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Karachi – a city nobody owns…

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By Iqra Sarfaraz
Tue, 10, 20

Today marks the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. In this regard You! highlights Karachi’s inadequate infrastructure, unable to resist the recent torrential downpour and floods...

A 37-year-old Danish didn’t know what was coming his way when he left for work on the morning of 27th Aug, 2020. That was the day when the metropolitan Karachi city experienced a record-breaking amount of rain and flash flood in its vicinity. According to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), at least 47 people were killed by urban flooding in Karachi, the country’s largest city and commercial hub. The torrential monsoon rains had left large parts of the metropolis inundated and without electricity. People were terrified; some of them couldn’t manage to reach home on time, while some didn’t even reach to their destinations. They either had to stay in a hotel or any other place they found a safe shelter. The rains affect rich and poor alike but it’s safe to say that in the poor areas, in particular to the north of the city, they were far worse affected. “I live in Surjani Town and it took me at least 10 hours to reach home from Gulshan area. I parked my vehicle in one of my acquaintances’ house and walked my way home. There was water up to my belly and on my way, I saw gutters over flowing and mixing with the rain water,” shares Danish, a dupatta seller at a local market in Karachi. Danish has been doing the same job for the past 17 years. Karachi floods even damaged the ceilings of his house. Even after the rains, the business was quite slow for the entire week and he had to borrow money to run his house and feed his kids.

Like Danish, there are many daily wage earners or people with white collar jobs; everybody went through the same turmoil when this natural disaster hit their livelihood…

The city received more than 223mm of rain in a 12-hour period, as quoted by Al Jazeera, the highest seen in a single day since records began. More than 484mm of rain had fallen in August, according to the data, more than 10 times the monthly average. Major roads and infrastructure across the city of 22 million people were flooded under several feet of water, with residents unable to reach hospitals and rescue workers deployed to attempt to save those whose homes were destroyed. Those killed include people who had drowned in their homes, been crushed under collapsing walls or electrocuted by short-circuiting wires.

Today marks International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction which is celebrated by United Nations every year to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction. Following the same vein, this week You! highlights the pitfalls of the country’s system and Karachi’s inadequate infrastructure which was unable to resist natural disasters such as the recent torrential downpour and floods...

This year too, the 2019 edition of International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction continues as part of the ‘Sendai Seven’ campaign, centred on the seven targets of the Sendai Framework. This year will focus on Target (d) of the Sendai Framework: ‘Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and education facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030’. With reference to reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, Architect Yasmeen Lari, SI HI Fukuoka & Jane Drew Prize Laureate and CEO, Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, comments, “Karachi has gone through decades of neglect, where Karachiites are struggling to get clean water supply, a functioning sewerage system, water conservation especially for rainwater, efficient garbage disposal or a transportation system for the general public, protection of their heritage from vested interest for personal gain or to save their parks and open spaces from encroachments.” She adds while talking about how we can prevent the disruption of basic services such as healthcare and education at the time of disasters like these, “As the fifth most vulnerable country for disasters, we need to build every building to be DRR- (Disaster Risk Resilient) compliant. The most frequent disasters are earthquakes, floods and high winds. All my housing units that I build for the poor, for instance are designed to withstand these three foreseeable disasters while I use zero carbon sustainable materials. This strategy becomes even more important for educational and health facilities because, in comparison to a house, the number of people using these buildings is multifold. While buildings must follow the codes to become DRR, disaster preparedness must be taught in schools and in communities. This would help in mitigating the impact of foreseeable disasters.”

According to the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan hasn’t experienced monsoon floods this bad since 2010. That rainfall left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and destroyed infrastructure and crops valued at about $10 billion. This year, monsoon rains have mostly caused damage to the southern cities. Pakistan Refinery also stated to shut operations because of damage to oil pipelines. Citizens of Karachi blamed the authorities for the catastrophic situation, said there had been no preparation before the start of the regular monsoon season. The Meteorological Office, abbreviated as the Met Office, had forecast heavy rains two months ago, but the authorities didn’t do anything about it. Karachi residents complained that their city lacks basic infrastructure facilities despite its role as the nation’s economic and financial hub. Many areas were affected but the record rainfall in Karachi virtually marooned the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) area of the city that is home to the most expensive addresses in Karachi. The drainage system of the area almost collapsed following heavy rainfall causing massive flooding on several roads and streets. Prolonged disruption of power supply, mainly due to the inundation of the electricity infrastructure in the area, was another cause of serious hardship to the residents. So much so, they took to the streets to protest against the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) office and put forward their demands to fix the situation for the entire area.

