China-Pakistan Economic Corridor promises a bright future for the local community as well as the overall national economic uplift. Progress is highly visible, and the vibrant and welcoming people of Gwadar are enthusiastically embracing change and the new opportunities available for a better life.
Gwadar is undergoing a massive transformation. From a sleepy fishing town on the southwest coast of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, in a few years, it will be a thriving, modern and progressive city. Until recently, the potential for lifting the local people out of poverty through socioeconomic development was absent. But the investment in Gwadar Port and connecting China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure changes that and brings with it immense opportunities for poverty alleviation of the entire district. Progress is highly visible, and the vibrant and welcoming people of Gwadar are enthusiastically embracing change and the new opportunities available for a better life. They reject attempts by foreign-funded militant groups who attempt to cause fear and further deprivation in the region. But additional development programmes by government with the support of international organisations will help address the remaining gaps to achieve sustainable development goals.
Gwadar is more than just the city and a port. In a region of extraordinary beauty, the semi-desert coastal Gwadar district stretches 600 kilometres along the Makran Coast from within the western boundary of the Hingol National Park, through Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar, and beyond to Pishukan, Ganz and Jiwani, right to the border with Iran. Karachi is 640 kilometres east of Gwadar city and Balochistan’s capital, Quetta, is over 900 kilometres by road to the northeast. Muscat in Oman is just 413 kilometres across the Gulf.
Gwadar is more than just the city and a port. In a region of extraordinary beauty, the semi-desert coastal Gwadar district stretches 600 kilometres along the Makran Coast from within the western boundary of the Hingol National Park, through Ormara, Pasni, Gwadar, and beyond to Pishukan, Ganz and Jiwani, right to the border with Iran.
The Makran coast is a national treasure of Pakistan with a spectacular coastline and beaches, strange rock formations rearing up out of the semi-desert landscape, offshore islands with abundant bird life, rare sea creatures, and interesting cultures. But the tyranny of distance, poor roads, and insufficient air connections to other cities and internationally had previously made travelling to Gwadar difficult. The global COVID pandemic also kept people from travelling. When the new international airport, currently under construction, opens in 2023, and upgrades of Makran Highway and tourism facilities are completed, Gwadar will be easier to reach from other cities of Pakistan and abroad, accelerating both business and tourism opportunities. In the meantime, there is much to enjoy for the intrepid traveller who wants to explore one of the most interesting, diverse, and beautiful parts of Pakistan.
Gwadar’s natural deepwater anchorage and strategic location on the Arabian Sea at the entrance to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, opens up new routes for trade and export opportunities for Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, and Central Asia to a wider world. Gwadar has a history of settlement dating back thousands of years. At various times, it has been part of the Persian Empire and visited by Nearchus, an Admiral in the army of Alexander the Great on his return from the Indus in 325 BC; visited by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century; and was a stopping off point for ships from the British India Steam Navigation Company. For 175 years, it was an overseas possession of the Sultanate of Oman, before being acquired by Pakistan in 1958.
Gwadar’s potential as a future port was first noted in 1954 when the United States Geological Survey conducted an analysis of the coastline of Pakistan. But concepts for a port went nowhere until after Gwadar became a part of Pakistan in 1958. Work eventually commenced on building the port in 2002, but it did not attract international investment until in 2006, a 40-year agreement was signed with the Port of Singapore – a Singapore Government controlled enterprise – for further development and management of the port and to develop a Special Economic Zone. The Singaporean partner withdrew in 2012 and again, the future looked bleak for Gwadar.
New life was breathed into Gwadar in 2013 when China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC) was awarded the contract to develop and operate the port and become a critical component of the extensive infrastructure projects under the regional connectivity framework of CPEC.
China’s huge investment in CPEC and the port has clearly been the pivot point for the future of Gwadar. Development has brought change to communities both directly and indirectly. The investment, including the port, the new international airport, a six-lane expressway linking the port to the free zone, new local roads and highway connections, street lighting, electricity production, dams, water and sanitation systems, desalination plants, brings enviable changes to the Gwadar region, exceeding many other parts of the country. Thousands of locals have found jobs on these projects and livelihoods in supporting industries, working alongside engineers and other experts from China.
The media focus is primarily on CPEC and the Gwadar Port, but mostly misses the bigger picture of socioeconomic uplift resulting in improvements in health, education, and other vital community facilities. A great deal of disinformation circulates, a strong element of which seems to be aimed by external forces at targeting China’s influence as a competitor in global markets. If the Gwadar Port becomes successful, it will become a competitor as a transhipment hub for other ports in the region including Chabahar in Iran, in which India is investing. Chabahar is currently not considered a serious rival in the immediate future due to having shallower water than Gwadar, less regional infrastructure connectivity, and the problematic sanctions that the west has placed on Iran. However, in the shifting geostrategic alliances of recent years, the United States now views India as a key strategic partner. India is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – more commonly referred to as ‘the Quad’, a strategic (but not formal) alliance with the United States, Japan, and Australia – focused on countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. What allowances the U.S. will make for India’s investments in places like Chabahar permitting them to bypass sanctions, remains to be seen.
