Karachi going green

Environmentalists and citizens agree Karachi needs a green umbrella to counter killing heatwaves

Karachi going green

With each passing year, climate experts warn residents of Karachi will have to brace for a still hotter summer. But environmentalist like Tofiq Pasha Mooraj has a simple solution - "building a green umbrella over Karachi"!

"If every one of us, not just in Karachi, but across Pakistan, grows a tree on August 14 of 2019, we would have grown, if not 193 million, but a huge number in just one day!" However, this huge fanciful exercise can only succeed if it is led by the state and everyone -- citizens, politicians, clerics, youth, elderly, kids, women -- joins in, he said.

Calling it "planting a living flag", he said it required proper planning. "That is why I say a year from now," he explained. "Land and water sources have to be identified, holes to be dug, soil to be prepared, an inventory of what kind of trees can be grown in which part of Karachi since the topography, soil etc is different near the coast from that near the inner city, will need to be prepared," Mooraj pointed out.

And, according to him, there is no dearth of space. "There are parks without trees, roads, main arteries, schools," he said with confidence. And if he had his way, he would even cover boundary walls with green creepers!

Zahra Ali, a young urban gardener who promotes organic vegetable gardening using heirloom seeds only among schoolchildren belonging to low income groups, and founder of the Green Schools Pakistan (GSP), concurred, "There are over 700 public schools in Karachi alone with huge sun-soaking fields where plenty of trees can be planted."

Even Shahzad Qureshi, who has grown a forest on 400-sq meters with over 1,200 trees of 30 different indigenous species, claims if he gets hold of even 25 (of anywhere between eight to ten acres) from the hundreds of public parks in Karachi sitting in utter neglect, he can turn all of them into mini urban forests using the Miyawaki technique and bring down the city’s temperature.

In Miyawaki forests, anywhere between 320 to 350 saplings comprising a mix of canopy, sub trees and shrubs are planted very close to each other, in a minimum of 100 square meter patch. Rafi ul Haq, a member of the Horticultural Society of Pakistan (HSP), confirmed that growing a "thicket in the middle of the city" can "reduce the ambient temperature".

The time is right too, pointed out Mooraj. "A critical mass has been created and people are motivated and have realised that Karachi needs trees," he said.

Many old Karachiites contend the city was never meant to be green, it being a desert. Old residents of the city will tell you the Karachi of yore was both sand-riddled and swampy. Many say from the Frere Hall they could see the sea. Summers were bearable and, in fact, evenings quite pleasant with the sea breeze providing respite.

The turning point for many residents came after they witnessed the 2015 heatwave that killed over 1,200 people in Karachi. The tragedy led to a sprouting of citizens groups going on plantation drives.

Calling it a "knee-jerk" reaction, which is unstoppable, the best way to handle this, according to Mooraj, was to educate, inform people and "put out correct" information.

Huma Baig, who, for as long as she can remember, has been dirtying her hands in the soil, was a little circumspect of these plantation drives. "It’s not enough to plant a sapling; they must nurture the sapling like a child, with love and gentle care till it can fend for itself," she said.

"Absolutely!" agreed Mooraj, saying enthusiasts should only undertake this exercise if they have the time and can ensure a steady supply of water. "You plant, you water," he said.

Ali, who has a huge following of her Crops in Pots blog with a Facebook page with the same name, said trees needed to be planted thoughtfully. "Tall trees should not be planted if they will eventually get entangled in electricity wires; amaltas may look beautiful along Shahrah-e-Faisal, but it is gulmoher which may provide more shade," she said, adding: "Growing ground cover or letting leaves fall on the soil acts as mulch which not only retains moisture but also fertilizes it, just like in a forest."

So while flowering trees are a good idea, Rafi ul Haq said HSP did not recommend planting fruit trees at public places. Referring to the increased public interest with some groups recommending throwing seeds of various fruits randomly across the city, he said: "Our social etiquettes coupled with weak governance and management by the city government will make growing fruiting trees on public land, more of a nuisance," he said.

