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September 6, 2020

The city that was Karachi


September 6, 2020

The biggest news these days has been Karachi. The first capital of Pakistan, the largest metropolitan city of Pakistan, the hub of financial, banking, stock exchange, gold bullion, media and corporate activity, the major seaport of the country spent a week submerged in monsoon rains and the tears of its citizens.

The gravity of the situation in this tremendous city is alarming. Perhaps, after centuries, there is little distinction in Karachi today between the privileged and the unprivileged, with the level of destruction and misery that struck. All, rich and poor, sat trapped in their houses. Houses were, some still are, either already submerged or dreading rainwater coming in. All, except a small percentage, spent days without basic utilities like electricity and telecommunication. UPS and generators were left burnt out. No electricity, no phone, no transport, no drinking water. Karachi was left with limited supplies of food and medicine and waning hopes.

Karachi as the most multi-ethnic city in Pakistan has over the years let all mingle freely without imposing its own distinct culture on them. Karachi has also braved the generous dose of violence inflicted by its stakeholders. Karachi has witnessed many cyclones and typhoons deflect their paths rather than strike its coasts. This sunny, breezy, coastal Karachi struggles today to keep its head above water level.

Once the sun is out what becomes visible is the ugliness of the havoc inflicted across the city: battered roads, broken poles, damaged vehicles, corpses and heaps of garbage intermingling with rain and drain water. What diseases must be waiting to break out in a total devastation of hygiene, cleanliness and order.

Let’s look at some facts. The metropolitan city possesses over 40 major stormwater drains and every year before the onslaught of monsoon rains, the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) is entrusted the task of unclogging them. However, it is commonly known in the city that the task usually begins when the rains have already started.

In an article written by Zofeen T Ebrahim, a director of municipal services at KMC admitted that this year, “the municipality is almost three months late on the task.” Another senior officer of the Karachi and Water Sewerage Board (KWSB) reveals to Ebrahim that “with no major investment made…….to rehabilitate the crumbling sewerage infrastructure”, the water authority deposits the city’s sewage into these drains.

Karachi, with a population of more than 15 million, generates an estimated 13,000 tonnes of rubbish daily. The Sindh government has been working on a World Bank funded project which aims to ensure that sewage reaches landfill sites, but the implementation has recently started.

Unrestrained housing and encroachments on natural waterways are other big reasons for clogging of drains. The Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority estimates majority of the more than 5,000 slums in Karachi are built alongside drains.

As the province debates under the watchful gaze of the federal government the role of its administration and funds allocated for its municipal services, the patience of Karachites seems to be dissipating. The highest taxpaying city of the country receives much less as a percentage of its earnings. This is used as the strongest argument by its administrative authority explaining the lack of initiatives in the city. However, it doesn’t explain the delays in services, the faulty structures, the absence of maintenance. The funds may be limited for the entire city, but they can surely address some problems, some fraction of the required networks which are non-existent.

The argument also does not explain why the city administration allowed sprawling illegal communities adding to the already heavy burden of population on land, resources and drains. The argument, while highlighting the enormity of the issue, also reminds that it is the citizens of Karachi who carelessly toss garbage out of their cars and homes for the local authority to manage – a trait common also in the rest of the country.

What can be done? Everything from a political decision to awareness campaign must be implemented. As the government discusses options, a solution to not just temporary relief but a permanent settlement must be the aim. And where the citizens of Karachi should take a stand to rest only when a lasting solution comes, they must take matters in their own hands for the sake of their own survival. Karachi is home to the best architects, urban planners, lawyers, thinkers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs. There is no dearth of intellectual and financial resources in the private hands of the city. Why don’t they get together to bring forth their own solution? The most eminent example lies in the city itself.

During the 1980s, residents of Orangi set up their own sewerage system under the Orangi Pilot Project. Ninety percent of Orangi streets are now connected to a sewer system built by local residents, who bear the cost of sewerage pipes, and provide volunteer labour to lay the pipe. They also maintain the sewer pipes, while the city municipal administration has built several primary and secondary pipes for the network. If they can do it, why can’t others?

It is not a question of whose responsibility is Karachi, it is everyone’s – the local, provincial and federal government as well as its residents. Removal of garbage and cleaning the drains is as much the responsibility of the authorities as it is of citizens to not carelessly toss dirt in the first place. The floating sewage in the city is a perfect example of what goes around, comes around.

The target for Karachi, to begin with, is to drain the standing water (how and where demands a professional answer), clean the mess, ensure minimum spread of filth and relocate residents from the surroundings of water drain.

Only when Karachi cleanses itself of all impurities, can it focus on other aspects of sustainable living, such as provision of clean drinking water, reliable telecommunication and uninterrupted energy supplies. Only then, can it perhaps, be what it was decades ago – Karachi, the City of Lights.

The writer is a freelance journalist. She has a keen interest in issues regarding women, religion and foreign affairs.

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