The Neglected Waters
The Neglected Waters

Being at the coast is a magical experience that encapsulates the purest form of serenity. The very essence of tranquility permeates the air. The intimate saltiness that lingers once you arrive at the water’s edge seems to dance around you. It finds its way to your taste buds, leaving an indelible impression. The coast’s allure lies not only in what you see and feel but also in what you taste, smell, and hear. It’s an intangible multisensory experience that remains— Karachi has a gift. It possesses a unique treasure of vast bodies of water on the city’s periphery. Whether it be driving near these waters, enjoying a seaside snack, or engaging in crabbing adventures at Keamari, the water seems to follow.

On the other hand, what cannot be ignored is the 90-kilometer coastline of Karachi, which used to be flourishing, is suffering from marine pollution, poor governance, lack of maintenance, and pure negligence1. Unfortunately, the vanishing coast is not considered a priority or a matter requiring immediate attention by indifferent government officials. Many intellectuals who have thoroughly researched various facets contributing to the ‘Samandar Ki Chori’2) have taken it upon themselves to help bring change. Pakistan went from being relatively water-abundant in 1981 to water-stressed by about 2000 and will be water-scarce by 2035 with climate change exacerbating its booming population3.

It is essential to grasp Karachi’s historical context and the labels that have been associated with it over the last few decades. Today, Karachi is crowned with titles such as a major metropolitan center, and ‘a bustling commercial hub’. However, its origins trace back to a humble fishing village named Kolachi on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Local folklore suggests that the name “Kolachi” was derived from Lady Kolachi, the founding fisherwoman of the area. To comprehend the remarkable evolution from a small village to a partially developed, mega-metropolis, it is imperative to delve into the policies and initiatives that allowed the process of land reclamation. In 1920, a significant turning point emerged with a proposal for land reclamation, which laid out comprehensive plans to expand the “West Wharf,” thereby creating additional space to accommodate Karachi’s essential seaports.

A cartographic record from 1928, published by the Survey of India, visually narrates the city’s transformation. This map highlights the proliferation of government structures, commercial hubs, places of worship, transportation networks, and more. Scattered across the map, the presence of numerous shipping companies stands as a testament to Karachi’s thriving and dynamic seaport4.

The 90-kilometer-long coastal stretch is enriched by an array of creeks and lush mangrove forests. However, the precious natural gift that Karachi possesses is gradually deteriorating. The gentrification process was initiated following approvals from higher authorities who signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with developers from Dubai and other real-estate hubs5. The early 2000s saw a military coup that led to the dismantling of the existing government structure, paving the way for various gentrification projects that changed the city’s landscape.

This shift in governance introduced new terms and concepts to the cityscape, including fancy phrases like “world-class city,” “investment-friendly infrastructure,” “foreign direct investment,” “cities as engines of growth, and many more. Many of these ambitious, man-made alterations, hastily implemented, have had a detrimental impact on the marine environment. The once-abundant water seems to be steadily receding from our grasp.

Satellite Image form Google Maps

DHA (Defence Housing Authority) in Karachi serves as a prime example where land reclamation, inexperienced regulatory measures, and peak gentrification have become conspicuous features. According to statistics, an expanse exceeding 500 football fields has been reclaimed from the water to support construction efforts by the DHA, a residential and commercial real estate development sponsored by the Pakistani military. This modernized residential area is tailored to serve Karachi’s elite and encompasses upscale clubs, marinas, hotels, restaurants, and attractions aligned with Dubai-like flashy interests. Originally, this region was advertised as an ‘unspoiled waterfront of nearly 14 kilometers ready with full potential for development6.’ The vision driving this extensive project included objectives like the reclamation of 29.8 hectares of land, the establishment of a high-end hotel complex, the presence of five-star hotels with private beach segments, and the creation of a private beach with a lagoon for hotel and residential blocks7.

When navigating the roads of Phase 8, one can spot towering buildings and restaurants along the coast. Some of these restaurants, like Kolachi, are constructed over the waters, contributing significantly to severe pollution in the area.

‘Land that has been reclaimed from Gizri Creek for the DHA’s Phase 8’ (Image: Oonib Azam / The Third Pole)
Screenshot from a Daily Motion Clip about Karachi’s Fishermen. ‘Fisher Muslim Ishaq describes the difficulties he faces now’ (Video: Oonib Azam / The Third Pole)

These business-driven architectural complexes have played a significant role in harming the ecosystems and livelihoods that are integral to the state and the biodiversity of the region. Due to the incompetence of government officials in comprehending the gravity of the deteriorating coastline, often referred to as the “lost sea,” many intellectuals have assumed the responsibility of advocating for the coast. This dedicated group encompasses architects, artists, filmmakers, researchers, and residents who have expressed their views on various platforms.

