September Issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

It started with some rain. Then before you could say the word “infrastructure,” the city flooded. The mayhem that followed was of Katrina-like proportions: power outages, telecommunication failures, collapsed roads, sewage in the streets, car breakdowns, stranded workers, five-hour commutes, flooded businesses, crores of inventory soaked and ruined, inaccessible hospitals and electrocuted pedestrians.

Amazingly, Karachi’s civic collapse didn’t happen just once. It happened twice, on two different days, just over two weeks apart.

But it was no category five hurricane that hit Karachi. On July 30, some dark clouds rolled into town and dumped 67 mm of rain on Karachi. Then on August 17, the monsoon showered the city with 56mm. So, less than three inches of rain hit the city on each occasion.

Three inches. Three inches is less than the depth of a coffee mug. Three inches is the length of an adult’s index finger. Clearly, ‘torrential downpour’ shouldn’t be used to describe three inches of rain. Moreover, three inches of rain should not be associated with the words ‘state of emergency.’

Karachi has experienced worse. A downpour totalling 108 mm hit the city on July, 28, 2003. Even that would not be considered torrential. But what’s important is that it too caused considerable disruption and damage. July 2003 was not so long ago that it should be forgotten. Did we learn nothing? And what about the nazim’s grand promises? In February he announced a 24.78-billion rupee mega project for the city where at least 4.5 billion was allocated for water and sewerage. What about the $800 million that started steadily coming in two years ago during Naimatullah Khan’s tenure from a group of international donors that includes the World Bank and Asian Development Bank? Was any of this money used to prepare for the monsoons as promised? So, the big question is: Why did Karachi drown?

The simple answer is drainage.

“I tell my students that there are two key things in drainage,” says Dr Muhammad Shafqat Ejaz. “First, water runs downhill. Second, the need for outlets. If you don’t have an outlet,” says the professor of civil engineering at NED University in Karachi, “you can’t remove excess water.”

Pakistan’s largest city seems to have a problem with its outlets. “The water cannot get to the sea,” says Arif Hasan, Chairman of the Urban Resource Centre (URC). “It’s the major reason for the flooding.”

Karachi is served by 42 major nullahs. Most of the city’s underground sewer lines feed directly into these open, natural drains. Most of these nullahs lead to the city’s two rivers, the Malir River and the Lyari River. Both rivers flow south to the sea. It is one vast interconnected natural drainage system for both sewage and excess rain water.

But there’s something rotten with the state of Karachi’s vast nullah network. According to Hasan, numerous nullahs around the city have been encroached upon, narrowed or covered up completely.

There are five major drains that don’t flow directly into the city’s two big rivers, but feed into the backwaters of Mai Kolachi: Kalri drain, Pitchard drain, City Railway drain, Soldier Bazaar drain and Nehr-e-Khayyam. And this area of Mai Kolachi has been “heavily plotted up,” says Perween Rehman of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP).

Since August 17, though, one nullah has been getting the most attention. “In Clifton, the Nehr-e-Khayyam has been reduced from a width of 125 feet to about 15 feet,” says Hasan.

This drain, which crosses Punjab Chowrangi and cuts through the Boat Basin on its way to the sea, serves the residents of Defence Housing Society, Clifton and Bath Island — or at least it used to. “Now it cannot take the flood waters.”

Bath Island was so inundated after last month’s storm that vehicles couldn’t enter or exit parts of the upscale neighbourhood: residents were trapped and some were even evacuated. A committee representing residents in Bath Island alleged that the government illegally sold storm water drains, including Nehr-e-Khayyam, to the land mafia for 10 billion rupees.

Around the city, nullahs are being covered to make room for parking lots, shopping malls and office buildings. Soldier Bazaar drain has been become home to the Habib Bank Plaza and parking for Shaheen Complex.

But none of this is news to city officials. Aasoodo Mal, Chief Engineer, Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KW&SB), addressed a seminar on July 13 highlighting the problem of covered nullahs. In Saddar, Lyari Town and Keamari, KWSB workers could not enter the drains beneath unauthorised structures for cleaning as the closed-in nullahs had turned into deadly gas chambers, said Mal. The chief engineer himself mentioned Kalri drain, Soldier Bazaar drain and Nehr-e-Khayyam as just some of the drains affected by encroachments.

Needless to say, there is much controversy over the legality of these nullah encroachments. But this hasn’t stopped government agencies, including the Civil Aviation Authority, KPT and town administrations, from blocking drains. Well-known projects, including Mai Kolachi Road and the Korangi Bridge, have involved reclaimed land from the city’s natural drainage network. Near the Sindh Secretariat, the Sindh Katchi Abadi building and the ombudsman office sit on concreted-over nullahs. But according to KWSB’s Mal, “No construction should be allowed within 15 to 20 feet of a nullah.”

karachi-rain-2-sep06Still, it’s usually other small-time encroachers who shoulder most of the blame for compromised nullahs. “A lot of new settlements and most slum areas have cropped up along drainage lines,” says Dr. Ejaz. “They constrict the natural flow of water.” This is not only due to residents reclaiming land for their own use, but also because they treat the drainage channels as dumpsters. Over time, nullahs become choked with garbage and literally become giant plugged drains.

While URC’s Hasan agrees that too many people toss garbage into the nullah system, he’s less convinced that the slum neighbourhoods are the major encroachers. “The katchi abadis contribution to this tragedy is very, very small. It’s almost negligible. The real contribution is the land hunger of Karachi’s elite and the planning agencies.”

