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September 10, 2020

Before the next deluge

Opinion

September 10, 2020

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Very little can be done unless there is careful thinking carried out in advance. The sight of water rushing through the streets of Karachi and people taking out the rain water from their homes has hopefully taught us a few lessons.

But then perhaps it is too late for lessons and too late to initiate the kind of planning Karachi needs to survive. It has after all suffered catastrophes caused by rain in the past. The record amount of rain that fell this time literally reduced our biggest city to its knees. This should be unacceptable for any government, whether it is the provincial government or the federal set up which has done very little to help.

What we have basically been seeing is a series of photo opportunities which are intended to earn points for the many parties and groups which have suddenly converged on Karachi, desperately anxious to show all they are contributing but essentially oblivious to the agony and genuine risk faced by the people of that city. The cake perhaps must be claimed by Sindh Minister Saeed Ghani who took to the streets wielding a mobile phone and putting out on social media shaky images of small patches of relatively dry roads to try and show all was well. Naturally people caught up in serious urban flooding and in some cases without electricity for up to three days were disinclined to believe these images or take any real notice of them.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has not been impressive in his claim that agencies of all kinds including the NDMA and Rangers had played a crucial role in cleaning up Karachi. In the first place Karachi should not need this swarm of groups descending on it. What we do need is a long-term plan for Karachi so that it is never again reduced to the state of collapse into which it plunged last week causing immense suffering to residents left without power literally for days. What they needed at this point was urgent rescue work with excellent coordination rather than carrying out activities that should happen months or even years ago.

What must happen now is a process of planning and a readiness for all those responsible for Karachi to work together. There has to be a recognition that Karachi as Pakistan's largest city has a lot to offer the country and makes a huge contribution to it in terms of the revenue collected from it and in terms of business activity which takes place. The prime minister, who oddly enough coordinated his own efforts in the midst of crisis only with the governor under which there is no agency that could help manage the city, did not help matters. This of course is essentially counterproductive and simply added to the confusion that prevailed with agencies, city authorities and indispensable groups such as the indomitable EdhI Foundation all working separately and without coordination.

The Sindh government is chiefly to blame. As the body elected to serve the people of that province it must accept charge of organising matters, allocating work effectively, caring for people, but most importantly putting plans in place well in advance to decide what needs to be done. This is not all that difficult. Even if the Meteorological Office for whatever peculiar reason has no coordination with any ministry or other authority in Sindh, it should be possible for the government to appoint an official, even an ordinary clerk, to look over weather reports daily both for the short and long term and pass on this information to relevant persons.

Astonishingly this used to happen a century ago. We seem to have slipped back very badly. In colonial times the district commissioner was responsible for looking at the weather map for the entire season and determining how to manage during the monsoon. This detailed information was available for all the months during which rains were expected. Naturally this information, collected by satellite and other advanced science, is far more sophisticated today. The forecast for the coming few days is also extremely accurate. It is the usual practice all over the world to share this information with all the concerned agencies and also issue warnings to people. Had this been done many may have, by not venturing out, saved themselves and their families from the wrath of these record- breaking rains.

Cities across South Asia including Mumbai, Kolkata and Dhaka have been as badly affected. This however is no excuse for Karachi. It is extremely difficult to undo poor planning work in a vast city where such shoddy work has continued for decades. Both incompetence and corruption have been involved with the KMC violating rules by allowing building over drainage channels and sewerage added into British–era drains. The build up of waste within these traditionally wide structures has narrowed and clogged them. This has happened too in our other cities. Karachi’s natural basin-like shape aggravates the problem, while quite astonishingly in DHA, which does not fall under the provincial government, those concerned built none. Later, as the problem became obvious, an attempt was made to construct drainage in the centre of roads. It did not work either.

Cover-ups serve little purpose. It would be far wiser, and far braver, for all those involved to face up to it and jointly attempt to resolve it. This in fact applies to all our major cities. Karachi is not our only badly planned city in the country. Judging by some of our latest projects, things are not getting any better. Yet we do have experts who can help. Who have consistently been pointing out problems and possible solutions. The problem is that no one seems prepared to hear them out.

Can Karachi at this point be rescued? Possibly, but it will be no easy task, nor a short-term one. First of all, political point scoring will need to give way to a genuine effort to bring change. This means cooperation between all the elements involved and an end to the fearful vendettas that have periodically reduced Karachi to a war zone.

Given the size and scale of its problems Karachi needs effective local government. It needs a mayor in charge of a full team to tackle these problems. Perhaps not all of them can be solved. But certainly improvements can be made restoring to the people of Karachi some quality of life. We have spoken for too long about their resilience. There should be no further discussion. Like people elsewhere in the country they have exhibited enough courage, enough fortitude. More should not be expected. It is time to restore to them the basic dignities of life so that they can benefit from what states and governments should be offering.

The disaster we saw recently highlights what happens when governments fail. We have seen similar disasters elsewhere and they will inevitably be repeated until our leaders find the will to rise above petty point-scoring and recognize that people must be put ahead of everything else when it comes to making decisions that affect their lives and their livelihoods.

Email: [email protected]