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Road to the future: Hopes and fears as China comes to Gwadar

Updated Feb 13, 2017 12:59pm

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Crew members of a Chinese ship take pictures with Pakistani security officials in Gwadar | AFP
Crew members of a Chinese ship take pictures with Pakistani security officials in Gwadar | AFP

A small compound in Gwadar town’s old area is littered with coils of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Around six workers calibrate a moulding machine mounted inside a parked truck and pass the coils through it. Pipes of different diameters and sizes come out from the other side. This is Gwadar’s first pipe manufacturing plant.

The rudimentary contraption belongs to a famous PVC pipe manufacturing company based in Karachi. All its workers have also come from Karachi. There is no other machinery here. No engineers in protective helmets oversee the manufacturing processes. No clerks or administrators run the facility’s day-to-day affairs. The place is as humble as any other compound in town. And the pace of work here is leisurely.

The plant’s operations are part of a 300-million-rupee sewerage project for Gwadar inaugurated on April 15, 2015. The scheme, envisaged during the tenure of former Balochistan chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, includes the laying of several kilometres of PVC pipelines to carry storm and sewerage water from the town’s streets and roads to three cemented wells located at different places on Gwadar’s outskirts. From these wells, water will be pumped to a treatment plant located in the foot of Koh-e-Batil, the mountain that rings Gwadar port on one side. The treated water will be used for developing and maintaining green belts.

Construction and mechanical work is complete at the treatment plant; wells for waste water storage have also been built. The rest of the sewerage system is only partially built. An inauguration plaque at the treatment plant states that the whole project is to be completed by April 2017. That does not seem likely.

Local residents complain the pace of work on the project is very slow and is causing problems for them. The process of burying the pipes underground, for instance, has ruined the few metalled streets that existed in Gwadar, says Khuda Bukhsh, head of the Rural Community Development Council (RCDC), a local community-based organisation. The ones that were not metalled have turned into potholed dirt tracks, he says.

The quality of work also leaves a lot to be desired. Materials and technology being used are rather elementary, some local residents complain. Others point out design flaws: Bukhsh says pipes – with a diameter 12 inches – are being laid to drain storm water that requires pipes of much bigger size. Many local residents believe Gwadar Development Authority (GDA), the government agency executing the project, is neither competent nor efficient. It is known for not completing development schemes, says Muhammad Ishaq, a general councillor of Gwadar Municipal Committee. The authority is also known for letting completed schemes go to ruin, he adds.

Ammanullah Askani, a senior engineer, exhibits maps and slides on a projector screen at the GDA office to explain how Gwadar has been divided into several zones for laying sewerage pipes and storm-water drains. Streets are narrow inside the old part of town, he says. Mechanical shovels cannot be employed here, he adds, so the work is being done manually. That is what is causing the delay, he argues.

When there was no port in Gwadar, the town’s limits were confined to what is now known as the old town. A master plan that the GDA created for Gwadar’s expansion in 2005 showed the whole old-town area as part of the port. As per the master plan, a number of housing projects and markets were conceived to replace the old town. That foretold the fortunes of the Gwadaris living here: they were to relocate whenever the port was expanded to its fullest. The old town was to be shifted about eight kilometres to the north where the coastal highway to Karachi starts (or ends), Askani says.

Now the old master plan has been scrapped and the federal government has assigned a Chinese company the task to create a new one for what is being called Gwadar Smart Port City. No officials in Gwadar can say if relocation of the old town will form a part of the new master plan as well. Yet, two development schemes that are already well under way – the construction of an expressway to connect the port with the coastal highway and the expansion of the port – will have a definite impact on the future of the old town.

Dostain Jamaldini’s friends believe he was punished. The then Balochistan chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch made him chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) in the winter of 2013. At the time, Jamaldini was working as the finance secretary, one of the most powerful bureaucratic positions in the provincial government. On the other hand, there was almost no work at the authority and its headquarters in Gwadar was hundreds of kilometres from the provincial capital of Quetta.

Jamaldini’s friends felt sorry for him. They thought he had landed a dead-end job. Three years later, he finds himself at the centre of Pakistan’s most talked-about development plans — of turning Gwadar into a 21st century hub of regional and international sea trade. He spends more time attending meetings in Quetta and Islamabad – sometimes even in Beijing – than in Gwadar. His friends now envy him.

Jamaldini is also one of the busiest men in Gwadar. As GPA’s head, he is handling a number of important development projects — an expressway, a tax-free zone, a vocational training institute, expansion of the port and the creation of a business complex.

Regular visitors to Gwadar immediately notice that the work on these projects is one of the few signs that demonstrate the difference between the town’s past and its present. Others include an increased presence of security forces and their armoured vehicles, particularly near and in the port area, and a dual-way metalled version of the old, narrow track called Fish Harbour Road. It has been renamed as Marine Drive.

Local residents claim all these schemes were conceived and designed years ago. Most significantly, they say, these have not materialised because the much-hyped China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has come to town. Nasir Sohrabi, a local development activist and an RCDC representative, says some other projects – including parks, a sports complex and a hospital – also predate CPEC.
Away from these projects, life in Gwadar goes on as usual — at the same old lazy pace, along the same old dusty roads and streets. Most of the town remains as much a slum as it always has been — devoid of all civic amenities. Electricity is intermittently available for less than 12 hours a day and tap water is supplied only two hours a week.

The electricity shortage makes Akhtar Jan Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan and the head of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNPM), extremely unhappy. “The entire Makran division [of which Gwadar town and Gwadar district are parts of] is provided electricity for only six hours a day,” he says. The total electricity that Balochistan needs is hardly 1,600 megawatts but it is getting only 300 megawatts, he says.

The gap between the supply and demand of water is similarly glaring. Akra Kaur Dam – built in 1995 over an area of 17,000 acres about 22 kilometres to the south of Gwadar – is the main source of potable water for the town. It has been drying up for the last two years due to less-than-usual rains.

The town also has two seawater desalination plants — one in the private sector and the other set up by the government. While the former, according to a recent report in daily Dawn, is selling “100,000 gallons of drinking water to the public health engineering department daily”, the latter has been out of order for years. The one-billion-rupee government plant has the capacity to desalinate two million gallons of water per day but requires a huge amount of money for its repairs. A hearing of a Senate standing committee recently revealed that it needs up to 700 million rupees “for its repairing and reoperation”.

The major source of water supply to Gwadar these days is Mirani Dam, more than 170 kilometres north of the town. Tankers bring water from the dam to a pumping station, run by the public health engineering department, which then supplies it to local residents.

Mengal remarks: “Gwadar and its rural suburbs have been facing extreme water shortages for the last five years but nothing has been done to solve the problem.” There is a lot of talk about desalination plants, he says, but nobody is saying how much electricity is needed to run them and who will bear the cost of their operations.

Jamaldini acknowledges that Gwadar requires an improved water supply and also needs to have an uninterrupted power supply if it wants to succeed as an international port. No businesses or industries will want to set up shop in the town as long as the two problems persist, he says.


This is an excerpt from the Herald's February 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

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