A short boat ride from the shores of Karachi, stately mangrove trees hug the quiet shores of an island inhabited solely by a few camels that environmentalists say provides vital coastal protection to Pakistan’s largest city.
But the calm of Bundle Island is at risk, with Prime Minister Imran Khan determined to turn it into an enormous real-estate project to ease pressure on the expanding megacity, home to 20 million people.
The $50bn housing development has pitted regional leaders against the central government, with local activists and lawmakers accusing the prime minister of reneging on pro-environment promises.
“Let nature restore itself and (do) not dream of these big, grand cities,” said Mahera Omar, an environmental filmmaker from Karachi who enjoys kayaking around Bundle and meandering through the island’s mangroves.
“We are all very tired of our concrete jungle. We all want to get away, out into the open,” she added.
Coastal mangroves act as a natural barrier, soaking up wave energy and limiting the extent of flooding.
“These islands form a barrier against storm surges and tsunamis. Their preservation is vital for the preservation of Karachi,” Arif Belgaumi, an architect and town planner, told AFP.
Karachi is already prone to inundation and suffered catastrophic flooding during this year’s record monsoon when chest-deep water filled the streets.
Because Bundle Island floods during particularly high tides, any construction would also require environmentally damaging reclamation work that could have knock-on effects for Karachi, Belgaumi added.
But Khan’s administration says the project would create thousands of local jobs and bring much-needed relief to chaotically expanding Karachi – not to mention new tax revenue for Pakistan’s cash-strapped coffers.
Critics say the plan runs counter to green pledges by Khan, who has spoken out about the perils of climate change and frozen construction of several coal-fired power stations in favour of renewable-energy projects, mainly hydroelectric dams.
The government has also unveiled a nationwide effort to plant 10 billion new trees by 2023.
“He takes pride in recognising that global warming is the reality… (But) when it comes to the province of Sindh, the people of Sindh, his point of view changes,” Sindh government spokesman Murtaza Wahab said.
Khan’s top adviser on climate change, Malik Amin Aslam, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.