Liquids keep their levels

September 13, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of urban flooding and how the old Lahore was never inundated even in the event of a heavy downpour

This illustration appeared in The Pakistan Times, on September 6, 1957. It was titled, Flood-Fighters and Thundering Clouds. — Image: Supplied

“Paatay nahin jab raah, toh charrh jaatay hain naalay.” — Ghalib

Climate change is still a myth to many. Yet, it’s a stark reality. It has been of our own making. The situation has aggravated to the breaking point on so many allied fronts leading to what is being experienced and felt especially in the past few months in almost all parts of the country.

Deforestation, road networks, destruction of green belts, encroachments, blocked water paths and failure to harvest the rainwater (called blue gold), are only some of its causes. It seems to be a fierce tussle between the Concrete Jungle and the Mother Earth.

As the vagabond hunter, the man of Food Gathering Age entered the Food Growing Age, river valleys were the first choice to settle in. Thus, all civilisations developed on the banks of important rivers — Nile, Indus, Mesopotamia and Yellow. The Ravi, or Iravati, cradled the fabled city of Lahore.

A river likes to flow free and unhindered. Any attempt to harness it or hinder its path invited its wrath. A river’s final destination is the sea. All streams and water bodies, big and small, and the catchment areas finally join a river, the boy scouts were told.

It seems that human follies have proved otherwise as we see so many waterways submerging the cities and countryside around the world. Climate change is only one big factor. The Indus Valley town planning had an open drainage system and numerous public and private wells which helped to harvest any abnormal downpour. In Mohenjodaro, the Great Bath (public water tank) stored water for dry seasons as well. The grid-iron planning with bevelled corners must have allowed excess water to flow away unhindered. Much of it was absorbed by the thirsty earth, raising the water table and replenishing it. Our villages still have a large pond for the public and animals alike.

Pakistan is basically an agricultural country where, at the time of Partition, some 80 percent of the population was rural. The demography changed over time. Man is a social animal and likes to live in close clusters. It was the hunt for greener pastures that led to mass, unhindered and unplanned urbanisation. With the open spaces encroached upon, the right of waterways too was gradually usurped. The city dwellers kept building upon the waterways, dumping more solid waste into it to create a bigger foothold for the concrete. The catastrophe faced in Karachi by its citizens is a classic example of euthanasia.

Close to home, the neglect is graphic for all to see and repent. The Walled City was never inundated even in the event of a record-breaking rainfall. Thanks to its man-made high plinth, any rainwater quickly flows into the network of drains and escapes into the natural storm-water channels, finally joining the river.

When the city expanded beyond the walls, the British built an extensive sewerage system following the natural slope of the terrain. Furthermore, after restoring the Mughal-era Lower Bari Canal, channels were provided to irrigate various gardens and greenbelts. Human waste was never dumped into the flowing water channels. In fact, there are many religious edicts against polluting flowing waters. It was used as an organic manure since the dawn of history. It is still in the memory of the older generation when this was carried away in bullock-drawn carts.

The earliest of water-supply engines were installed near the Badami Bagh from where water was hoisted to the highest point in the city that came to be known as Paani Wala Talaab. In Istanbul, it was Taksim, the highest point in the city from where water was distributed. Supply of electricity improved the quality of life of the people of Lahore, as it happened the world over. Electric tubewells ensured supply of water at public and private levels.

Excess as well as used water, which was drained into a public network of channels, was not so much of a problem in the beginning. Supply of water though the municipal tubewells necessitated a network of pipelines which was found to be more convenient to follow drains of wastewater from the houses. It became a lethal mix of potable water with the contaminated water, facilitating epidemics.

The British did not establish any industry in their colonies except for the Railways’ needs. Thus, industrial waste was almost nonexistent.

As the city expanded beyond the walls, it was linear expansion, a prelude to the city for the automobile industry, though the animal-drawn carts were to continue for a long time. Agricultural land was gradually usurped, but high-rises did not appear for quite some time. In fact, initially, no third floor was allowed on The Mall. A hotel, intended to be built by a Parsi family, was disallowed because of its proximity to the Chief Court. Later, the State Bank multi-storeyed complex was built on the site, indicating that money stands taller than the law and justice.

Lahore never had a water treatment plant. The treatment plants proposed for the River Ravi Urban Development Project (RRUDP) are only a ‘lollypop’ offered to silence the opponents of nefarious designs.

As Lahore entered the era of ‘flush system,’ all human refuse was released directly into wastewater channels to travel all the way to the Ravi and beyond. There was no concept of a septic tank. (A rare exception was the Muzaffar Mansions on Nicholson Road, which also had their own tubewell, thanks to the environmentalist Tahira Mazhar.)

The most modern colony of the day, i.e., Model Town, used only gharkees (soaking pits). At least, they did not release the effluent into natural drains.

Expansion of the city beyond the bicycle and tonga reach brought in more roads for high-speed vehicular traffic. Traffic engineering, though a highly developed science elsewhere, is still rocket science here. Jo warrh gia, woh nikal gia is still the survival tactic.

Though generous footpaths were an essential part of the city, these were gradually cannibalized during the broadening of the city roads. The pedestrians were denied their right. For the so-called planners, wider roads meant less congestion. The signal-free corridors on Jail Road and GuIberg not only increased the speed of vehicles, in fact they brought in more accidents by denying the pedestrians the opportunity to cross the road when the signal was red. The sharp U-turns, placed at considerable distances, also test the skill of the drivers.

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Large asphalt surfaces prevented rainwater from being absorbed by the earth. The soaking pits provided in many colonies in the form of doongi grounds — for example, in Samanabad — became a thing of the past.

The best time to observe the effects of water is immediately after the rains. According to Shajardost Tehreek convener Col Ejaz Nazim, urban forestry has altogether different requirements. Cutting of traditional, local trees and replacing them with imported aliens of the so-called all-season variety played havoc with the local flora and fauna. This ‘green cover’ guzzled too much of water originally meant to replenish the groundwater table.

Lahore has multiple natural as well as man-made drains. A visitor might wonder at some high-brick, round towers, that are capped by a mesh. One such marvel is still surviving, just outside the Cathedral School on the McLeod Road crossing. It provides an outlet for any biogas from a sewer deep down.

Many drains were just for domestic liquid waste. The ganda engine in Gowalmandi lifted sewage to be poured into a wider drain that flowed to Chauburji, where the Ravi once flowed.

Another drain, coming from Mian Mir all the way through the posh localities with little civic sense, crosses the Ferozpur Road and joins it through Sabzazar. It has become the biggest clog due to mixing of polluted and clean rainwater that collects in the university grounds. Rainwater drains should have been a separate system.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Dr Azmat Saeed)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Liquids keep their levels