Muhammad Zubair decided to take his family to Hawke’s Bay beach to cool off on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon. His was one of the thousands of families visiting Karachi’s coastal belt on a day in August this year.
The waves appeared relatively “calm” when they first got there, says Zubair’s 14-year-old daughter, Shahista. She and her three siblings – all between the ages of eight and 16 – started swimming. Around an hour later, the sea got rough, making it difficult for the children to get back to shore. Abdul, the eldest among them, got caught up in a narrow channel of fast-moving water — or a ‘rip current’ in marine terminology. He did not make it out alive.
Zubair, a resident of Nazimabad area in Karachi, recalls being far from his children at the time. When he heard Shahista cry for help, he looked around to find a lifeguard among the crowd present at the beach. He managed to attract a lot of curious onlookers but none were able to offer any help. Abdul was the sixth person to drown at Hawke’s Bay in four days.
The entire month of August, in fact, was unpleasant for beachgoers in Karachi. At least 33 bodies were recovered from various beaches in the city that month, says Saad Edhi of Edhi Foundation’s rescue service. Seven drowning incidents were reported just from Sea View, he says.
The following month was no better either. On September 9, strong waves would drown 12 people belonging to two families at Hawke’s Bay.
Zubair says he did not know that the city government had imposed a six-month ban on swimming, wading and diving at Karachi’s beaches back in May. No warning signs informed people about the ban. No policemen or lifeguards patrolled the beach to implement the ban. At least, he says, he did not see any. The missing warnings and absent patrols that he points to could be a major reason why at least 56 people have drowned at Hawke’s Bay alone in the last six months, according to Edhi Foundation’s ambulance service.
Instead of realising the need to inform people about the ban and enforcing it, Ali Hassan Sajid, spokesperson for the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), blames them for being careless: “When a ban is imposed, it is for people to [understand] the dangers” — that there is a 50 per cent higher risk of drowning at sea between the start of May and the end of September.
Sajid claims that city authorities have deployed 46 lifeguards across major beach points in Karachi. Two ambulances have also been hired to patrol those parts of the coastline that fall within KMC’s jurisdiction (around half of the total), he says. “But people, too, should be held responsible for careless behaviour,” he adds. “We cannot deploy 30 guards every three or four kilometres.”
Karachi has a long coastline. Stretching from Cape Monze in the west to Port Qasim in the east, it is about 70 kilometres in length and has a number of beaches including Paradise Point, Hawke’s Bay, Sandspit, French Beach, Sunehra Beach, Mubarak village and Sea View. Among several other factors, what makes Karachi’s beaches so dangerous is their undeveloped topography.
Unlike most beaches across the world, their surface is not levelled and modified to minimise hazards. “Reducing wave motion, levelling the surface and removing underwater rocks are some of the techniques used to ensure beach safety,” says Mairaj Khan who heads a KMC-run Emergency Response Centre at Hawke’s Bay. Without these modifications, the Arabian Sea coast on its own does not offer a hospitable terrain to beachgoers, he says. “The currents are very strong here because of the absence of coral reefs that usually break the flow of water.”
Hawke’s Bay is especially dangerous because of its ‘dumping’ waves. “These are powerful waves that occur at low tide and hit shallow waters with great force,” says Syed Mohammad Ahsan who works as a lifeguard administrator at the Pakistan Aquatic Life Saving (PALS), a non-governmental organisation that provides lifeguard and drowning prevention services. “What appears to be a ‘calm’ sea with low tide hides these dangerous dumping waves,” he says.
Other beaches in the city have other hidden dangers. “Sandspit has an uneven beach. Four feet into the water, it dips 10 feet,” says Ahsan. Sunehra Beach has a slippery surface that makes beachgoers lose balance, leaving them vulnerable to drowning, he says.
These various topographical features make it necessary for beaches to have lifeguards who are not just good swimmers but also well informed. “They need to be able to identify sea patterns — high and low tides, various currents and beach surfaces. The government, however, is least concerned about hiring enough lifeguards, let alone training them,” says Ahsan.
His own organisation, PALS, had deployed a large fleet of around 250 well-trained lifeguards at various beaches in Karachi a couple of years ago. The money for their deployment came from Aman Foundation, a charity based in Karachi, but this source of funding dried up in 2016 and PALS had to reduce its lifeguard force to just 10 people.
The government-deployed lifeguards are mostly fishermen. “Most of them are too old for the job and do not have the stamina or strength to pull people out of strong rip currents,” says Mairaj. They receive meagre salaries that vary depending on what authority has hired them. And they have no rescue equipment. “We were last provided uniforms in 2004,” says one of the lifeguards at Sandspit. The uniform is important: if they are not wearing one, people do not listen to them.
He also complains that there are no watchtowers on the beaches. “Thousands of people visit the sea on national holidays such as Eid. How can a few guards keep an eye on them without enough watchtowers?” They also have to run long distances to get to the drowning persons, hence, losing precious time. “We do not have beach bikes or carts for transportation. Everything is done on foot,” says Mairaj. “We need patrolling equipment – waverunners, jet skis, deep sea boats – to keep a watch on the entire length of the coast,” he says.
The beaches also lack healthcare infrastructure. “Even if a drowning person is pulled out of the sea in time, oxygen is [needed immediately] to save their lives, usually within five minutes of their rescue,” says Ahsan. The first hospital near the Hawke’s Bay area that can provide oxygen is 12 kilometres away.
A good number of lives can be saved if cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be provided on time.
Hardly anyone among the large crowds found at beaches is trained in providing CPR, according to Ahsan. “No first aid kits are available either at huts located along the beach,” he says and wonders why people renting them do not demand basic medical provisions from hut owners who charge large sums of money in rent.
Echoing similar concerns, Mairaj points out that most of the people drowning are rescued alive but many of them die on the way to a hospital. The emergency response centre under his watch has paramedical staff but it is available only on weekends and that too for a limited time.
A guard at Sandspit puts the whole problem succinctly. “Our job is not just to recover bodies but to save people. And that requires more than just a ban [on swimming].”
This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.