Dried-up Karachi and die-hard dwellers

August 09, 2022

KARACHI: Abdul Rehman was crying in pain as his mother tried to make him drink ORS from a PET bottle while she waited for the general physician to call her in for her son’s checkup.“This...

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KARACHI: Abdul Rehman was crying in pain as his mother tried to make him drink ORS from a PET bottle while she waited for the general physician to call her in for her son’s checkup.

“This is my third visit in 3 weeks. He keeps getting diarrhoea as the water supply in our neighbourhood has been contaminated since the monsoon started,” Fakhra said while counting the notes in her purse.

She needed to pay Rs300 to the doctor. “I have to buy extra drinking water as I cannot cook in the sewage that the Water Board is supplying. It is an added expense for me,” she lamented with misty eyes.

Fakhra is a resident of North Nazimabad Block-M where the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) has not been supplying clean water since the mid of July. Several residents, including shop owners, have lodged telephonic and written complaints with the authority to get the issue fixed, however, there seems to be no respite from contaminated water for now.

Similar stories have been pouring in from different parts of the city, including PECHS, Surjani Town, North Karachi, and the Federal-B Area since the beginning of the monsoon.

Mixing of sewage with main water supply lines is not an unusual phenomenon in Karachi, nor is the buying of drinking water, especially in areas where piped supply does not even exist. But coupled with rising inflation, the added cost of buying water for drinking, cooking and other purposes made the issue more tiresome this time around for both lower and middle-income groups.

Shahnaz, a resident of Gulberg #11, said she received contaminated water for three consecutive months when contractors were working on some pipes on Allama Rasheed Turabi Road. “Our local mosque allowed us to get water via a pipe from their tank, and for drinking, we bought bottles from the RO plant,” she shared while explaining that it has ruined her budget.

“We had to clean our overhead fibreglass tank and underground storage at least three times for the contamination,” Shahnaz added.

Experts point out that the shrinking water supply of Karachi was unable to withstand the pressure of the burgeoning population where 0.6 million people are being added every year.

Karachi receives anywhere between 550-650 million gallons a day (MGD), almost half of the 1,100MGD demand. Studies have shown that one-third of the 650MGD either gets stolen by the illegal hydrant and tanker mafia or wasted on account of dilapidated and old pipelines that need urgent repairing or replacement.

But to do so, the KWSB needs funds. According to reports, major defaulters of the KWSB are its bulk users from the federal and provincial governments, as well as the agencies, which owe the utility more than twenty billion rupees. Even domestic consumers do not pay for the water utility as diligently as they do in the power utility company. In 2019, the then managing director of KWSB complained that 95 per cent of over 200,000 mosques and Imambargas in the city did not pay their bills.

While the KWSB itself is not a financially thriving public sector entity, the illegal tanker and water supply operators are earning huge profits.

Trucks laden with three 1,000-litre tanks each are sold for anywhere between Rs1,000-1,500 depending on where the water was stolen and where it was being sold. A 1,100-gallon tanker costs around Rs2,500; a 2,200-gallon tanker is priced at Rs4,000; whereas a 3,600-gallon tanker is sold for Rs7,000. The sad part though is that despite paying through their nose, buyers often do not know how safe that water is for consumption.

Tariq Khalique, a resident of DHA Phase 6, where water supply is non-existent, said he and his landlord paid Rs7,000 every week to buy 3,600 gallons. This comes to Rs14,000/month for each family. “CBC tankers are cheaper, I heard, but I have never bought from them,” he said.

Erratic or zero water supplies are a norm in many localities of Karachi, particularly in Orangi, Baldia, DHA, Clifton, and Surjani Town. Sheraz, a resident of North Nazimabad, said it was very difficult for the salaried class to spend Rs3,000-3,300 every three days to buy 3,000-litre water from “tanki walas” (Shehzore trucks).

“A water tanker of 1,100 gallons costs around Rs2,500 but getting hold of the “tanker walas” is a tricky business. First, one has to book a tanker, and then it is all about waiting 6-8 hours for the supply,” he said, adding that for someone with a job, it means taking a leave from work. How many times one can do so in a week, he asked.

“Even the much-touted KWSB tanker app is useless in this regard, because they’re always out of the quota, no matter how early you try booking for the tanker,” Sheraz added.

North Nazimabad has been facing a lot of infrastructure problems for the past several years. These issues have multiplied with the rapid densification of the area with 16-storey high-rise buildings and portion systems thriving unchecked.

Umer, who works as an electrician in the area, said one of his clients has spent Rs50,000 in two weeks for sourcing water. “Their plot is divided into three portions, with almost seven members in each household. High water consumption means they need to fill up their tanks more often,” he said.

Poor water supply has also given rise to political point scoring. A resident of Garden East, near the Ismaili Jamatkhana, said they get mixed water. “Our building does not get enough water in the line, so the union mixes groundwater with the KWSB supply so the residents can meet their needs.”

He said that the general perception in his community was that the MQM was punishing them for supporting PTI, which was why their water supply issue was not being addressed. Boring for groundwater has also become a norm in Karachi because of erratic, absent, and sometimes contaminated water supply in pipelines.

Kulsoom Jahan, a resident of Orangi Town sector 11 ½, said, “Water is Orangi Town’s most important issue. It is supplied only once a month, and sometimes not even that. We use brackish groundwater for washing and bathing. For drinking, we buy from the nearby RO plant at Rs15/5 litres.” According to her, almost every house in the neighbourhood has a borehole. “We get water from a neighbour’s borehole with a pipe every week.”

Water drilling companies charge anywhere from Rs100,000-200,000 to bore for water with no guarantees about the quality or quantity. Mostly brackish groundwater is available at anywhere between 30-150 feet level in different parts of Karachi, and though the older generation says that they had wells at 16-22 feet, those wells have been drying up fast. How many of those bores and wells are tested for microbial and chemical quality is a different story, and where exactly the contamination of groundwater stands due to drilling those boreholes is unknown.

Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) report on “Drinking Water Quality in Pakistan Current Status and Challenges 2021” said that Karachi depended on surface water and groundwater sources. Surface water sources include Haleji Lake, Keenjhar Lake and Hub Dam, while groundwater sources include Dumlottee well-fields.

The report monitored 28 fixed sources for drinking water quality and found 93 per cent of these sources unsafe for drinking. The PCRWR said that Karachi’s water quality issue has continued to worsen from 2002 till 2020. “The water supply pipelines and sewerage pipelines are corroded and often lie parallel to each other. causing cross-contamination. Resultantly, the majority of citizens in Karachi do not receive safe water,” it noted.

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