Park in trouble

a government move to allow oil and gas exploration activities in the Kirthar National Park has sparked a major controversy in Pakistan.

Situated 80 km north of Karachi in the southwest of Sindh province, the park was declared a wildlife sanctuary on October 28, 1972 and was eventually declared a national park on January 31, 1974. Prior to this, the stretch of land was classified as government wasteland until 1965, when the area lying in Karachi district was reclassified as aprotected forest. Today, the Kirthar National Park is one of 16 national parks in Pakistan.

In a surprising move in July 1997, the government of Pakistan through, the ministry of petroleum and natural resources, awarded a licence to Premier Exploration Pakistan Limited ( pepl ) for exploration activities in the Dunbar Block, a region which falls within the precincts of the national park.This was despite the fact that mining acti-vities are strictly prohibited in any national park under the Sindh Wildlife Protec-tion Ordinance framed in 1972.

As expected, the Sindh wildlife department opposed the move in keeping with the law. Especially as oil and gas exploration activities in the protected area would endanger the habitat of a variety of animals, birds and reptiles for whom the park is a safe haven. Besides wildlife, historical monuments like the Rannikot Fort and the tombs at Taung - each being several hundred years old - are situated inside the park.
Brewing crisis Despite the park's ecological and histo-rical significance, plans to carry out oil exploration activities continue unaba-ted. Shell Oil, a major presence in the oil sector, after a recent merger with Pakistan's Premier Oil, has taken up the venture under the name Premier and Shell Pakistan b v . Claiming to have prior experience in oil and gas exploration in national parks of other countries, Premier-Shell is eager to carry out seismic surveys in the Kirthar National Park as part of pre-exploration activities.

One of the conditions for exploration is that an Environmental Impact Assessment ( eia ) study is to be conduc-ted on the proposed land site and the results submitted to the Sindh Environ-mental Protection Agency ( sepa ) for approval. Accordingly, Premier-Shell has gone ahead to conduct an eia on the Dunbar Block irrespective of the area being a part of the protected national park. According to press reports, they propose to lay a 600-km-long oil pipe-line from Kirthar to Multan.
Seeking solutions In a counter move, the Pakistan chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf ) has stepped in with proposals to safeguard the park. In the light of the fact that not enough information is available about the status of wildlife and natural resources in the Kirthar National Park, wwf has recommended a detailed ecological assessment of the area.

This assessment, wwf suggests, can be conducted with the assistance of relevant government authorities, as well as the Shell-Premier oil company. But, according to wwf 's proposal, till the time the ecological assessment is completed all exploration related acti-vities - including the eia - are to be postponed.

The wwf has further proposed that during the research adequate provisions should be made to review and compile all previous field studies on the national park. Besides this, the research work will also incorporate an assessment of the park, covering all seasons of the year. This study, according to wwf , should preferably be conducted by a well-reputed non-commercial organisation involved in conservation, such as the Smithsonian Institute.

The following recommendations have been made by the wwf to solve the problem:

l An independent biodiversity study should be carried out;

l International oil and gas exploration companies should fund the proposed study;

l An international nature conser-vation organisation, other than the World Conservation Union ( iucn ) or wwf , may be engaged to conduct such a study; and

l Findings of this study could be used for the proposed eia in future.

Once these recommendations are set in motion, wwf -Pakistan has offered to help build a consensus among conservation organisations, private sector and relevant government authorities.

Recent developments
On June 10, 1999, the governor of Sindh declared that a committee would be set up to discuss relevant issues. wwf has suggested that the committee also assist in conducting the ecological assessment of the Kirthar National Park.

The second meeting of this com-mittee was held on July 26 and was attended by the wwf . The aim was to develop a consensus on how exploration activities could proceed without posing a threat to the national park.

Taking into consideration the wwf proposal to conduct a biodiversity study before the eia is conducted, the government announced the following decisions:

l eia will be conducted by an independent consultant group. Until then no (exploration) activity will be carried out;

l Based on the eia recommendations, possibility in the change of the park's (present) status will be considered; and

l Premier Oil will organise a workshop/seminar in Karachi to present case histories of oil and gas exploration in environment-sensitive areas in other parts of the world.

The Nawaz Sharif government, apparently, showed little interest in conducting an ecological study of the area prior to going ahead with its plans of pre-exploration activities.

Garnering support
Given the administration's stance on the issue, wwf is continuing its efforts to create an awareness among citizens. wwf is also addressing the problem directly to government officials, highlighting the need for a detailed ecolo-gical study before an eia is conducted.

Further, a statement of concern regarding the proposed eia for Kirthar National Park, endorsed by all the leading ngo s working for the environment, has been sent to 200 eminent citizens.

However, the government has appa-rently decided to proceed with the eia , having published a notice for the same in a national newspaper.

Rauf Hameed is communicationsmanager,
wwf -Pakistan; Hammad Naqi Khan also works for wwf as seniorenvironmental officer

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