Actor Sarwat Gilani, who is also a resident of DHA, carried out a protest along with her fellow colleagues outside CBC office against the miserable failure of the cantonment board authorities in draining the rainwater that had accumulated in their houses, streets and neighbourhoods for the whole week. She expressed how raising voice for one’s rights as a citizen could be an offence. While talking to the scribe Sarwat informs, “We carried out peaceful protests to demand for our basic rights and needs because we believed that only through peaceful protests, we could take a stand against the inadequacies of the system. We just want DHA to fix our roads and construct proper sewerage lines which are not clogged with trash and help the rainwater flow. It should take placing and recycling the trash seriously not just dumping it in the sea.” While commenting on the outcome of her protests, the actor tells, “We saw a lot of CBC people painting the footpaths and putting metal bars around them. We saw Pak-Army Rangers cleaning up Karachi and helping people around but that is not the only solution. This needs to be done more seriously and practically. The DHA in Lahore and Islamabad are very well planned and taken care of while Karachi DHA has no concept of drainage. It has so many construction loopholes. So, I am really hoping that after this year’s drastic experiences and great losses, the authorities in Defence and rest of the Karachi take things seriously to protect its citizens.”

In a broader sense, Karachi’s disaster management has many facets to consider. Several land-owning civic agencies and authorities are working independently and one might think of the ways to make them work under a single set of policies so that they are implemented effectively. Environmentalist Maryam Shabbir at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) says, “Several authorities working on Karachi issue make it more vulnerable. Accountability is difficult when work is carried out by different authorities. Local governments should be empowered in terms of funds and capacity building to deal with waste management and its disposal. Also, strict implementation of laws for urban planning is required.”

According to Maryam, almost every year with the monsoon season, big cities like Karachi and Lahore create a mess for people living there. Despite predictions, every time authorities fail to cater to this issue. For years, there is tug of war between provincial governments and Federal government and people remain at the suffering end. NDMA and Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) fail to address this issue timely. They do not plan but are seen to evacuate areas at the time of disaster. Ruling governments in Karachi have not empowered local authorities and they do not have enough capacity to deal with this.

While addressing the problems and providing solutions, Maryam suggests, “Drains (65 according to local authority) which were originally designated for storm water have been taken over by slums and housing authorities (case in point, Gujjar Nala). Solid waste and infrastructure have blocked natural path of storm water. There is long-term as well as short-term solution to this problem. For short-term, cleaning of drains throughout the city is needed on urgent basis. Private sector can come forward for waste management system as government do not have enough capacity to handle this issue. This waste is a source of revenue generation and through cooperation between different countries such as Germany, China etcetera, we can develop systems to handle waste to generate energy. For long-term, population control is the only way forward. Increasing population is putting pressure on cities’ resources and infrastructure. Housing authorities should be held accountable for building infrastructures without proper planning. Internal migration from rural to urban areas should be stopped by shifting economic activities into rural areas. Awareness of communities for waste disposal is also important. Local authorities at district and tehsil level should be provided with capacity building and alongside roads, drainage channels should be constructed.”

Maryam also states that planning is what we witness since the past decades. “For any disaster, there are four basic mechanisms to work on i.e. mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Mitigation involves preventive measures before any disaster happens. This also involves laws and policy measures. Preparedness involves capacity building measures of relevant authorities and role of NDMA, Met and local authorities is very crucial in this regard. Response is what we have prepared for the disaster whereas recovery involves measures after any disaster have taken place. Short-term and long-term measures mentioned above comes under response,” she concludes.

What causes urban flooding?

a. All storm water is being poured into an overloaded sewerage system which is old and highly damaged and was never designed to carry storm water, and certainly not the quantity that has been seen in the last years.

b. Any storm water drains that were ever designed are non-functional directing all rain water on to streets or sewerage drains.

c. All open nullahs that once carried storm water are blocked by those with most influence who continue to occupy land above nullahs for their own personal gain. With the result that rain water cannot be drained.

d. Catchment areas in the city have not been mapped, those that were identified new development schemes have been allowed to be built upon them, thus preventing any relief that could have been found in making ponds and tanks for storing rain water.

e. All open spaces have been usurped by vested interest by building high density structures and allowing the building of high-rise towers. Two- to three-storey heritage buildings are demolished to make way for multi-storey structures, using up any open courtyards of historic buildings. The city possesses only 2.5% open spaces which does not allow water disposal into the aquifer.

f. Most ground areas have been paved with concrete tiles, which has created impervious areas with water flooding the streets.

How can urban flooding be prevented?

1. Reduce amount of water pouring down roofs on to roads. Building byelaws can ensure that roofs in plots of certain sizes should build tanks for rainwater harvesting or build recharging pits for aquifers.

2. Absorb as much water in the ground to replenish aquifers e.g. footpaths should use low carbon terracotta pavers, discard concrete pavers instead use pebbles etc. for ground cover to allow penetration of water; allow open ditches and swales by roadside wherever possible to divert water from roads during heavy rainfalls.

3. Building byelaws for government buildings and large corporate structures should not be allowed to throw rainwater on roads but to arrange for water storage tanks for RWH (Rainwater Harvesting System).

4. Make storage tanks in all parks and open areas to conserve rainwater.

5. Collect as much rainwater as possible in open ponds in catchment areas.

6. Make all storm water drains and open nullahs functional.

7. Where possible, convert vehicular streets into low carbon walking streets with forests.

8. Plant forests of local trees in all urban spaces in order to absorb as much water as possible.

- Architect Yasmeen Lari SI HI Fukuoka & Jane Drew Prize

Laureate/ CEO, Heritage Foundation of Pakistan