the monsoon season when the sea is inhospitable and swimmers encounter mishaps. This makes the public perceive the open water as a dangerous space.
Another reason why scuba diving hasn’t taken off in Pakistan is because it is expensive. “People who can afford it aren’t interested and those who are interested [in scuba diving] can’t afford it,” said Ali, adding that expatriates are more interested in exploring the underwater world.
The tsunami in 2004 proved to be a boon for the coral reef off Churna Island. Pakistan was spared but the resulting fallout brought a variety of new species of coral to its coast, adding to existing 60 types already found there.
“We have new species that need to be studied, tracked, monitored and documented so that they can be taken care of,” said Ali. “The problem is that we don’t have funding or support. We really need a sponsor and we have spoken with many, but nothing has come of it.”
Despite the new coral species, the reef becomes inundated with garbage every year. According to Ali, polythene bags are the main killers of marine life. Tyres that fall off boats instantly kill coral when they fall on top of the reef.
Ali has met high-ranking members of the government and proposed a ‘Marine Park’ at Churna, encircling the area between the Light House, Cape Monze and Hub River Delta. He has proposed that a ‘tourist city’ be built in the Hub River Delta. He envisions a city with a number of facilities, including an aquatic academy, marine research centre, shark aquarium, 250 bed resort, water park and commercial diving institute.
“Such a place can create up to 100,000 jobs for the people of Sindh and Balochistan and will help protect and preserve the environment,” said Ali. “It will also bring in lots of money - even shrimp and oyster farming is an option in the delta.” He hinted that such a plan might not materialise because an oil refinery is being built near the Hub River and may pose a threat to the environment.
Despite this, Ali is still optimistic. For the last five years, Ali and his colleague, Rosheen Khan, who is Pakistan’s first female diving instructor, have been organising an event in which they lead a team of volunteers to clean the coral reef. The cleaning operation is simple - people pick up garbage from the reef using their hands. This year, the event will take place on September 30 and nearly 200 volunteers have already signed up. Anyone can participate and the KSBC can be contacted through their Facebook page.
“There are so many unexplored areas off Karachi’s coast which have rich marine wildlife. There are so many wrecks that have not been explored. One time we got lucky and found the destroyer PNS Shahjahan. It had the kind of wildlife I have only seen in Thailand,” said Ali. “We haven’t been able to find it again. No one takes care of these places and we are not big or strong enough to do it ourselves.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2012.