Desalination plants could be the answer to Karachi’s water crisis through proper management and maintenance
arachi and its 25 million residents are facing an acute water shortage. Over half of the residents in the city do not have access to safe drinking water. According to some environmental experts, the installation of desalination plants on the coastline of the Arabian Sea is a viable solution to the issue.
People near the coastline of Karachi purchase water through private suppliers, small tankers and jerry cans. The private tanker mafia is thriving by supplying water to the residents of posh areas like the DHA, Ibrahim Hyderi, Clifton, PECHS, Gulshan-i-Iqbal, as well as katchi abadis in the city. There is no alternative as the government has failed to provide this basic necessity.
“Both Karachi and Gwadar have a huge coastline that is suitable for the installation of desalination plants,” says Zafar Iqbal Wattoo, a water resources engineer. “However, desalination plants are very expensive and need careful operation and maintenance to work smoothly,” he explains.
According to Wattoo, using desalination to address the city’s water shortage would be a viable solution, as there is no fresh water source in Karachi and water is usually drawn from the Indus or Hub River.
“I pay Rs 15,000 monthly to tanker suppliers in the DHA to provide water for six members of my household,” says Akhtar Ali, a local trader. “I haven’t seen water in the pipelines of Karachi Water and Sewerage Board for over a decade in the area,” he says.
“We live near the sea but have no water. The situation is becoming dire by the day and there are no concrete government plans to address the water crisis,” laments Ali.
The Sindh government has given assurances to the people of Karachi regarding the water shortage but have failed to install a single desalination plant near the sea. Ali tells The News on Sunday that in the past, the DHA had a desalination plant in Phase 8, but it is now non-functional.
Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and a Singapore based company Sacoden had joined hands to form a company called Defence Cogen Limited (DCL) in 2008. A seawater desalination and power generation plant was set up in the DHA Phase VIII peninsula. The cost of the project was $115 million at that time.
The plant was meant to desalinate 3 million gallons of seawater, make it drinkable and sell it to the Clifton Cantonment Board.
The plant developed ‘faults’ in early 2008, and was shut down in September 2008. The ‘faults’ were estimated initially to cost $1.5 million to fix, but the cost estimate ballooned to $10 million, as the DCL and warrantor squabbled over who had to pay for it. The plant was then shut down and remains closed.
Jameel Afridi, a water tanker driver, tells The News on Sunday that they charge Rs 1,600 to Rs 3,000 for 1,000 gallons of water within a 20 kilometre radius. “We charge Rs 4,000 to Rs 7,000 for 1,100 to 1,500 gallons of water, if we carry it in large tankers,” he says.
“Power supply is a major concern for the installation of a desalination plant. During the desalination process, the salts are separated from freshwater… This consumes a lot of electricity”
“The petrol and diesel prices have increased tremendously and the drivers are helpless and have to raise their fares for providing water to far-off destinations like Defence Housing Authority (DHA),” explains Afridi, adding that his company has raised the charges from Rs 60 to Rs 100 per kilometre. “The DHA is facing an acute water shortage as it is at the tail of the city’s water system and most residents purchase water by ordering water tankers for their daily use,” he says.
KWSB chief engineer, Hanif Baloch, says 52 percent of Karachi’s areas are facing a water shortage. “K-IV water project is a reasonable and cheap option. After the completion of this project the major water shortage issue of Karachi would be resolved,” he says.
“Desalination is too costly and the KWSB does not have the budget for this project. The DHA attempted it and failed. While desalination plants are used in many countries to overcome acute water shortage near the coastline, I am not sure if it would be successful in Karachi,” says Baloch.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently told the media that Saudi Arabia’s $1 billion investment is ready, and it can be used to install a desalination plant on the coastline of Karachi.
Murtaza Wahab, the Karchi administrator has said that the Sindh government has plans to install a desalination plant near Ibrahim Hyderi to overcome the water crisis. “We are working on seawater and will supply water to citizens through a desalination plant,’’ he has said.
“Desalination plants have worked in Thar and desert areas. It is an expensive project,” says Waqar Phulpoto, the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) deputy director general.
“Pakistan is ranked 7th in water shortage internationally. Before the installation of any desalination plant a feasibility study will be undertaken. You have to see if the development is feasible, socially acceptable and environmentally safe. Otherwise, people resist these projects,” says Phulpoto.
“Power supply is a major concern for the installation of a desalination plant. During the desalination process, the salts are separated from freshwater. This consumes a lot of electricity. It might also harm marine life,” he says.
According to Abdul Aala Khurram, director at Water Care, desalination is not feasible in Pakistan as fuel and electricity are expensive. “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are able to run such projects because fuel and electricity are cheaper in these countries,” he says.
“If we treat canal or river water, the cost is 1 or 2 paisa per gallon. Seawater would cost Rs 12 to Rs 15 per gallon to purify. No one would purchase such costly water in Karachi,” says Khurram.
According to Khurram, the cost of a desalination plant will range be between Rs 130 million and Rs 180 million. It will purify 1,000 to 10,000 gallons of seawater per hour. “However, it will need robust maintenance. We should instead use canal and river water. Desalination is a last resort,” he concludes.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5