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Chinese Port Plans Prompt Ire In Balochistan

Gwadar fishermen say the Chinese-funded port has ruined their livelihoods.

GWADAR, Pakistan has big dreams for a dusty and underdeveloped coastal town on the Arabian Sea in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.

Islamabad hopes billion of dollars in Chinese investments will transform Gwadar into a major commercial hub, linking northwestern China to the Middle East through Pakistan.

But anger among Gwadar's estimated 100,000 residents is mounting. They see no future in the promised glitzy megalopolis, because of local perceptions that Islamabad has always let down the residents of resource-rich Balochistan, and is only interested in exploiting those riches.

Such perceptions are strengthened by acute deprivation, manifested in Gwadar's dilapidated education system and lack of basic healthcare.

Most Gwadar residents don't even have access to clean drinking water.

"For the past 20 days, we've been facing a water shortage. It's not just a few people. All the people of Gwadar are badly hit by acute water shortages," said local journalist Noor Muheisen.

"Nearby towns and villages, such as Kulanch, Nalent, Jiwani and Pasni, face consistent acute water shortages," he added.

Muheisen says that, despite tall promises of billions of dollars of Chinese investments in Gwadar, they town's residents are frequently forced to buy water.

Clean drinking water is top issue for Gwadar residents.
Clean drinking water is top issue for Gwadar residents.

He says every 100 liters of water ferried by tanker costs nearly 40 dollars -- a large sum for Gwadar residents, who eke out meager incomes by fishing in the Arabian Sea. Those who cannot fish build and repair boats for fisherman.

"Most of us are compelled to consume contaminated water, which often leads people to contract various diseases," Muheisen said. "There's no proper sanitary system, we don't have a proper hospital and we don't have proper education institutions."

Gwadar is a touted as the gateway for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Comprising $46 billion in Chinese aid and investments, it aims to link the Xinjiang region in northwestern China to Gwadar through roads, rail networks, industrial parts and large energy projects. China has already invested more than $150 million in developing a deep-sea port in Gwadar.

Gwadar today, however, shows no signs of receiving such funds. It still remains the same provincial backwater that I last visited in 2004. The town's roads are dilapidated, and the single-story mud and brick houses speak of the poverty of their inhabitants. The city's main square, Mullah Fazal Chowk, is so narrow that it is easily clogged by a few vehicles.

Gwadar's residents are convinced that they can expect little from the Chinese investment in their homeland.

"This is all for China,” said Khuda Bakhsh, an activist and representative of Gwadar's fishermen. "We don't need skyscrapers, restaurants and shopping malls. Just provide us with drinking water, that will be enough for us."

Such concerns are echoed across Gwadar. "We have no water, which is a basic need. What will we do with large buildings and [underground] trains?" said fisherman Elahi Bakhsh. "We're forced to drink contaminated water and use seawater for our households."

He says it is increasingly difficult to feed his large family because the authorities have invested little in development of the fishing industry.

"Our major source of income was a fishing site just near the new port, which was destroyed by the government when construction work on the port began, ruining our livelihoods," he complained.

Pakistani officials, however, are adamant Gwadar will be a changed place in the next five years. Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) and Gwadar Development Authority have master plans that envision beachside hotels, huge restaurants, a 50-kilometer seafront, and a sprawling exhibition center.

Munir Ahmed Jan, a senior planning official at the GPA, says the town will be a key transit and trade hub for China and Central Asia. "Very soon we'll connect Gwadar with the rest of the world. I'm optimistic that 2016 will prove to be a year of development and prosperity for the people of Gwadar," he said.

Kaiser Bengali, an economic affairs advisor to the Balochistan government, says the development of Gwadar will translate into the elimination of poverty, water scarcity and underdevelopment. "The operation of Gwadar port and CPEC would bring a wave of prosperity for the people of Balochistan and Gwadar," he claimed.​

Gwadar's main square, Mullah Fazal Chowk, says a lot about its current status as provincial backwater.
Gwadar's main square, Mullah Fazal Chowk, says a lot about its current status as provincial backwater.

But many in Gwadar and Balochistan are not convinced. Hard-line Baluch nationalists, engaged in a simmering decade-old separatist insurgency, are opposed to the Chinese investments and have been attacking Pakistani security forces and Chinese workers in Balochistan since 2004. Two Pakistani coastguards were killed in a landmine attack in Gwadar on January 9. The Balochistan Liberation Army, a major separatist faction, claimed responsibility for the attack.

"This port offers nothing to us. China is constructing this port to gain a foothold in the Strait of Hormuz -- the main energy corridor [of the Middle East]," Aziz Baloch, a leader of the nationalist Balochistan National Party, said.

He says that already most well-paid jobs in the Chinese port in Gwadar have gone to outsiders, and that the local Baluch are even facing discrimination when they seek menial jobs.

On January 10, the Balochistan National Party hosted a day-long conference in Islamabad. Leaders of most Pakistani political parties backed its demand for Balochistan's control over Gwadar.

Bibi Gul, a member of the pro-separatist Baloch Human Rights Organization, says that Islamabad has escalated its operation against the separatists in Balochistan.

"Pakistan is making hectic efforts to silence the Baluch activists in order to pave the way for the huge Chinese investments," she claimed.

Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports the insurgency, militancy and sectarian violence in Balochistan.


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    Kiyya Baloch

    Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist, reports on the insurgency, politics, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.