Sometimes, though, the water doesn’t even get to the nullahs. The problem lies along our roads. “Street cleaners sweep garbage towards drainage inlets,” says Professor Ejaz. The piled up refuse blocks the water’s path underground. “They are taking care of one aspect, but also causing untold damage.”

Of course, the garbage usually doesn’t stop at the inlet. Open drains and missing manhole covers allow people to dump garbage directly into the sewers. The media and citizens alike singled out clogged drains as the cause of Karachi’s flooding.

But across the city, government officials said they were prepared. City Nazim Syed Mustafa Kamal said that the city government had cleaned and desilted sewerage drains before the rains. Even in the badly affected areas of DHA and Clifton, DHA administrator, Brigadier Maqsood Hussain, claimed preparations were made beforehand and the sewers were cleaned as part of “programmed cleaning.” Said the Brigadier: “I personally did spot checks.” Still, it was hard to convince residents and the conditions of the streets spoke for themselves.

The one place that water had no problem flowing down into was the Clifton underpass. This much trumpeted piece of “modern engineering” became almost entirely submerged in water and in no time at all, KPT’s supposed gift to Karachi’s traffic-congested streets was suddenly more suited to gondolas than cars.

In the deluge of complaints and finger-pointing, various explanations emerged. Vice-Admiral Ahmed Hayat, chairman of KPT, the organisation responsible for its design and operation, blamed the city government. “The underpass flooded due to inefficiency of the CDGK, as the rainwater drainage system of the adjoining roads was choked.” He maintained there was no problem in the design of the underpass and claimed that its integrated pump system was operational. The problem was with the unforeseen inflow of water diverted into the underpass from above.

The city nazim had another view. “The KPT underpass is still incomplete as its pumps have yet to start functioning,” he told reporters three days after the first rains soaked the city. “Rainwater could not be flushed out.”

A call to the office of NESPAK, the engineering company behind the design of the underpass, unsurprisingly revealed explanations that mimicked those of the KPT chairman. The underpass and its drainage system were designed to city building codes, said Mansoor Ahmed, a design engineer on the project. An underground tank collects rainwater, and then, after attaining a certain level, its pumps automatically start to drain the water into the city’s drainage lines. But the existing drainage network in Clifton and Defence is old and inadequate, says Ahmed. According to the engineer, the city government authorities were notified about deficiencies in the drainage network and that improvements were needed. He went on to say that because of the existing topography around the underpass — and as Professor Ejaz says, “Water runs downhill” — the structure might not have been a good traffic solution in this part of the city.

Poor drainage created another kind of havoc as well. “Many [power] substations were located below the level of the roads, so they were submerged by rain water. We had to switch them off, clean them, dry them and repair the faults,” says Frank Scherschmidt, CEO of KESC. The result was 60-hour-long power outages that affected not only residents, but also crippled the industrial sector. Flooded roads have cost the city crores in lost production, destroyed inventory and lost sales.

The ultimate price was paid by those who died. The KESC is investigating at least 20 electrocution cases. Flooded streets and fallen hidden live wires turned the streets into virtual death traps. In a briefing, KESC officials said the cause of the electrocutions was in the distribution system: though snapped wires remain live, they should have fuses that automatically neutralise them after snapping. Major upgrades are in the pipeline, says Scherschmidt, “and will help bring about drastic changes.” KESC also plans to compensate the victims’ families.

But what is baffling about Karachi’s sewerage network is that on many roads, like in DHA and Clifton, there is no provision for drainage whatsoever. There seem to be no inlets to the sewerage system. In other areas of the city, Nazim Syed Mustafa Kamal admits it’s not much better. He says the city has no storm water drains, but has promised that from now all roads would be built with storm drains along them. In fact, across Karachi work has already begun, and mammoth 48-inch pipes can be seen along many roads, waiting to be installed underground.

But storm drains are just part of the solution. If Karachiites are to be guaranteed that they will not be reliving the same horror next year, much more needs to be done.

City officials must understand that, in the end, storm drains solve little, says Perween Rehman. “The city must accept the existing natural nullahs as assets. They need to unblock these.”

Professor Ejaz agrees and adds that cleaning of sewers and nullahs needs to be done annually. Moreover, people have to stop using the sewer system as garbage dumps. “Street sweepers need to be trained not to clog roadside drainage inlets,” he says. “The authorities also need to use the media to educate the public about the dangers of dumping in nullahs and sewerage drains.”

That makes good sense, but citizens need an alternative as well. People throw garbage into the nullahs because there is no effective garbage disposal system, says Arif Hasan.

In the DHA at least, says Brigadier Hussain, that is about to change. Recently, three new contractors have been hired to collect garbage. “We are also looking to create a transfer station in between the landfill site and the locality from which the garbage is to be collected. That will reduce the distance and travelling time for the collectors, so that they can make more trips and therefore collect more garbage.”

Still, garbage is not the root of the problem. The nullah system, with its numerous branches stretching across the city, is. Maintaining an open drainage system, which measures about 1,000 kilometres, through constant cleaning and pleas to citizens to stop treating it as a dump, is an inefficient system that is impossible to implement.

“The only option is to make the nullahs pucca, cover them up, and have decentralised treatment plants where they meet the sea,” says Hasan. “And this is what the studies of the Orangi Pilot Project have pointed to.”

Amazingly, there may be light at the end of the nullah. The KWSB approach-ed the OPP for advice recently. “I think there is an understanding between the OPP and the KWSB on these issues,” says Hasan, “but it has taken a long time for this understanding to develop.”

Meanwhile, till the government gets it right — and going by past track records, Karachiites shouldn’t hold their breath — the city can take its chances on a wing and a prayer.