With CPEC, the shipping time and costs between western China and Europe will be significantly reduced, thereby reducing maritime traffic through the Malacca Straits. This has generated concerns from Quad and other countries who will feel the economic impact of competition from a new port at such a strategic location. This may account for the little or no support by investors and international donors from those countries, in Gwadar’s socioeconomic development.
The infrastructure development of Gwadar is well underway, and the commencement of new projects is regularly announced. The comprehensive Gwadar Master Plan 2017-2050 prepared by China Communications Construction Company, in conjunction with Pakistan's Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, and the Gwadar Development Authority, reveals just how the transformation will unfold in the next thirty years. The Master Plan clearly divides the city and surrounding areas into precincts including the port and logistic areas, export processing and trading zones, special free zone, industrial, maritime industries, business, residential, municipal infrastructure, technology, power, water and sanitation plants, green belts, education, cultural and sports facilities, a university city, resorts, and protected ecotourism areas.
For centuries, fishing has been the main source of livelihood and food for the local communities. But without bigger and newer boats and equipment to compete with large offshore trawlers, reliable refrigeration, and modern seafood processing and export facilities, their livelihoods have been declining. While fishing will remain part of life in Gwadar, some fishing families are now finding new sources of livelihood and employment in CPEC-related projects, thereby contributing more to their household incomes. However, there are also indications that the fishing industry could soon undergo revival. In a recent announcement by the Prime Minister, 2,000 new motors and other equipment will be provided to fishermen. An announcement by a Chinese entrepreneur of a $50 million plan to establish an end-to-end supply chain facility for seafood export to China also looks promising. This will help address the existing issues that have inhibited growth for the fishing industry.
Gwadar is the hub for the towns in the district for health and education, two vital sectors for positive development. Both sectors are being upgraded significantly through new medical and educational facilities. Until now, students had to travel to Turbat, Quetta or Karachi to receive a university education. This has changed with the opening of the Gwadar University. Although still small – with just over 600 students, 40 percent of whom are female – the number of students for the next semesters will increase significantly. Current courses focus on key sectors in Gwadar, ensuring young people are ‘career ready’, particularly in maritime industries and education. Under the Gwadar Master Plan, the university will move to a modern purpose-built campus with an extensive curriculum, state-of-the-art classrooms and technology, accommodation, conference facilities, shops, sports and recreational venues, providing a holistic experience for students to focus on their studies.
Although construction activities at the port and under CPEC are extensive and progressing rapidly, it is worth remembering that some of Gwadar’s most important new facilities are not part of CPEC loans and investment agreements, but generously provided under grants from China Aid and Corporate Social Responsibility projects funded by COPHC. One of the most important of these is the multi-million dollar new Gwadar Development Authority Hospital, along with its own power generation and water treatment plants, being constructed under a large grant from China Aid. The existing GDA hospital treats a wide range of trauma and diverse medical conditions, but is overwhelmed and outdated. The catchment area for the Gwadar Hospital for tertiary level care covers a large area from the Iran border to Ormara and a population of more than 270,000 people. The large new hospital with the state-of-the-art laboratories and clinical facilities, and refurbishment of the adjoining existing hospital will provide previously unavailable high levels of healthcare to the population and more than double the number of beds available to 150. This will reduce the need to transport critically ill patients to Karachi. Recently, the highly regarded Indus Hospital from Karachi signed a Memorandum of Understanding to manage the new hospital.
Also gifted by China Aid is the impressive Pak-China Technical & Vocational Institute completed in 2022 by the China Port Authority and the Gwadar Development Authority. The Institute provides training courses in a wide range of skills required for port operations and construction projects. A feature of the Institute is the extensive use of training simulators for cargo handling, and industrial machinery in specialised classrooms. Financial management and computer skills are also taught to ensure the administrative workforce is available. The Institute has conference facilities, accommodation for students, and sports facilities. The female students are making up a large percentage of intakes, again showing the determination of the women of Gwadar to improve their status and income opportunities.
The comprehensive Gwadar Master Plan 2017-2050 prepared by China Communications Construction Company, in conjunction with Pakistan's Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, and the Gwadar Development Authority, reveals just how the transformation will unfold in the next thirty years.
COPHC, which operates out of the impressive new China Business Centre at the port, runs a well-considered Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme which contributes much to the wellbeing of the community. Under the direction of the Chairman of COPHC, Mr. Zhang Baozhong, who has lived in Gwadar for 8 years and is very familiar with the needs of the local communities, the COPHC team has implemented numerous CSR initiatives to improve their living conditions. Among the many highlights is a plant tissue culture laboratory to develop new varieties of fruit, including bananas, vegetables, and other greenery, resistant to the drought and harsh coastal environments. These will contribute significantly to improved food security in the district which currently receives much of its fresh fruit and vegetables from Iran. Availability and transportation costs from other cities prevent many from acquiring a balanced nutritious diet, leading to high levels of malnutrition and anaemia in the district. A training programme for local students has also been initiated to share knowledge of the sophisticated technology. The port precinct has a plantation of around 50,000 trees and other plants which are thriving in their environment and a huge greenhouse to nurture young stock for replanting across Gwadar. A project near Mirani Dam is developing species of grasses, including King grass, that will thrive locally. This too is providing livelihood to local workers and opportunities to partner with corporate entities to reach a wider market. Other valuable initiatives include donating solar panels to thousands of residents, development of a girls’ high school, a sewing centre for local women, provision of thousands of gallons of clean drinking water daily to residents, food packs during crises, scholarships for local students to study at Chinese academic institutions, provision of fishing nets and other equipment to the local fishermen, capacity building of the Police Department with motorcycles, shields and laptops, and facilitation of numerous new projects.
