Karachi: how to prepare for rains

The city needs a well-planned, coordinated effort to drain rainwater during the monsoon

Karachi received torrential rains on July 26 and 27. After the rains, there was a complete breakdown of urban life. Poor design and management of roads, drains, intersections, underground sewers and sidewalks caused chaos and damage to property.

Many people died from electric shocks and structures caving in. The low-lying areas, particularly low-income settlements, transit ways and lanes were blocked due to the spilling of drains.

Hundreds of vehicles were stuck on the streets, limiting the utilization of roads. In short, it was mayhem. The rains exposed grave shortcomings in planning, development and management of the megalopolis.

The federal, provincial and local governments seem to have begun some of the required work in anticipation of more rains in August. However, the chronic problem cannot be fixed within days. Many factors have contributed to this disappointing scenario.

Absence of drains along major roads is an obvious factor. It is ironic that the main traffic arteries, including the II Chundrigar Road, the Shahrah-i-Faisal, the Shaheed-i-Millat Road, the Karsaz Road, the Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan Road and the Shahrah-i-Pakistan were all flooded.

It is not that these streets lack storm drains. Some of the streets laid down even before independence have always had storm drains of appropriate capacity. This is also true of most secondary and tertiary streets and by-lanes. The city also has more than three dozen natural drains of various dimensions, which used to flow during rains and carried rain water into the sea.

A reasonable environmental balance was created by the rational separation of sewerage and rain water. However, when the city started expanding in an unplanned manner, the storm-water drains were turned into sewerage trunks. Sadly, even the so-called planned neighbourhoods have their primary sewerage conduits flowing into storm-drains.

Also, land grabbers and builders have been recklessly constructing structures on drain lands. The irregular reclamation of drain banks has resulted in narrowing down the streams. This has created a perpetual problem for the flow of sewage as well as the rain water during monsoons.

On many occasions, this has caused serious threats to the life and property of those living in the neighbourhoods. In many parts of the city multi-storeyed buildings, official car parks and similar structures have been constructed on the drains. In some cases, these constructions render the maintenance of drains impossible.

Karachi has also received meager allocations for development since the 1960s. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation budget this year is a paltry Rs 24.85 billion. There is no way the municipality can manage key services with this allocation.

The institutional capacity to undertake the planning process for Karachi has also eroded sharply. In 1969, the Master Plan Department of Karachi Development Authority was consolidated to undertake the planning exercise from a technical standpoint.

The institution evolved quickly and developed into a full-fledged department. Many qualified and competent professionals were inducted from time to time and served it. However, later this department gradually fell apart. Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, prepared by the erstwhile City District Government (CDGK) in 2006-07, was never made a reference of urban development and management for the city.

Currently, the city is working without a plan or an urban planning framework. It may be remembered that urban and regional planning is a process which lays down the vision for growth, development and management of a city and its environs. Obviously, these complex tasks require intellectually sound and technically capable people which urban institutions must hire on a priority basis.

Decision-making for development and management is an important aspect in sound urban planning. Decisions based on scientific knowledge and an evaluation of reliable data produce good results. Sadly for Karachi, many decisions here are geared only to generate political benefits and short-term gains.

The creation and development of mega projects without reference to a master plan, the neglect of pressing issues and undue centralization of control are the glaring problem today. Lack of informed and timely decisions on important issues, such as the creation of a planning institution for Karachi is another.

A sound planning process requires a lot of information coming from various independent sources. This includes demographic data, maps and plans, and scientific opinions. While most of the information needed is being generated from different perspectives, its utilisation is constrained by several factors.

Today market dynamics are dominating the decision-making. The promulgation of a policy and by-laws by the CDGK to allow high-rise construction on a road facing residential plots is an example of this. Six major city roads were affected by the policy initially. More than four dozen more roads are currently being assessed for similar development.

Such decisions represent a victory for the unscrupulous but all-powerful lobby of real estate builders and developers. Sufficient regard was not shown to the intensity of load on various components of infrastructure, such as water supply, electricity, sanitation, sewerage and drainage, transportation and parking spaces.

High-density high-rise construction is already under way in several areas of the city. The PECHS, the Shaheed-i-Millat Road, North Nazimbabad and the Gulistan-i-Jauhar are some of the examples. A multiplicity of jurisdictions, a lack of incentives to follow the by-laws and the absence of a political will to rationalise between short-term revenue gains and sustainability in development are common issues in such cases.

Karachi needs a master plan to address the problems faced by the people. The plan and its implementation framework should remain under public scrutiny. All decision-making and implementation should be carried out in consultation with the stakeholders.

In order to streamline the planning and development affairs, a planning agency with considerable autonomy, legal and administrative cover is needed. Such an agency shall provide the minimum institutional set-up to carry out planning as a professional activity.

Such an agency shall have the capacity to acquire, process, store, organise and disseminate information according to the needs of various projects. The planning agency shall develop its capacity to coordinate with various stakeholders on a neutral ground. Voices, concerns and aspirations of the people, including all kinds of interest groups must be accounted for.

The said agency shall also undertake development control and enforcement of plans through the building control process. The idea for such an institution is not new. It has been categorically recommended in the successive planning exercises undertaken for Karachi. What it requires is serious thought, review and concurrent implementation. Otherwise, the city shall continue to face the problems it faces now, making lives of its people more miserable.

The writer is professor and dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences at the NED University, Karachi

Karachi: how to prepare for rains