A white, unmarked food cart stands next to a shiny kiosk selling burgers along the service lane that runs parallel to Karachi’s Sharae Faisal road. It’s lunch time. The cart vendor – an old man in his sixties – doles out ladles full of rice, lentils and other curries onto white paper plates and hands them out to his customers standing around his stall. He set up his stall two years ago and it has been earning him a steady income since.
The area where he runs his business is called Nursery. No saplings are sold here though. Instead, the place is known for housing a busy furniture market. The service lane is lined with shady trees that cover the entire length of the footpath.
His customers are people working in nearby shops and other business concerns. They sit on stools, chairs and benches, laid on the footpath to have their meal. The cart vendor operates right under the shade of a neem tree — its cool, soothing shade could be one reason why his business is doing so well.
Food sellers and their patrons are not the only ones to benefit from the shade. Van drivers, waiting to be hired by furniture buyers, park their vehicles next to Sharae Faisal and rest under the trees.
The Nursery area has always been a popular spot for those wanting to take a break from their day’s work. People can be seen here relaxing in different ways, under the trees. On a recent September day, one man is taking a nap on a makeshift bed while two others sit and chat on a worn down sofa a little further down the road.
The comfort of a tree’s shade is one luxury that the residents of Karachi do not have to pay for. In a city where water is sold by the gallons, such priceless comfort is a rare facility available to all and sundry for free.
Consider when – and where – this facility is not available. During the summer of 2015, an unusual heatwave killed 1,300 people in different parts of Karachi. Experts are unable to single out the most important factor behind those deaths but anecdotal evidence suggests that most of them took place in areas where protection from the sun – in the form of a tree or man-made shade – was not available.
Tofiq Pasha Mooraj, a senior horticulturist in Karachi, emphasises the all too well-known benefits of trees. Other than providing shade, he says, trees bring down temperatures by cooling down the breeze that passes through their leaves. They also offset the impact of heat absorbed by concrete buildings which is then released slowly into the atmosphere even after the sun is down, he adds.
Alarmed by last year’s deadly heatwave, the government acknowledged the importance of trees and announced plans to plant three million of them in Karachi. So far, however, not a single tree has been planted under the plan.
The comfort of a tree’s shade is one luxury that the residents of Karachi do not have to pay for.
On the other hand, thousands of trees have been cut down to make way for infrastructure development in different parts of the city. Salman Karim Khan of the private landscaping firm, AK Khan Associates, says that a single project – the Green Line Bus Rapid Transit System – has cost the city 6,000 trees that have been cut down from areas that fall between Nagan Chowrangi and Hyderi. Furthermore, approximately 2,000 trees have been felled in Nazimabad area for the same project.
Yet, according to Mooraj, Karachi is greener than it was ever before. Will the city continue to add to its greenery? Signs are it may not.
Public spaces available for plantation continue to shrink. Lack of proper planning in government-run plantation campaigns is another reason why the number of trees in Karachi is projected to go down in the future. Official campaigns are carried out in an ad hoc manner, says Komal Shahid, a landscape architect. The government takes decisions without carrying out any research and analysis, she says.
The consequences of such decision-making can be best illustrated by the introduction of eucalyptus – and more recently, corynocarpus – trees in Karachi. Eucalyptus was brought to Karachi from Sri Lanka during General Ziaul Haq’s regime (in the 1980s). The species quickly became a common feature in the city’s landscaping projects. A fast-growing tree, it allowed officials to claim credit for quickly making Karachi green.
By the 1990s, however, it had become obvious that the eucalyptus was not suitable for Karachi’s environment. Its invasive roots were causing damage to the city’s sewage lines, it required huge amounts of water that was simply not available and its pollen resulted in an increase in different kinds of allergies among city residents.
In 2008, the city government began large-scale plantation of corynocarpus trees — mainly all along Sharae Faisal. Its impacts became noticeable quite quickly: corynocarpus was found to be as harmful for the city as the eucalyptus has been and for the same reasons. Still, it continues to be planted in landscape projects and housing schemes all over Karachi.
Corynocarpus trees are particularly ubiquitous near the sea. They grow quickly and can develop in saline water. That is why they are popular in private homes in the Defence Housing Authority. Footpaths and parks in the neighbourhood are also replete with them.
In Hilal Park, corynocarpus trees stand right next to such indigenous varieties as burna and neem. They are pruned and well kept and look beautiful. If left unattended, however, they can grow really large and unwieldy. Their roots can spread far and dry out the surrounding soil, making it difficult to grow grass or shrubbery around them.
Mooraj, however, says corynocarpus does not need to be completely discouraged; only indigenous trees such as burna and neem should not be neglected because of it. Corynocarpus trees should not be unnecessarily planted in areas where other, indigenous species can easily flourish, he explains.
Mohammad Sarfraz, who works at a private nursery in Korangi, confirms that many people who want to plant trees in their homes do just that — preferring corynocarpus over indigenous trees.
Mooraj says there is a woeful lack of trees in the city’s existing parks and public spaces. Consider the gardens at Frere Hall, for instance, which have small clusters of trees that line the pathways and grace the corners. “At least 70 per cent of a park’s area should be covered in trees,” he says.
Architect Komal Shahid, similarly, argues that water flowing from our kitchens and bathroom sinks can be recycled and used in plantation projects. All the government needs to do is set up water treatment plants for making waste water reusable, she says. In the absence of these plants, all that water is instead draining out into the Arabian Sea.
Khan, who is also a senior member of the Horticultural Society of Pakistan, explains that Karachi already had a wide variety of indigenous trees by 1947. The city’s two biggest gardens, Burns Garden and Gandhi Garden, had many trees of jungle jalebi, neem, amaltaas and burna among others. The city’s coastal areas were covered in lush and sprawling mangrove forests. Several species of fruit trees, including tamarind, mango, almond and guava, could also be found in Karachi at the time. A large number of government-owned nurseries then dotted different parts of the city, selling seeds and saplings of mostly indigenous trees.
According to Khan, there is no lack of privately-owned nurseries in Karachi these days, but they aim to maximise their profits by selling imported trees. They are least bothered about preserving and promoting indigenous species, he says.
Khan adds that the lack of attention towards local trees is not just prevalent among nursery owners, but also among people who want to plant trees in their lawns and other privately-owned spaces. Customers prefer expensive trees that have been brought in from abroad. Sometimes, he says, they even prefer imported seeds for plants that can be easily found locally — such as the bougainvillea. Khan sees this as a wasteful use of foreign exchange and a threat to indigenous trees.
Thousands of trees have been cut down to make way for infrastructure development in different parts of the city.
Palm trees have been the biggest beneficiaries of this shift in the demand and supply for trees in the city. The roundabout just outside Quaid-e-Azam’s mausoleum, for instance, is lined with tall palm trees with their smooth trunks painted white. While aesthetically pleasing, their leaves – growing only at the top of the tree – provide little shade.
The number of trees with foreign-sounding names is certainly increasing in the city, although local species have not disappeared altogether. Old neem trees still provide shade on Amir Khusro Road, with their drooping branches as it links Shaheed-e-Millat Expressway with Karsaz. Burna trees grace the road passing through Patel Para with their pale green leaves and winding branches. Similar trees can be found in many other localities of the older parts of Karachi.
These local trees are only outnumbered by the foreign ones in the posh and new neighbourhoods. But then everything in these neighbourhoods – from architecture to interior decoration – looks more foreign than local.
This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.