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Karachi’s Ports: Lessons for Gwadar


Early History & Development

Known by the Ancient Greek name of Krokola when Alexander the Great camped there and later Debal from where Muhammad bin Qasim led his forces into Sindh and later Kolachi when Makrani and Balochi fishing communities settled there, Karachi has enjoyed a rich and studied history as a strategically important port city. Annexed in 1843 by the British led by Charles Napier at the battle of Miani, Karachi soon became an important port city and military cantonment for the British, with the British fast developing the harbor for shipping purposes. As a result commerce flourished in the port city and the population grew rapidly as infrastructure developed in the city and a municipal government was set up. By 1852, Karachi was a populous port city with a population of about 14,000 with widespread trade in over-seas markets. The construction of a variety of wharves started in 1882 but the facilities that were built were not functional by the time Pakistan came into existence.

Karachi Port

At the time of Partition and the British departure in 1947 Karachi was a major grain-exporting city with an airport and a port capacity of 2.5 million metric tons per annum. With partition there was a massive influx of Muslim Muhajirs from India and the demographics of the city changed greatly. On the eve of independence, Karachi’s population exceeded 400,000. This influx of migrants greatly changed the commercial scene of Karachi with many of the well settle Muhajirs coming from India possessing great entrepreneurship skills and the ability of business know-how. Karachi was made the capital of the newly established Pakistan and saw great development under the Five Year Plan of the Ayub Khan government. This plan was emulated by the South Korean government as well as Karachi became an economic beacon during the 1960’s that other countries aspired to. However political instability impeded the steady growth of Karachi as a port city.

Early Beginnings

The Karachi Port Trust was set up and in 1947 infrastructure development began at the port. The number of wharves and berths at the Port of Karachi grew and despite the shifting of the capital to Islamabad in 1959 the city still enjoys the status of an economic powerhouse of the country with 60% of the import/export coming through the city and it being the largest contributor to national GDP. With 30 berths and 8 available wharfs at Port of Karachi and 12 available berths at Port Qasim, both ports enjoy a combined cargo capacity of around 81 million tons. For decades, Karachi’s status as Pakistan’s premier port city has been unrivalled but with the inception of the CPEC this status now has a healthy competitor in the shape of the CPEC’s magnum opus: Gwadar. With its potential as a deep sea port identified in the US Geological Survey of 1954 Gwadar is poised to have a cargo capacity of 400 million tons with its strategic location in close proximity to major global trade routes in the Strait of Hormuz. The infrastructure is being done under the supervision and investment of the vastly experienced Chinese. Not only will this development be technically sound but also done at breakneck pace.


Judging from Karachi’s example one can only imagine the prosperity and wealth the development of Gwadar Port will bring to the city and the province at large with a capacity that is many times that of Karachi’s ports. The Gwadar Development Authority estimates that the city’s population is due to inflate by 3-5 times in the next 4 years. It was in 1958 through the generous assistance of the Prince Karim Agha Khan IV that Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for $3 million. Despite an early realization of the massive potential Gwadar held, instability and lack of political will seriously delayed any action taken in this regard. China’s interest in Gwadar’s strategic importance as a port was piqued early on as evidenced by her collaboration with Pakistan on building the Karakoram Highway also known as the Pakistan-China Friendship Highway. Gwadar possesses far more strategic importance for Pakistan and the region than Karachi. Firstly, it can act as a conduit for the supply of Chinese energy needs via the Gulf. It can also serve as a port for landlocked Central Asian countries, catalyze the development of Baluchistan, a historically underdeveloped province and lessen the burden on Karachi.


Sumbul, Deneb. “A Brief History of Karachi.” Newsline,
Karachi Port Trust

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