Other ‘soft’ improvements to Gwadar have come from local philanthropy, Gwadar Cricket Association, and the Pakistan Army. One of the most iconic images of Gwadar and a popular venue for local enjoyment is the beautiful Gwadar Cricket Stadium. The stadium with its emerald green ground set against the stark rock formations of Koh-e-Bateel sits on land donated in 1996 by a local Senator, Muhammad Ishaq Baloch. Recently, the stadium has been upgraded by the Gwadar Cricket Association and Pakistan Army. The Cricket Association manages the sports activities and the Army takes care of the infrastructure. A major upgrade in 2020 has led to what we see today with irrigation pipelines laid, spectator stands renovated, landscaping, installation of gates, clubhouse, and cricket equipment. The grass owes its vibrant green to the recycling of town sewerage to greywater and does not use the precious supply of freshwater, a great example of climate-friendly water management for others to follow. In 2022, an expert in pitch preparation visited to upgrade the pitch to assist in better performance. The stadium is open to all and currently 24 teams compete regularly.
Although some of Pakistan’s most famous players have visited, as yet no international teams have played there. In February 2021, the British High Commissioner, Christian Turner CMG, visited Gwadar and attended a lively match. During his visit, the High Commissioner said, “I think Gwadar Cricket Ground is the most beautiful ground in the world and I hope one day the England cricket team will play a match here". With the English team visiting Pakistan in 2022/23, it seems the perfect time to bring the High Commissioner’s wish to fruition. Such a visit would inspire local players and give much needed publicity to the city and Pakistan.
Although Pakistan Army’s traditional role is defense and security against those who would sabotage peace in the region, their broader contribution in Gwadar District is significant. Pakistan Army has contributed parks along the clifftops for families to enjoy beautiful outdoors and sunsets, and the Pakistan Flag Point park with its 360 degree views of Gwadar. The Army Medical Corps supports the Gwadar Development Authority Hospital with management and doctors, upskilling and career development for medical staff, and other initiatives for local communities including health camps. The Army Public School provides education to both boys and girls to give them the best opportunities available to fulfil their potential. The Army, along with the Pakistan Coast Guard and the Navy is on the frontline of assistance in Gwadar District, working with district authorities and communities whenever disaster strikes. In a district at risk of numerous natural hazards including cyclones, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts, they contribute to initiatives to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster. They also support protection of the coastal environment, including working with fishing communities to provide protection to nesting areas for green turtles, and numerous other initiatives for enhancing community wellbeing.
The people of Gwadar want progress and to participate in efforts to improve their lives and have better opportunities for their children. They reject the foreign funded militants, who they know will destroy progress and their chance for a prosperous future. They deserve support. But it will take greater focus at all levels of government to address broader development gaps in the short and medium term, such as greater inclusion in government social safety nets and associated programmes. To date, there is little or no presence of any of the programmes which are implemented in other parts of the country, including in Balochistan, by multilateral and bilateral donors or the United Nations, who work in partnerships with government and local organisations.
Key areas in which they could provide additional and much-needed programme support are women’s economic empowerment – women and girls are eager for inclusion in income-earning activities and careers – and much can be done; community-based disaster risk reduction and management; environmental protection (including preserving rare marine life); climate change; mother and child health; nutrition, and food security. Every effort should be made by government to bring them on board. To quote one of the six guiding principles of the United Nations global Sustainable Development Programme which Pakistan signed up for in 2015, “Leave No One Behind”. Surely, that must include the people of Gwadar.
The Gwadar and the Makran Coast – Places to Enjoy
• Pakistan Flag Point with its outstanding 360-degree views of Gwadar.
• Old City.
• Gwadar Fort.
• Spectacular sunsets over the Arabian Sea at Sunset Point or anywhere along the coast.
• Join local families fishing off the rocks and enjoy the evening breeze.
• Local parks along the coast around the city.
• Coastline and numerous long, deserted beaches.
• Gwadar Cricket Stadium. Attend a match and enjoy the local spirit.
• Mud volcanoes.
• Fishing harbours.
• Jiwani is a must. This picturesque fishing harbour and beach is a peaceful haven long admired for its beauty and glorious sunsets. Stop off at Victoria Hut, built in 1876 should Queen Victoria want to come to see the amazing sunsets. Today the Hut is a beautifully maintained Pakistan Coast Guards base.
• Ganz – located along one of the many beautiful beaches. Just one road runs through the small town which still has hints of Portuguese influences from the past.
• Take a run to the end of highway across the desert landscape to the Iran border.
• The fresh-caught local seafood and visiting local cafes is a must.
The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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