Stream from Hell
Nehr-e-Khayyam. The name sounds exotic. It conjures up images of a shimmering stream passing through a verdant landscape with pleasing pastoral scenes playing around it.
Unfortunately, the reality is entirely opposite. Starting from the name, the word Khayyam has no romantic connotation. It is a Persian word derived from ‘khema”, meaning “tent” and khayaam means a tentmaker. Whoever gave the stream its name had most likely heard of the famous Persian poet Omar Khayyam – who professed maximising pleasure as life is too short – and gave the stream this name without bothering to look up the meaning of the word. So now we have a tentmaker stream; and it is certainly not providing any pleasure.
This tentmaker stream, originally designed to drain rainwater from residential areas, has beenbtransformed into one of the arteries that carries the sewage of Karachi and drains it into the sea. It is a 2.5 km long stream that passes through one of the most expensive areas of Karachi, the famed Clifton. Far from its original function of draining rain water, It has become a smelly, filthy, water body of highly contaminated blackish green water. When the water level is low and the breeze blows landward there is a strong smell that prompts passersby to block their noses and hasten their step. The stream continues it deathly march to a basin situated along a park called “Benazir Bhutto Park” where it dumps its contents. The name of the basin is Boating Basin but there are no boats here, instead one can see the garbage and filth deposited by the stream, particularly when the sea recedes. Of course, the stench is very much in evidence in the park too.
Ardeshir Cowasjee, philanthropist and one of the celebrated residents of Karachi wrote an article in the Daily Dawn, Karachi of September 20, 2006, in which he mentioned the genesis of this waterway. “The 120-foot wide Nehr-e-Khayyam was always intended to remain an open tract of land; it is one of the major lungs of the Clifton area. It is also a major storm water drain purposefully dug and created by the Raj to carry rain and/or tidal water (not sewage) into the open sea. It was ideal land for grabbing purposes, and Zardari ‘fixed’ it with a reluctant but pliable Karachi Development Authority.”
But Nehr-e-Khayyam has seen better days. A long term resident of a townhouse along the Nehr recalls that it carried seawater due to the tidal flow. The water attracted flocks of seagulls at sunrise and sunset. The saltish water also acted as a deterrent to mosquitoes. Over time, with changes in the landscape of the area close to the sea, the water flowing in to the Nehr reduced. The problem was aggravated due to the apartment dwellers along the nehr depositing their garbage in the stream.
A committee of about 16 architects including senior architect Shahid Abdullah was formed to develop a plan for converting the Nehr-e=Khayyam into a clean waterway with a surrounding park. In an interview to Art TV, Shahid Abdullah stated that the length of the Nehr will be divided into 15 to 16 sections of 250 to 300 feet, with each section designed by one architect. He also said that the sewage will be diverted to a different location, and the dirty water will be replaced by clean water. The project was envisaged as a public / private undertaking.
Fast forward to 2018. The poetic Nehr-e-Khayyam has been renamed Ganda Nala to correctly reflect is state. The unhygienic state of the waterway has reached such a level that it is now considered a serious health hazard. The toxic water drains into the sea causing serious damage to the environment and giving rise to diseases like Hepatitis B and C. The smell from the Nala is a daily reminder to the residents of the surrounding areas that they are living right next to a sewage drain. Articles about the Ganda Nala appear regularly in local newspapers and protests were recently held by concerned citizens and civil society groups to demand the cleaning of the Ganda Nala. The protesters urged the Chief Minister to approve and implement the improvement plan prepared by the committee of architects.
In spite of all the demands and actions by civil society and local residents, there is still no improvement in the state of the Nehr as evidenced from the pictures in this article. When Mayor Waseem Akhtar visited the area in 2017, he was informed by Architect Shahid Abdullah that the road along the Nehr would be extended and benches placed there for public use. No such improvement has been done to date.
In the meantime it is rumoured that the Nehr will be covered with concrete blocks. This has raised fear amongst residents of the area that the covered Nehr will be be used for commercial purposes as that land is very valuable
During his visit to Karachi in June, the Supreme Court of Pakistan Chief Justice (CJP) Saqib Nisar visited the Nehr-e-Khayyam and ordered the demolition of the encroachments and cleaning up of the canal. When the CJP queried the mayor on why the encroachments had not been demolished, the mayor responded that it was due to pressure by certain influential people. It should be noted though that the “encroachments” along the Nehr are a few nurseries that if regularised could add greenery to the banks of the Nehr and act as a visual barrier to the dirty Nehr.
It has been more than 25 years since the issues relating to the Nehr were identified yet nothing has been done about them. While Omar Khayyam turns in his grave from the smell of the Nehr, the stream merrily continues to gurgle along carrying sewage into the sea like a punishment to the City of Quaid, otherwise known as the City of Lights; or, as some say, The City of Blights.
This for a metropolis that generates 25% of the country’s GDP. Care to imagine the conditions in the more humble cities?
The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.