In July this year, Pakistan’s teeming port city Karachi braced itself for disaster after the meteorological department forecast 50-60 mm of rain in a day. With the knowledge that even 20 mm could bring the city of 23 million people to a standstill, officials prepared themselves for a never-seen-before deluge.
“It was the first warning of its kind. The 2013 urban flooding taught us that we must be prepared this time,” said Ajay Kumar, assistant director operations, Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), in Sindh.
Fortunately, the rains of the 2015 monsoon were less than expected and did not result in casualties and destruction of property and infrastructure as in 2013 when scores were killed in flash floods that paralysed one of the world’s most populated cities.
The crisis was averted this time but it could return with the next heavy rain, fear residents.
In 2013, Kumar recalled, storm-water drains (nallahs) in the country’s commercial capital had overflown following torrential rain, inundating areas like Saadi Town, Gadap Town and Amroha.
While rains are a blessing in other, better-planned cities like the capital Islamabad, in Karachi the story is different. The nuisance value overshadows the joy, owing to overflowing gutters and clogged natural ravines.
“An estimated 60% of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements, with no access to sewers. People dump sewage into ravines that were for clean water, not for waste,” explained Roland de Souza, executive member of the group Shehri – Citizens For A Better Environment. “So when it rains in Karachi, it overflows.”
“It did not rain as much but at least the warning helped expedite the cleaning of the nallahs by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC),” added Kumar.
But that’s not really helpful, said architect and urban planner Arif Hasan. While it is a good idea to clean the drains, “it will not really help (check) the flooding if the drain water does not have a passage to go into the sea. Whenever the tide is high, the problem will return.”
Major road and housing projects have been built in Karachi, causing enormous damage to the environment. Mismanaged construction, pollution and encroachments have blocked Karachi’s water passages.
What will happen to a city of Karachi’s size and its choked up drainage system if there are torrential rains? The question remains unanswered.
In Karachi, human greed is destroying life, says ecologist Rafiul Haq. “We have built buildings on water bodies, started using strong detergents excessively and non-biodegradable plastic bags. All this clogs our drains.”
The vein-like network of Karachi’s natural ravines and manmade nallahs as well as the sewerage drains are a confused mess. At the time of Pakistan’s formation in 1947, Karachi had some 400,000 residents but the population exploded in following decades. Inefficient administration, uncontrolled reclamation of land for construction and pollution have resulted in the destruction of natural drainage.
Today, under the pressure of a population of 23 million plus, and a population density of 24,000 people per square kilometre, according to the World Population Review, both the water supply and drainage system of Karachi are less than satisfactory.
“Rainwater in Karachi used to clear away within 10 minutes once upon a time. But then man came along, over-built, and confused the system,” said de Souza. He cites the example of Gora Qabristan, a graveyard for the Christian community, built on the city’s jugular Sharah-e-Faisal road. Over the last 68 years, the road has been raised by four feet. As a result, the cemetery becomes a pit full of water for days during the rainy season.
“A storm drainage map system is what we need. The building control authorities should check the drainage before approving any construction. A flood in a city is not a natural but a manmade disaster,” de Souza said.
Hasan explained, “There are three main outfalls of drainage to the sea from Karachi.” One of them, the Gizri Creek, has the upscale Phase 7 Defence Housing Authority (DHA), home to the city’s rich and powerful, built on it. “All that we are left with is approximately an 80 feet nallah. When there is high tide, or rain, the water cannot get out. The result is that it gets choked.”
Similarly, the major Mai Kolachi bypass has been built over a drain. “It should have been elevated to avoid problems” and to the west, the Karachi Port Trust colony was built over marshland, Hasan said.
Then there is the Kalri Nallah, near Machhar (mosquito) Colony, the largest of Karachi’s unregulated neighbourhoods, where hundreds of trucks of garbage are dumped every day.
There are several other instances. An 80 feet wide, 4,000 feet long nallah between Akhtar Colony and Defence View Phase 2 has piles of silt, overflowing sewage, mounds of garbage and an entire colony of slum dwellers lining both sides.
Commissioner Karachi Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui, who is also KMC administrator, recently called for the speedy clean-up of the drains. Asked how swiftly this would be done, Syed Muhammad Shakaib, director of planning and development at the Karachi Commissioner Office, admitted that there are serious bottlenecks when it comes to implementation. “Can you tell me names of more nallahs that need cleaning? We can start working on them right away.”
According to experts, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) should take responsibility. But the blame game continues here too. “Cleaning the freshwater ravines or storm-water drains is not our responsibility. We are just concerned with sewage water. The laws are all there but if people don’t follow them what can we do?” said Nazeer Mateen, KWSB spokesperson.
Mateen admitted that water contamination is not uncommon in Karachi, with some residents stealing water by making holes in pipes and attaching makeshift waterlines to them. “Those sometimes get mixed up with sewage lines KWSB has laid. If we find out, we fix it. What else can we do?”
As the chaos intensifies in the sprawling city, residents remember the old days. “I myself have caught fish from the Lyari river and eaten it,” said a nostalgic Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical advisor, marine fisheries, WWF-Pakistan. “No one even feels for the loss of natural water bodies. Their absence has affected biodiversity and life itself in Karachi. It has been eaten up by commercialism.”