With ‘Kabhi aisay bhi hota hai ke kinare doob jate hain’, Mahera Omar accurately describes Karachi’s future in the exhibition ‘Saahil Ki Kahaaniyan’ at the Koel Gallery, 2022. This naive statement unravels the complex nature of the state. The fragile and ephemeral nature of the land and soil which is resilient to an extent, is a paradox suggesting how impermanence and uncertainty is a key feature of the modern world8.

I found it extremely difficult as a young adult, to comprehend how these tangible and concrete examples such as land, the coast, its buildings, people, languages, practices, and cultures have the potential to become non-existent one day. The current devastation in Sindh due to catastrophic floods enforces how research on climate change reveals a prevailing and urgent matter that needs to be catered to. Sindh’s crippling coastline coincides with the terms vanish/disappear and have violent and threatening connotations attached to them. It’s barbaric to understand how something so prominent and meaningful can just be swept away. My language, land, soil, family, and culture have the possibility to have no trace in the next 20 years if immediate action is not taken.

Similarly, Mahera Omar utilizes immersive Zoomed-In videos to reveal the existence of these small yet thriving creatures concealed within Karachi’s mudflats. These organisms symbolize life in an environment where the existence of a functioning ecosystem might seem improbable. Through her cinematic approach, she breathes vitality into these delicate inhabitants of the exposed shoreline, which is subject to the ebb and flow of Karachi’s tides.

These captivating scenes remain discernible only to those who engage in quiet observation. The footage captures the resilient mud crab clinging to mangrove tree trunks, the rhythmic sand ball-spitting behavior of the bubbler crab, fish venturing onto land, and the egret’s skillful fishing. Omar’s film serves as a poignant reminder of an ecosystem as vibrant as any metropolis, one that necessitates the consideration and care of every individual.

Ellahi, Mirani, Pilleri – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, 8ft x3ft, Cyanotype on cotton stitched together with embroidery and mirror work on wood, 2022.
Dammed – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Varying Dimensions,8 pieces hanging fabric panels, Cyanotype on Khaddar, 2022.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, one of the other artists among the many displaying their works at the showcases a series of works which delve into a fusion of geological and anthropological perspectives through cartography, map lettering, analog photography, printmaking, drawing, and stitching. Bhutto is engaged in reclaiming a landscape spanning 10 kilometers of Sindh, with the Indus River as its central focal point. The Indus River is an essential aspect of the state’s water resources.  In his series of artwork, titled “Bulhan Nameh – Dolphin Diaries,” the artist brings attention to the existence of a long-lost creature within the Indus River, the dolphin9. These thoroughly researched artworks with field experience include intricate maps showcasing variations in the river, measurements of the largest dolphins discovered, large-scale images of the Sukkur Barrage, along other captivating elements of the region. To attain a similar perspective, and to understand the plight of the dolphins, Bhutto goes to the extent of taking images from a pinhole camera of monuments around the Indus.

The pinhole camera, due to its technical limitations such as its inability to focus, depicts fainted images. Certain simplistic tools used cleverly allowed one to experience the Indus dolphins’ inability to see. The artist’s intention behind this body of work is not merely to unveil the elements of the river in this location but rather, to reintroduce an aura of mystery to the Indus. In doing so, his objective is to foster a fresh perspective of the Indus, portraying it as a dynamic and evolving entity, rather than reducing it to a mere exploitable resource.

We still refuse to mourn their death- Sohail Zuberi, Avicennia Marina 25 x 34 inches, Photograph printed on Montval with archival ink, 2022.
Seascapes– Sohail Zuberi, found wood, plywood, frames made from salvaged wood, Triptych: 18 x 24 inches approximately 11: 24 x 30 inches 12: 24 x 48 inches, 2022.

Furthermore, in a solo exhibition titled ‘Archaeologies of Tomorrow’ at Koel Gallery, Karachi, Sohail Zuberi emphasizes the importance of “unearthing” contemporary “archaeological relics” through the simple acts of walking, investigating, documenting, and excavating with minimal tools10. The act of walking through these sands unravels an unexpected array of collectibles. These discarded items are scattered around as he walks. He relies solely on his mobile phone camera to capture what the sea and its inhabitants leave in their wake, and very carefully through strict procedures, displays the objects collected.  These objects are then presented as historical artifacts, each carrying profound narratives and stories, making them more than mere beach debris.

In addition to his artworks, Zuberi’s Instagram stories serve as an exceptional archive of his regular Sunday visits to the beach, where he actively engages with his environment while documenting his discoveries. The exhibition and his social media presence collectively contribute to shedding light on the exceptional amounts of waste/relics/stories hidden within our modern landscapes due to lack of management of these resources.

