Life, Environment

‘Like my kids’: Pakistani man cares for 2,000 plants, trees every day

Sabir Gul, a retired gardener in his 70s, volunteers in Karachi, where property rush has reduced green spaces to a luxury

Aamir Latif   | 22.10.2021
‘Like my kids’: Pakistani man cares for 2,000 plants, trees every day

KARACHI, Pakistan

Blighted by the vagaries of unplanned urbanization and unchecked industrialization, Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi is among the most polluted metropolises in South Asia.

Already home to some 20 million people, the port city has little space left for the thousands turning up here every year in the hopes for a better future.

Still, though, construction of more residential and commercial spaces – of every size and design imaginable – continues unabated in every nook and corner of Karachi, driven as much by the unceasing demand as the ruthless greed for profit of real estate developers.

This relentless cycle has turned the coastal city, once known for its temperate climate and breezy evenings, into a concrete jungle gasping for fresh air, where trees and green spaces are reduced to almost a luxury.

However, there are still people striving to give Karachi a greener future, doing what they can in their limited personal capacities.

Sabir Gul is one such individual, who has taken it upon himself to care for more than 2,000 plants and trees in a high-end neighborhood in Karachi’s eastern district.

A retired gardener in his early 70s, Gul is part of a tree plantation campaign launched four years ago by Al-Khidmat Foundation, one of the country’s largest charity organizations.

He is caring for plants and trees in Mohammad Ali Society, which has gone from being one of the city’s cleanest and greenest residential areas to a maze of high-rises and glossy buildings in the past two decades.

Thousands of trees have been chopped down in the locality to make way for new houses and buildings, but Gul and the foundation are determined to undo at least some of the seemingly irreparable damage.

Every morning, Gul and his assistant load a big water tank onto a specially modified three-wheeled motorcycle and set out to water and check on all plants and trees in the sprawling neighborhood.

It takes them eight to 10 hours to cover the entire area, with an hour-long break for lunch and noon prayers.

“My love for plants prompted me to join this campaign,” said Gul, who worked as a gardener at a school in Karachi for 25 years and joined the foundation as a volunteer in 2010.

The love he speaks of is evident in how tenderly Gul, clad in a shalwar kameez with his gray hair and beard neatly trimmed, waters and prunes a plant on a narrow greenbelt along the busy Shaheed-e-Millat Road as honking vehicles whiz past.

“I have never taken it as a job; this is a cause. These plants are like my kids. I take care of them as a father,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Not just the government’s duty

Pakistan is among the 10 countries most at risk from climate change.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken up the issue and its related challenges at various global forums, calling for urgent international action.

At home, his government has been pursuing an ambitious “10 Billion Tree Tsunami” project that aims to restore the country’s rapidly depleting forest cover and also plant trees in urban settings.

Gul, however, believes that tackling the threat of climate change is “not just the government’s duty.”

“He [Khan] has his own domain and duties. But as a citizen, it’s my job to do my bit,” said the elderly volunteer.

Pakistan has recently launched an “Ecosystem Restoration Fund” to support nature-based solutions to climate change and facilitate environmentally resilient initiatives for afforestation and biodiversity conservation.

Under the project, some 15 protected areas are being developed across the country to conserve over 7,300 square kilometers (approximately 2,820 square miles) of land, which will also create over 5,500 related jobs.

Much more to be done

In the past decade, extreme weather patterns, floods, shrinking agriculture, sea erosion, and lingering dry spells have caused widespread migration within Pakistan, mainly to big cities such as Karachi.

For instance, estimates indicate more than 2 million people were displaced by floods that affected one-fifth of the country in 2010 and 2011, sparking massive a movement of people from rural areas to urban centers.

The growing need for housing has triggered a rush of construction in major cities, including Karachi, with the greatest casualty almost always being trees and green spaces.

“Every day, we see construction of a new building starting somewhere in Karachi,” Junaid Mukati, a local politician who is heading Al-Khidmat’s tree plantation drive, told Anadolu Agency.

“Nowhere are the authorities or citizens worried about how many trees and green spaces are being wiped out to make way for these new structures.”

Mukati said his organization has planted more than 8,000 trees during the ongoing drive, but acknowledged that “much more needs to be done.”

“But, as long as we have dedicated people like Gul, there will always be hope,” he said. ​​​​​​​

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