ABDUL REHMAN GOTH, Pakistan — The Arabian Sea was unusually choppy on a recent day, but fishermen here on the outskirts of Karachi needed money. So they packed into wobbly 20-foot boats stacked with nets, bait and enough food to last up to two weeks at sea.
If they are lucky, they will return late this month with enough lobster, tuna and mackerel to earn each of them $30. These days, however, luck seems to be running out for the fishermen and other residents of this 100-year-old village who are struggling to withstand the sickening pollution of Pakistan’s largest city.
“There are no fish at the shore, and all the fish are at the deep sea,” said Ali Muhammad, who, like many villagers, said he does not know his exact age; he guessed about 40. “Earlier we got fish even in this area, but now we have to travel five, six, seven hours continuously, and maybe there will be lobster or bigger fish.”
Located just 15 miles from downtown Karachi, Abdul Rehman Goth is a hardscrabble community that feels a world apart from the urban chaos nearby. But as Karachi’s population continues to swell, that sense of distance is fading, and villagers find it increasingly hard to escape reminders of the encroaching city squalor.
When Muhammad’s ancestors settled here after leaving the southeastern province of Baluchistan, the shoreline was dotted with remote fishing colonies and shaded by dense mangrove forests.
But those features eroded as Karachi’s population exploded from about 2 million in 1960 to an estimated 22 million today. Much of the waste generated by all of those people — as well as by thousands of textile, plastics, leather and chemical factories — flows directly into the Arabian Sea. The mangroves that used to serve as a filter, protecting fish and crustaceans, are disappearing because of sprawl and illegal cutting.
Karachi has just two functional wastewater treatment plants, and it is largely up to individual business owners to determine whether industrial waste is stored or dumped into canals, officials say. As a result, each day, 350 million gallons of raw sewage or untreated industrial waste — enough to fill 530 Olympic-size swimming pools — from the city flows into the harbor, according to Fayyaz Rasool, manager of the Marine Pollution Control Department at Karachi Port Trust.
In addition, about 8,000 tons of solid waste is dumped or washes into the harbor each day. Even more pollution enters the Arabian Sea from the Indus River, which travels the length of Pakistan’s sugar cane and industrial belt before emptying near the Pakistan-India border.
“The Karachi port really is a worst-case scenario for pollution,” said Mohammad Moazzam Khan, a leading Pakistani marine biologist and the former head of the country’s Marine Fisheries Department. “This is the worst pollution I have seen anywhere in the world, and I have seen many places.”
In a country where clean water and trash collection are unavailable to most, the polluted sea hasn’t dramatically changed daily life for most Karachi residents. During the sweltering summer, tens of thousands of people still flock to beaches to picnic or dip their feet in the water. The wealthy still build beachfront villas, and restaurants that advertise locally caught seafood thrive.
But the pollution threatens a way of life that the fishermen have passed down through generations. Not only are there fewer fish, but villagers also suffer from ailments that they attribute to pollution, including stomach pain, hearing loss, and respiratory and skin infections. Some even say pollution is causing their hair to go gray sooner.
“All that I know, three years ago my hair started to change from black to white,” said Waqar Baloch, 16, who wears a “Hang Loose Hawaii” hat to cover up his salt-and-pepper hair.
Located on an inlet known as Hawk’s Bay, Abdul Rehman Goth is a few miles from a small nuclear reactor that Canada built for Pakistan in the 1970s. Some residents blame the plant for their health problems, but officials say repeated testing has shown normal radiation levels around the plant.
Instead, health experts say, it appears the fishermen are being exposed to the same harmful chemicals poisoning the marine life they are trying to catch. Several recent studies have shown that fish near Karachi contain elevated levels of chromium, cadmium, lead and iron.
“We are seeing a lot of skin problems in communities that live in the harbor area and are directly exposed to the water,” Rasool said. “The good thing is, twice a day, the tide comes in and flushes all the pollution out.”
Rasool said that Karachi officials hope to build several new wastewater treatment plants but that they will cost a total of $170 million and take years to complete. In Abdul Rehman Goth, villagers wonder how much time they have.
“My eye burns, I lost some of my hair and I have digestive problems,” said Shakeel Ahmed, who estimated his age as 21 and was nursing a bloodshot right eye. “And this is the season of the shrimp, but for the last seven, eight years, day-to-day, there are fewer shrimp.”
The bustling port of Karachi can be seen in the distance. But the 6,000 villagers of Abdul Rehman Goth live in one-story concrete houses and wooden shacks stretched across the sand. Many do not wear shoes and wade in and out of the sea dozens of times each day.
Men who aren’t fishing sit in groups stringing nets or meticulously shaping pieces of wood into new boats. Their children, most of whom do not go to school, collect seaweed and make sand castles. As in many other parts of Pakistan, women mostly stay indoors.
In the evening, villagers gather to play cards, lamenting that it has been a while since they’ve seen a shark or dolphin close to shore.
Even here, basic sanitation is lacking. Much of Abdul Rehman Goth’s garbage is dumped outside, creating trails of trash right up to the shoreline. Still, residents wonder why they must go so far to catch high-value fish.
“We just traveled two hours but didn’t catch a single fish,” Faqueer Mohammad said as he pulled his boat ashore.
Mohammad, who estimated that he is 18 or 19 years old, said he wants a new job. And despite a lack of education and Pakistan’s chronically high unemployment rate, there is at least one other job that villagers say they are well qualified for. They boast of being the best swimmers in Pakistan, a claim that sounds believable when hearing their tales of survival at sea after boats capsize.
One resident, Abid Ali, 25, has already given up fishing. He now earns $75 a month as a lifeguard at a Karachi-area beach.