KARACHI, Pakistan—Late last year, Abdul Ghaffar, a 35-year-old small-scale farmer in Karachi’s Magsi Goth section, noticed that a group of government workers had entered his neighborhood and begun marking homes, sidewalks and street corners.
Ghaffar asked what the large red cross marks were about and was told that construction of a new expressway project in the city was about to begin. One section, according to the freshly marked X on the wall of a corner shop on his street, would run directly through numerous homes and businesses.
Ghaffar’s family has been residing in Magsi Goth for decades. The settlement of Sindhi speakers, almost 50 years old, is relatively new compared to more than 20, century-old neighboring villages that line the right bank of the Malir River in Karachi, in Pakistan’s Sindh province. The Malir district, often referred to as “Karachi’s oxygen,” houses some of the oldest Sindhi and Baloch tribal farming communities in Pakistan. Full of cooling neem trees and patches of agricultural land, the right bank’s residents mostly grow and sell seasonal produce from their small farms.
In December 2020, Pakistan People’s Party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto performed the groundbreaking ceremony on the Malir Expressway project, a public-private project that will cost almost $160 million. The 24.4-mile-long expressway will run directly through these communities to improve Karachi’s gridlocked traffic by connecting newer real estate development projects on the outskirts of the city to “posh areas” in Karachi, according to an official project report released by the Sindh government’s local government department.
Last year, residents of Malir, environmentalists and advocacy groups like the Indigenous Rights Alliance protested against the construction of the expressway, raising concerns about the environmental cost of construction, which would displace Indigenous people and eviscerate agricultural land.
These protests mirror larger concerns about climate change in Karachi, a megacity of 16 million people that the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank identified last year as the most vulnerable to extreme heat in Pakistan. In 2015, Karachi saw nearly 1,200 deaths resulting from a severe heatwave.
The city is also threatened by the other major manifestations of climate change—sea level rise, intensifying monsoons and flooding—having experienced its highest rainfall of nine inches in a single day in the summer of 2020.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is consistently ranked high among nations most affected by climate change. While Pakistan is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is 22nd out of 191 countries on a risk index published this year by Inform, a consortium of humanitarian and development organizations affiliated with the EU’s Joint Research Center.
Pakistan also ranked 8th among nations most affected by extreme weather events between 2000 and 2019, according to Germanwatch, a nonprofit environmental, trade and policy organization based in Bonn.
According to a report published by Amnesty International, Pakistan is also home to one of the hottest cities in the world—Jacobabad, in far northern Sindh Province—where temperature thresholds have reached a level experts say is “hotter than the human body can handle.” The temperature reached 125.6 degrees Fahrenheit there last June.
Analysts estimate Pakistan had around 30 million climate refugees over the past decade.
In response to the 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 with the original plan, citing financial constraints and government by-law restrictions. Officials maintain that the original plan for the expressway will not displace any Indigenous communities or cause any unnecessary deforestation.
“Supposedly if 45 or so acres of agricultural land has to be sacrificed for a project that will facilitate thousands of people in the city then that is a good bargain,” said Naiz Soomro, project director for the planned expressway. Soomro added that residents of Sammo Goth, one of the many settlements along the river, may lose their farmland due to the construction of the expressway but will be allotted alternative agricultural land in the area. “The places we mark during site visits are for our reference and do not indicate that any communities will be displaced,” he said, speaking to the concerns of Ghaffar and other residents of Magsi Goth.
Over the last decade Karachi has seen a rise in the construction of expressways, highways and signal free corridors. Dawar Noman, an environmental policy consultant, said that deforestation caused by this road-oriented development, coupled with increasing layers of asphalt required for road construction, create a “heat island” effect, causing Karachi’s temperature to rise significantly in comparison to its outskirts and neighboring cities.
While the expressway is being constructed to connect the city’s southern, high-income neighborhoods to urban development projects on Karachi’s outskirts, the residents alongside the newly constructed highway are historically impoverished and would suffer the greatest consequences from rising temperatures and increased air pollution. “If you were to conduct an air quality assessment of the area now and again when the expressway is operational it is very likely that the difference would be jarring,” said Noman, “this then becomes a human rights and public health issue.”
