Activists have targeted a Karachi highway project, saying it will only exacerbate climate threats

KARACHI, Pakistan. Late last year, Abdul Gafar, a 35-year-old smallholder from the Magsi Goth area of ​​Karachi, noticed that a group of government officials had entered his area and started marking houses, sidewalks and street corners.

Gafar asked what the big signs of the Red Cross were, and he was told that construction of a new highway was about to begin in the city. One section, according to the just-marked X on the wall of the corner shop on its street, will run directly through many homes and businesses.

The Gafar family has lived in Magsi Gotha for decades. The Sindhi Carrier settlement, which is nearly 50 years old, is relatively new compared to more than 20 centuries of neighboring villages standing on the right bank of the Malir River in Karachi, in the Pakistani province of Sindh. The Malir area, often referred to as the “Karachi Oxygen,” is home to some of the oldest Sindhi and Baloch tribal communities in Pakistan. Residents of the Right Bank, full of chilled dumb trees and plots of agricultural land, mostly grow and sell seasonal produce from their small farms.

In December 2020, the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, Bilawal Bhutto, held a ceremony to lay the first in the Malira Expressway project, a public-private project worth nearly $ 160 million. The 24.4-mile expressway will run directly through these communities to improve traffic in Karachi at a dead end, linking new real estate development projects on the outskirts of the city with Karachi’s “gorgeous neighborhoods,” according to an official project report released by the Sindh government. local government department.

Last year, residents of Mali, environmentalists and advocacy groups such as the Indigenous Rights Alliance protested against the construction of the expressway, raising concerns about the environmental cost of construction, which would lead to the displacement of indigenous peoples and the uprooting of agricultural land.

These protests reflect greater concerns about climate change in Karachi, a metropolis with a population of 16 million, which the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank identified last year as the most vulnerable to extreme heat in Pakistan. In 2015, almost 1,200 people died in Karachi in the heat.

The city is also threatened by other major manifestations of climate change – rising sea levels, increased monsoons and floods – at a time when in the summer of 2020 fell the highest rainfall of nine inches in one day.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has consistently ranked high among the countries hardest hit by climate change. While Pakistan is responsible for less 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is the 22nd place out of 191 countries on a risk index published this year informa consortium of humanitarian and development organizations affiliated with the EU Joint Research Center.

Abdul Gafar, 35, is on his small farm where his family has grown seasonal produce for the past 50 years. Tribal families living on the right bank of the Malir River in Karachi may lose their homes and farmland due to the construction of a highway that will connect high-income areas of the city to housing projects on its outskirts. Credit: Zoha Tunio / Inside Climate News

Pakistan also ranked 8th among the countries most affected by extreme weather events between 2000 and 2019, according to Germanwatch, a nonprofit environmental, trade and political organization based in Bonn.

According to a report released by Amnesty International, Pakistan is also home to one of the hottest cities in the world – Jacobabad, in the far north of Sindh province – where temperature thresholds have reached levels, according to experts, “hotter than the human body can withstand. ”The temperature in June last year reached 125.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Analysts estimate that there have been about 30 million climate refugees in Pakistan over the past decade.

In response to protests against the Malir expressway, the Sindh government briefly considered moving the project to the left bank of the river, but then decided to move forward initially, citing financial constraints and government restrictions. Officials say the original highway plan will not displace indigenous communities and cause unnecessary deforestation.

“Allegedly, if 45 or so acres of farmland needs to be sacrificed for a project that will help thousands of people in the city, that’s a good deal,” said Naiz Somro, director of the planned highway project. Somro added that residents of Gotha itself, one of the many settlements along the river, may lose their agricultural land due to the construction of the highway, but will gain alternative agricultural land in the area. “The places we mark when visiting the facilities are for reference and do not indicate that any communities will be relocated,” he said, referring to the concerns of Gafar and other residents of Magsi Gotha.

Over the past decade, Karachi has seen an increase in the construction of high-speed, highway and signal-free corridors. Davar Noman, an environmental policy consultant, said deforestation caused by this road-oriented development, combined with an increase in the layers of asphalt needed for road construction, creates a “heat island” effect, causing Karachi temperatures to rise significantly compared to its outskirts and neighboring cities.

While the expressway is being built to connect the city’s high-income southern neighborhoods to urban projects on the outskirts of Karachi, residents near the newly built highway have historically become impoverished and will suffer the most from rising temperatures and increasing air pollution. “If you were to assess the air quality in the area from time to time when the expressway is running, it is very likely that the difference will be staggering,” Noman said. “It will be a human rights and public health issue.”

