Gulf of Oman development continues to disenfranchise Baloch fishermen

The Baloch people residing in the Gwadar Bay between Iran and Pakistan have been marginalized due to the environmental destruction of the area.

al-monitor Floods are seen in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan region with rain water covering the village of Dashtiari, as severe downpours led to floods across the region, blocking roads and damaging homes, Jan. 13, 2020. Photo by ALIREZA MASOUMI/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 28, 2020

Situated on the Gulf of Oman, the Gwadar Bay spans the maritime border between Iran and Pakistan. The 30-kilometer (19-mile) long bay, with the Dashtyari and Dasht rivers as tributaries, serves as the fulcrum of regional fishing activity. Thousands of Baloch fishermen residing in villages along the coastline rely on their daily catch to sustain themselves and their families. Over the past years, however, increased capitalist development in the area has been increasingly detrimental for these laborers, with wastewater and air pollution rising steadily in the region and negatively affecting marine life in the bay, while new infrastructure has displaced several hundreds of Baloch villagers.

In 2002, the Chinese government began investing in Gwadar. Twelve years later, it pledged $62 billion toward the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), through which the country has hoped to expropriate regions rich in resources and construct cross-border paths linking the mainland to hotbeds of economic activity. Chosen strategically by the Chinese government as a prime investment location, the Pakistani port city of Gwadar is home to nearly 236,000 residents — of which over 70% are engaged in fishing — and lies in close proximity to some of the world’s most crucial gas and oil trade routes. The Chinese authorities hope to transform the bay, which originally saw only small boats and the occasional ship, into an international hub capable of docking hundreds of heavy vessels with hundreds of thousands of dead weight tonnage.

Over the past years, China has imported convoys of dozens of trucks and sea vessels to transport goods to and from the Gwadar Bay, the deepest seaport in the world. The government has also opted to run a sleuth of factories here to mine and process natural resources, while the Pakistani government has marketed these towns as real estate destinations for businessmen, erecting villas like the China Pak Golf Estates. Many plots in the Pakistani port city that opened up as housing developments have boomed. Having built a school, Beijing continues to pour money into the region, pledging grants toward hospitals, universities, an expressway and a new $230 million airport.

Once a quiet fishing hamlet, Gwadar has seen bus services and car rental companies, spa services, hotels, restaurants and cafes. Catered to tourists, the city has offered scuba diving and boating excursions, operated small cruises and advertised various water sports. In addition to directly impacting local fishermen, these activities have financed the Pakistani and Chinese governments, which in turn utilize such funds to further develop the Gwadar region and disenfranchise the Baloch people in a vicious cycle of capitalist greed.

Additionally, displacement has had a deterrent effect on fishing for the Baloch people and has given rise to penury. This has led to the loss of marine life in the bay, making it increasingly difficult for even Baloch fishermen who are not displaced to meet their catch quotas. Baloch boat makers, motorboat operators and others whose occupations center around maritime activity have been affected as well. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government offers little to no fiscal assistance, instead continuing to cater to foreign investments. In fact, the Gwadar Bay was featured on the Pakistani five-rupee note, a denomination since pulled out of circulation.

The Baloch people are native to both Iran and Pakistan, with around 2 million people in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province alone. Ecological contamination knows no national borders and much of the wastewater originating in Gwadar finds its way to Iran’s eastern coastline, affecting fishermen there as well. Though Sunni-majority Pakistan and Shiite-majority Iran have had minor flare-ups in the past, their governments have enjoyed mostly cordial relations; in fact, Iran was one of the first countries to recognize Pakistan following its independence from the British in 1947.

The Iranian state is also perceived positively by most Pakistanis and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei has expressed a desire to join the CPEC in the past. The Iranian and Pakistani governments also have their precedent neglect of the Baloch people in common; both have long considered the Baloch region one ridden with insurgency and army troops are often garrisoned in the area in a joint national effort to quell Baloch militants with little regard for vulnerable citizens or collateral damage.

Given this fact, safeguarding the livelihoods of Baloch fishermen is not prioritized by Iran, with virtually no fiscal aid being made available to these people. Environmental protection is given little importance in Iran as well. The country's Department of Environment maintains a list of 23 national parks, 32 natural monuments, 37 wildlife refuges and 117 miscellaneous protected areas throughout Iran’s 31 provinces. The Gwadar Bay area is not included in this list and Isa Kalantari, the department's incumbent head, has not spoken about its contamination.

Businesses including a mineral water plant, an ice factory and seafood companies in the area were identified as primary sources of wastewater pollution in the Gwadar Bay. These establishments have been linked to the direct discharge of harmful effluents, which have caused hydrographic changes in the seawater’s temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. Effluent discharge played a notable role in altering the bay's chemical composition, which in turn has disrupted the bay’s marine ecosystems. The Gwadar peninsula is home to 55 unique species, including coastal birds, mollusks, echinoderms and crustaceans. Animals in the benthic zone are particularly considered accurate indicators of water pollution. Benthic fauna counts have dwindled in recent years.

The Baloch people have accounted for the Gwadar region’s undercurrent of tradition for centuries with a long history of ornate jewelry and attire, dances and folk songs, rich cuisine, festivals and most notably a rich fishing culture. The nationalistic policies of Pakistan, Iran and China, however, coupled with a multilateral interest in profit gain, have resulted in the marginalization of these people through environmental destruction in the Gwadar Bay. The livelihoods of the Baloch people are tied intrinsically to the sea, and unless environmental justice precedes lucrative avarice, coastal Pakistani and Iranian fishermen will remain subservient to monetary agendas.

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