But planting trees comes with its own set of challenges and include shortage of water due to a burgeoning population. "People need to be encouraged towards rainwater harvesting. With so much construction, there is very little loose soil left and whatever little rain that falls literally goes down the drain," said Ali and favoured reclaiming and using grey water for watering trees.


Green the brown

But many old Karachiites contend the city was never meant to be green, it being a desert.

Old residents of the city will tell you the Karachi of yore was both sand-riddled and swampy. Many say from the Frere Hall they could see the sea. Others tell you the sea reached till Jehangir Kothari parade and Gizri and that the Defence Housing Authority was developed by cutting down mangroves and reclaiming land from the sea. Summers were bearable and, in fact, evenings quite pleasant with the sea breeze providing respite.

Today, the city is gasping for breath. The cool monsoon winds from the sea are barred from entering the city by the high rises, just as the concrete and the asphalt have trapped the hot air from escaping, thereby turning Karachi into a furnace. The belching automobiles and whirring air conditioners have added to the problem.

Climate scientist, Dr Ghulam Rasul, who is the director general of the Pakistan Meterological Department, termed it the urban heat island phenomenon. "For example, when the temperature may not be more than 45 degrees Celsius, to a human body it feels like a scorching 50 degrees. The situation is exacerbated by increase in humidity." Rasul warned that events like heatwaves will become frequent in the future.

And that is why, said Mooraj, "We need to green the brown"! Not only will it bring down the temperature, it will improve air and soil quality.


Growing the indigenous plants and trees

But more importantly, it means "working with nature" not against it. Mooraj emphasised going back to growing old indigenous plantation, to revive the ecology and thereby the biodiversity. "It will bring back the birds, the bees, the insects etc, that we saw when we were kids but have become elusive," he hoped, adding: "If we don’t pay heed now, I’m afraid a few decades from now when we tell kids to draw a bird, they will only be able to draw a crow!"

Birder Mirza Naim Baig recalled the "flocks of rose-ringed parakeets (tota), scaly breasted munia, hoopoe (hud-hud), Indian silverbill, Alexandrine parakeet (pahari tota) that could be seen everywhere" are a now a rare sight.

A keen photographer, Baig said the rosy sterling (teeliar) used to perch on peepal trees in flocks of 50 to 100. "Now with peepal almost gone, they are only seen on the outskirts of city," he lamented.

Baig blamed the loss of habitat and source of food of these birds to "imported plant varieties" his reference clearly to the conocarpus that were planted in the city some ten years ago and where the birds do not nest.

But somehow the state is not on the same page as the environmentalists and have a copy-cat mentality without actually understanding Karachi’s peculiar topography.

Giving the example of the Clifton beach, Mooraj said: "For years the authorities tried to line it with various trees -- coconut and date palms, then ficus and conocarpus but nothing survived. They failed to see that Karachi was unlike Dubai, or Thailand or even Bombay or Sri Lanka. Karachi is desert-like, sub-tropical and near the coast; it receives very little rain and is battered by high velocity, salt laden winds for five months," he pointed out.

If the parks department would consult him, he would suggest they grow the Ipomoea creeper that grows on the sand naturally, or even the pelu, a shrub that can grow into a tree with a beautiful bark and an exquisitely formed trunk and can easily and very cheaply propagated.

The advantage of these two, said Mooraj, are many, including "stabilising sand dunes and stopping shifting sands"; but most importantly, "they do not need watering!"

But away from the sea, Huma Baig says there are many native plants that can be grown like the jungle jalebi, gondni, lasura, bael giri, chikoo, kachnar, hedges of kakronday, or bushes of dum dum etc. "Right now, experts are putting on a lot of emphasis on planting amaltas, gulmoher, moringa and neem; but if you ask me there is an endless variety of cheap trees, bushes and hedges that can be grown."

At the same time, Ali of the Cops in Pots believed that nature is highly adaptable. "While every region has its own native plants," she said, "people have always imported and exported plants around the world." She said nature does that all the time. "Planting varieties that have acclimatised here can be replanted here in their right location," she said, but added: "We must put all our efforts to preserve and plant native trees, shrubs and other plants."

Karachi going green