The construction of roads, expressways and highways through indigenous or low-income communities is not a new phenomenon in Karachi. The Larya Expressway, which started operating in 2018 after 15 years of construction, was built to divert freight traffic from the city center. This set a precedent for the large-scale relocation of Karachi residents to facilitate expensive highway projects.

In November 2021, the Sindh High Court issued a notice of respect to the director of the resettlement project for failing to allocate land to people affected by the construction of the expressway four years after its commissioning.

“Compared to the Lara Expressway, which has relocated more than 30,000 people, at worst the impact of this project will be limited to a community of less than 300 people,” Sumro said.

Residents along the banks of the Malir River have historically depended on small farms as a source of income. According to Muhammad Tohid, a senior researcher at the Karachi City Laboratory, layers of concrete scattered near their land could make the fields unsuitable for any type of agriculture. During construction, the expressway will significantly affect agricultural fields in at least 12 of the 20 settlements located on the riverbank. “From what we know about this project so far, its need is not justified by the environmental damage it will cause,” Tohid said.

Commenting on the criticism that the expressway has received so far, Somro said it will be increased in places where indigenous communities live to minimize its impact on humans and the environment.

Plots of farmland in Sammo Goth in the district of Malir Karachi will soon be bulldozed to build a highway connecting high-income areas of the city with residential projects on the outskirts. Credit: Zoha Tunio / Inside Climate News

But Hanif Dilmurad, secretary general of the Alliance for Indigenous Rights, an alliance formed by local elected officials and human rights defenders in 2015 to counter the movement of Indigenous people in Karachi to develop large-scale housing projects, is skeptical of the government’s promises. He referred to the fact that the government did not resettle the affected communities on the Lara Expressway and expressed concern over the lack of intention to preserve the lands and monuments of the indigenous population in Mali. “Even if the government relocates residents, it is with mosques, shrines and cultural institutions that are of historical value to the people who live here,” Dilmurad said.

While construction work on the expressway is underway, updated tracing plans and environmental impact studies have not yet been published.

According to Toheed, this opacity and lack of official records hinder efforts to assess the impact of such a project on the environment. “Often construction starts on the same plan and changes halfway, even without official notice,” he said.

Tohid added that most government projects in the province take a top-down approach, rarely interacting with community members.

Dilmurad expressed similar concerns. “Participation from the community should include residents of the area, not just elected officials,” he said.

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He and other activists said the distrust of the elected officials was not unfounded. Last year, the provincial government under the World Bank’s Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Program (SWEEP) carried out mass evictions and demolitions along the Aranga and Gujar waterways, two major urban sewers that have long been clogged with plastic waste, resulting in massive urban floods in the rainy season.

In addition to cleaning and widening sewer lines, government officials also announced the construction of two 30-foot-wide roads on either side of the waterways. In December 2021, members of Karachi Bacao Tehrik (Karachi Rescue Movement) organized a “People’s Climate March” to protest the demolition of houses to build roads and demanded that the government present rehabilitation and resettlement plans for residents affected by the evictions. . Since then, the government has announced a 10-foot reduction on both sides of the proposed roads, but a final plan for relocation and rehabilitation has not yet been announced.

Now, due to the lack of updated plans of the Malira Expressway, city planners and residents can only guess at its impact. According to Tohid, if the highway is built according to the original plan, it would be “virtually impossible” not to relocate communities on the right bank of the Malir River, as officials now promise. National census data for 2017 show that the rural population of the Malir district is 800,000 people, but the official individual breakdown of the number of inhabitants in each of the 20 settlements is not available. Dilmurad estimates the total population of the settlements, which may have affected about 200,000 people. According to Dilmurad, among the affected communities are likely to be Old Shafi Goth, Lassi Goth, Dad Mohammed Goth, Maggie Goth and Jam Goth.

Despite the fact that the Indigenous Rights Alliance is preparing to hold another protest in the near future, Gafar believes that the disruption caused by this highway is inevitable. Walking through a plot of green fields right next to his house, he worries about the thought of moving to another place in the city when families in his village know so little about life outside the area.

“They asked us to pack our houses, not to mention where they expect us to go,” he said. Activists have targeted a Karachi highway project, saying it will only exacerbate climate threats

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