Karachi floods at the slightest of rains. Karachiites have historically tolerated this because flooding usually lasts for a few days with bearable aftereffects. However, in 2020, the rains were exceptionally heavy and lasted over a 10-day period. The city was devastated. Life came to a standstill, entire neighbourhoods were submerged, and roads started to look and feel like rivers. Conditions were so serious that even the courts had to intervene and order measures to prevent such flooding from happening again. But what is the cause for Karachi’s flooding? Different stakeholders have different points of view.
Before partition, Karachi’s metropolitan area was about 150 sq. kms and its population was 425,000. Its sewage system was taken to a sewage treatment plant and its effluent was used for farming at what was known as the gutter bagheecha (sewage farm) where vegetables, flowers, and even peanuts were cultivated on 1000 acres. After partition, as Karachi expanded, the new development schemes moved farther and farther away from the treatment plant till connecting to it became unaffordable and also technically impossible. New treatment plants were not established till the 1990s. As a result, the sewage of the newly developed areas was planned to discharge into the natural drainage system. Over time these natural drainage systems, which consist of approximately 60 nalas, were choked with sewage sludge, garbage, and plastic bags. This reduced the depth of the nalas, in some cases by over 50 percent.
In the late 1980s and 90s, an Asian Development Bank loan was utilized to build trunks along the main roads to connect to a new beautifully constructed treatment plant. However, since the sewage was being discharged to the sea through the natural drainage system, and linking it to the newly-laid trunks was again unaffordable and technically impossible, the trunks remained dry, and the sewage through them has not yet reached the treatment plants.
Karachi’s nalas drain into two river systems; the Lyari and the Malir. The Lyari outfall is to the Sandspit Backwaters and the Malir outfall is the Gizri Creek. Both these outfalls have been encroached upon: the Lyari outfall by the illegal reclamation of land from the sea for the building of low-income homes and fishing related commercial enterprises, workshops, and storage; the Gizri outfall, at 1.5 kms wide, reduced to a nala (drain) of 60ft following nearby DHA housing lot allocation so that it cannot take the volume of water discharged into it. Incidentally, this feature contributes to massive flooding of certain areas of DHA as well.
Meanwhile, three nalas that discharged into the Chinna Creek Backwaters have been blocked by the Mai Kolachi bypass and replaced by an 80ft-wide nala which passes through the KPT Officers Housing Society, whose land has been illegally reclaimed from the Chinna Creek Backwaters. This new nala also cannot absorb the full force of the stormwater generated by heavy rains.
During its journey from the Kirthar Range in the north to the outfalls at the sea in the south, the stormwater faces many obstacles. In many places, smaller drainage channels have disappeared, high roads from east to west have been built with no culverts for water to pass through (the Northern Bypass is a case in point), and incomplete drainage infrastructure litters the city creating more problems than solutions.
All of Karachi’s buildings and homes, along with their open areas, discharge their rainwater on to the roads on which they are located. So when it rains heavily, the streets – in the absence of storm drainage – get turned into rivers which find their way to the natural drainage system through no planned process, but the force of gravity.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan entered this chaos and identified what it felt was the real cause of flooding. The local and federal governments also supported the Supreme Court’s understanding of the situation. Collectively, the three institutions decided that the real reason for flooding was encroachments by katchi abadis (some leased, others not) on the right-of-way of the nalas. It was decided that the encroachers should be identified and their houses demolished. It was also decided that they be paid Rs. 15000 per month for two years. To identify them a satellite survey was carried out of the nalas by the NED University and, through it, encroachments were marked.
The residents had strong objections to the manner in which the surveys were done and payments were made. They contended that the survey was of houses and not of people. They pointed out that very often there was more than one family staying in a house, four to five in some cases. But compensation was only for the house “owner”. Compensation was insufficient to rent an apartment because rental contracts require advance payments of six months to a year. Additionally, many cheques issued to owners were not honoured by banks.
There were other issues as well. For example, the decision to demolish encroachments appeared unfairly applied. Many encroachments of the nalas were by commercial bazaars, Government of Sindh administrative buildings, upper-class homes, and even the Supreme Court’s own Registry building, but none of these were being demolished. Road being built on either side of the nalas were not part of any Master Plan of the city. (The access provided by such roads had inadvertently given rise to the construction of a large number of houses: had the roads not been built, only about 1000 houses would have had to be demolished instead of the 7000+ that ended up being identified.)
Why were the roads being built, and why only along the Orangi and Gujjar nalas? Anti-demolition Karachi planners argue that these roads would open up the nala corridors for real estate development since the Orangi Nala begins at the RCD Highway, and terminates at the Lyari Expressway. The Gujjar Nala begins at the Northern Bypass and also terminates at the Lyari Expressway. Both are important locations, strengthening the argument that these demolitions may, in fact, be a real estate scam.
A survey carried out by Technical Training Resource Center, an Orangi-based NGO, of the Mehmoodabad Nala showed that it carried the storm drainage of 34 settlements to the Gizri Creek outfall. The various natural drains that connected to the nala had obstructions at various points in their journey and the nala itself had lost its depth due to sewage deposits and solid waste dumping. The report further showed that of the 18 exit gates at the Defence Society outlet to the sea, only five were operational in August 2020.
The 2020 flooding and the solutions offered to prevent it from happening in the future tells us a lot about how planning decisions are taken in Karachi. The Asian Development Bank drainage project was a disaster. It simply indebted us without providing any relief.
The Supreme Court order for demolition of poor peoples’ homes may be considered according to law, but did not act in the interest of justice. These homes were there because the state or the private sector did not provide housing to the poor. Shockingly, these homes had legal electricity, water, and gas connections for whose installation they had paid along with the regular payment of utility bill – all indications of recognition by the system of their existence. If this recognition was informal, action should have instead (or at least additionally) been initiated against bureaucratic and political actors whose participation in informal transactions permitted (even if not legitimated) the presence of large illegal residential colonies.
Is the law Janus-faced in Pakistan? Is there one for the rich and another other for the poor? Does even a Supreme Court judgement inevitably act as a godsent for the developer/politician/bureaucrat nexus involved in illegal land acquisition and speculation in one of Pakistan’s largest and economically important cities?
A major conclusion of this alarming and lamentable episode is that Karachi needs an empowered local government system with adequately-staffed planning and management agency, financial resources and political relevance. This should be a one-point joint agenda for Karachi’s civil society, professional institutions, academia, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and its concerned citizens. Without this, the citizens of the city, especially the poor and/or vulnerable, will remain ignored and marginalised. Their city will continue to flood; their lives will continue to be devastated.
Arif Hasan, architect.