Satellite imagery of DHA Phase-VIII in 1984 and 2018, showing the extent of land reclamation within the area, Marvi Mazhar and Associates

Similar to Zuberi, Mazhar initiated her investigation by exploring the city’s while walking on its edges. Marvi Mazhar, a researcher and architect, has made significant contributions to the understanding of heritage preservation in Old Town Karachi, while also shedding light on the importance of ecological documentation of the coast. She argues that reclamation is not merely a recent issue but has been an ongoing phenomenon for years. Large-scale projects like the construction of KPT, Port Qasim, and Port Grand, which were built over water for the city’s benefit, have had detrimental effects on the city’s landscape.

These substantial development projects often neglect crucial factors such as air pressure, air rights, textures, moisture, and their impact on marine life. The aim of the developers is to build a picturesque- ‘Dubai-esque’ development which the city cannot bear11. Development such as ‘The KCCDZ is the latest addition to CPEC projects aimed at ‘providing Karachi with an ultra-modern urban infrastructure zone, placing it among the top port cities of the world’ harm the ecological environment. Marvi Mazhar, utilizing ancient maps and firsthand documentation, has highlighted how the sea continually recedes due to unnecessary development. She emphasizes the necessity of maintaining a buffer zone between the sea and construction to protect the city’s ecological balance. Developers often disregard the local context and surroundings, putting the neighborhood’s collective identity at risk12.

Arif Hasan, a mastermind on town planning, is a prominent Pakistani architect, planner, activist, teacher, social researcher, writer, and former IIED-Fellow. His extensive research covers a wide range of topics, including climate change, the housing crisis, gentrification projects, low-income housing, and other relevant matters to Pakistan.

In his article on the gentrification of Karachi’s coastline, he takes the reader on a journey through historical policies related to land reclamation, the key figures and authorities responsible for approving these policies, the transformation of the landscape through satellite images and documentation, and the voices of those opposing this grand development scheme13. The article provides a comprehensive exploration of each factor and meticulously details the alterations in the landscape resulting from unnecessary development. Hasan’s work highlights the complexities of urban planning and the consequences of unsustainable grandiosity on Karachi’s coastal areas.

A thorough analysis/ re-examination of the city is crucial for its survival. Numerous intellectuals have contributed to understanding the evident conflict through research, artworks, documentation, and various methods. To rescue the lost sea, a transformative shift in mind-set is necessary. The waters, which have provided more than we realize, must be acknowledged and preserved instead of being neglected.


  1. Mazhar, M., Maqbool, A., & Ahmer, H. (2020, August 23). RECLAIMING KARACHI’S EDGE. DAWN.COM,
  2. Joy of Urdu. (2020, January 3). Asif Aslam Farrukhi reads his short story “Samandar Ki Chori”( 1/2) |  Joy of Urdu Studio Series 1 [Video]. YouTube.
  3. Husnain, T and Khan. Faculty of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Water Scarcity and Its Impact on Agriculture -Case Study of Layyah, Pakistan. 2014.
  4. Moore, R. (2018b, April 19). From minor village to world metropolis: Karachi in Maps | Worlds Revealed. The Library of Congress.
  5. Hasan, A. (2012). The gentrification of Karachi’s Coastline. London Workshop towards an emerging geography of gentrification in the Global South, 23.
  6. Hasan, A. (2012). The gentrification of Karachi’s Coastline. London Workshop towards an emerging geography of gentrification in the Global South, 23.
  7. Hasan, A. (2012). The gentrification of Karachi’s Coastline. London Workshop towards an emerging geography of gentrification in the Global South, 23.
  8. Tribune. (2022, August 13). ‘Sahil Ki Kahaniyan’ displayed in Karachi’s Koel Gallery. The Express Tribune.
  9. Qaiyum, S. (2022, June 15). An artist on a mission: saving one of Asia’s most sacred rivers. FairPlanet.
  10. Desk, Y. (n.d.). An engagement with the beach. The News International.
  11. Qasim. (2023, July 5). Banyan tree’s future.Marvi Mazhar -.
  12. FM91 Pakistan. (2022, July 4). Ecology & the Coastline | Marvi Mazhar | Khalid Malik | Green Hour EP 4 | FM91 [Video]. YouTube.
  13. Hasan, A. (2012). The gentrification of Karachi’s Coastline. London Workshop towards an emerging geography of gentrification in the Global South, 23.

Alizeh Baqai is an emerging visual artist and art writer from Karachi. She recently graduated from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where she majored in printmaking, painting, and miniature. Alizeh's research interests encompass a broad range of topics, including feminism, post colonialism, consumerist behaviors, and the influence of technological advancements on material and visual cultures. While simultaneously maintaining a corporate job, she hopes to continue her artistic journey.

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