Haleji: A Sanctuary Under Threat
The monastic silence of Haleji Lake runs in stark contrast to the buzz of civilisation. Whether it is the mammoth metropolis of Karachi, or the nearby cluster of smaller cities such as Hyderabad and Thatta, Haleji Lake provides a convenient getaway for city dwellers who are desperate to flee the chaos of urban centres. It is as much a sanctuary for humans as for fauna and flora. Tucked away off the N5, 95 kilometres east of Karachi, the wetland is camouflaged by the marshland that surrounds it. The lake is a hidden gem to which older generations subscribe with a degree of nostalgic veneration, but with which younger generations remain unfamiliar.
Yet all is not well in paradise. Routine negligence makes its presence felt upon this oasis. “It has been 12 long years since fresh water was fed into the lake from the river,” laments Adnan Hamid Khan, Deputy Sanctuary Warden at the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD). While the SWD tends to all matters relating to wildlife at the 10.5-square-kilometre lake, its supply of water lies under the jurisdiction of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). “The only semblance of fresh water that currently enters the lake is that which is supplied to ICI by KWSB,” Khan explains. “This water enters from one gate, and is transported via an old channel of the Pakistan Steel Mills to ICI.” According to Khan, the Irrigation Department’s plans of building new reservoirs are unnecessary and futile, especially when the department is not interested in maintaining, upgrading and rehabilitating existing reservoirs such as Haleji.
Commenting on the impact of stagnant water on the ecosystem, Khan points out, “with high pH levels in the reservoir, only those fish that can adjust, survive.” He reveals that the SWD had recently arranged for artificial supplementary feeding, as a result of which the otherwise dwindling bird population had seen a rise. The Pallas’ Fish Eagle, the Brahminy Kite and the Purple Moorhen are some of the bird species that can be found in the trees that surround the lake. The trees include Peepal (Ficus Religiosa), Neem (Indian lilac) and Babul (Acacia nilotica). The SWD has also sanctioned the plantation of 5,000 new trees around the lake.
Referring to KWSB’s initiative that aims to provide Karachi with 65 million gallons of water per day via Haleji Lake, Khan points out “this means that Haleji will get this quantity of water per day from the river. It will be good for the lake’s ecosystem as the river water will bring with it fish larvae.” KWSB’s project, however, has come under the scrutiny of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, which has pointed out that it would be providing unfiltered water to Karachi.
Maintenance of the lake and its environs appears to be inadequate. Despite it being a ‘sanctuary,’ three crocodiles are kept away from the lake, in an enclosure, while a baby crocodile is kept on display in a glass enclosure with a cement floor. Next door, a family of hog-deer has its own cage. Numerous birds, including peacocks, turkeys, storks and pelicans are also caged, while some of them appear to be in a disturbing physical state.
While old Peepal trees, leaning down into the reservoir, dot the southern edge of the lake, its western border has little to show for itself. According to Altaf Shaikh, WWF Pakistan’s Conservation Manager for Sindh, the WWF had provided the SWD with Rs. 3 million worth of support in an infrastructure rehabilitation project, in 2010. Under this project, new jetties were built along the southern edge of the lake, while the buildings and cages were renovated. Furthermore, pamphlets and posters were made to raise awareness about the sanctuary.
While basic issues such as the lack of fresh water remain unadressed, the tourism department has decided to build a series of ‘rest houses’ along the southern border of the lake. Overlooking the lake, is a small building once inaugurated by the Duke of Edinburgh, President of the WWF, in 1982.
As I strolled along the southern edge of the lake, I encountered a local resident cutting a branch of one of the larger Babul trees that lean towards the water. When I enquired as to whether he was allowed to cut these trees, he informed me that he wanted to feed the leaves to the deer.
Photos by the author