The building of roads, expressways and freeways through Indigenous or low income communities is not a new phenomenon in Karachi. The Lyari Expressway, which became operational in 2018 after 15 years of construction, was built to reroute cargo vehicles away from the city center. It set a precedent for large-scale displacement of Karachi residents to facilitate costly expressway projects.
In November 2021, the Sindh High Court issued a contempt of court notice to the project resettlement director for failing to provide land to people affected by the construction of the expressway four years after it became operational.
“Compared to the Lyari Expressway, which resettled more than 30,000 people, at worst this project’s impact will be limited to a community of less than 300,” said Soomro.
Residents alongside the Malir riverbank have historically depended on small-scale farming as a source of income. According to Muhammed Toheed, senior researcher at the Karachi Urban Lab, layers of concrete spread right alongside their land could make the fields unfit for any kind of farming. When constructed, the expressway would significantly impact agricultural fields in at least 12 of the 20 settlements alongside the river. “From what we know of this project so far, its need is not justified against the ecological harm it would cause,” said Toheed.
Commenting on the criticism the expressway has received thus far, Soomro said it would be elevated in places where Indigenous communities reside, in order to minimize its human and ecological impact.
But Hanif Dilmurad, general secretary of the Indigenous Rights Alliance, an alliance formed by local elected officials and Indigenous rights activists in 2015 to oppose the displacement of Karachi’s Indigenous populations for the development of large scale housing projects, is skeptical of the government’s promises. He cited the government’s failure to resettle the affected communities of the Lyari Expressway and expressed concern about its lack of intent to preserve Indigenous lands and monuments in Malir. “Even if the government resettles the residents, what of the mosques, shrines and cultural institutions that hold historical value to the people that reside here,” said Dilmurad.
While construction work for the expressway is currently underway, renewed alignment plans and ecological impact studies have yet to be published.
According to Toheed, this lack of transparency and absence of official records are thwarting efforts to assess the environmental impact of such a project. “Oftentimes construction will begin according to one plan and change midway, without so much as an official announcement,” he said.
Toheed added that most government projects in the province take a top-down approach, rarely engaging with community members.
Dilmurad expressed a similar concern. “Community engagement should include area residents and not just elected officials,” he said.
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He and other activists said this distrust in elected officials is not unfounded. Last year, the provincial government under the World Bank’s $100 million Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Program (SWEEP) conducted mass evictions and demolitions alongside the Orangi and Gujjar waterways, the city’s two main sewage lines, which have long been clogged with plastic waste, causing massive urban flooding during monsoon season.
In addition to the cleaning and widening of the sewage lines, government officials also announced the construction of two 30-foot-wide roads on either side of the waterways. In December 2021, members of the Karachi Bachao Tehreek (Save Karachi Movement) organized the “People’s Climate March” to protest the demolition of homes for the construction of roads and demanded that the government present rehabilitation and relocation plans for the residents affected by the evictions. Since then, the government has announced 10-foot reductions of both sides of the proposed roads, but a final relocation and rehabilitation plan is yet to be announced.
Now, in the absence of renewed plans for the Malir expressway, urban planners and residents are left guessing about its impact. According to Toheed, if the expressway is built on the original plan, it would be “practically impossible” not to displace the communities on the right bank of the Malir River, as officials are now promising. National census data from 2017 places the Malir district’s rural population at 800,000 but an official individual breakdown of the number of residents in each of the 20 settlements is unavailable. Dilmurad estimates the total population of the possibly impacted settlements to be around 200,000. According to Dilmurad the affected communities would likely include Old Shafi Goth, Lasi Goth, Dad Mohammad Goth, Magsi Goth and Jam Goth among others.
Although the Indigenous Rights Alliance is preparing to stage another protest soon, Ghaffar thinks the disruption that this expressway will cause is inevitable. Walking through a patch of green fields right by his home, he is worried by the thought of moving elsewhere in the city, when families in his village know so little about life outside of the area.
“They’ve asked us to pack up our homes with no word on where they expect us to go,” he said.