The recent rains have exposed the faulty planning at the heart of Karachi’s sprawling concrete infrastructure
he last memory of a smooth driving experience on Karachi’s roads may be about quite some time ago. While it may appear that this monsoon season may have triggered the undoing, the infrastructure was not ruined overnight. This monsoon season has only brought the dilapidation to light. “It has only gone on to establish what most Karachiites had already known from their experience,” notes Arif Memon, an occupational driver who has developed knee pain recently. “I ascribe this pain to driving on these roads but I’m too weak and poor for my misery to be noticed,” he adds.
Not a single stretch of a street across Karachi allows a smooth drive. Memon wasn’t being rhetorical when he described the daily suffering on the roads. He does not drive a coach or lorry either; he drives a family hatchback.
Dr Mus’ab Afaq is an orthopaedic doctor at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical College. Dr Afaq tells The News on Sunday about the adverse effects on the human body of driving on these roads. “You can develop tendonitis – an irritation or inflammation in tissues that connect muscles with bones – due to repetitive motion of your legs having to pump the gas or hit the brakes.”
The issue is not only limited to the physical health of the masses; in fact, it far exceeds that and dents lives, livelihoods and daily businesses.
Shehryar Jafri is one of its victims. Production at his factory has been affected. “It takes me two hours to reach my factory now. This is thrice the time it used to take me before these rains.”
Situated in the North Karachi Industrial Area, his factory produces socks that are both exported and supplied in the local market.
“When I visit Lahore for a field trip and roam in their industrial spaces – the Quaid-i-Azam and Sundar Industrial Estates – I can’t help but notice just how well planned and well-built those are compared to the best planned areas of Karachi, let alone our dilapidated industrial areas of Korangi, SITE and North Karachi.”
Jafri says this has translated into delays in production and in raw materials reaching them. “Our clients either complain of delays on our part or request deferment of despatch due to decrepit roads.”
“Both outcomes dent our business. So, this is not limited to roads being just ‘bad’ in the sense of being a minor irritation, it goes on to worsen our economy directly,” he says. “It’s not like the government doesn’t see this.”
And it is not just industrialists that suffer on this count; traders and local markets too are hurt.
“In the last 50 years, no calamity has hit our businesses harder than the rains in the last three months,” says Ateeq Mir, who represents the All Karachi Traders’ Alliance.
He says the daily Rs 3.5 billion trade across the markets in Karachi has been reduced to just 30 percent of the value after these rains.
“It has been the same since the beginning of monsoon,” he says. “People fear coming out to markets anticipating danger, including the threat of electrocution, being washed up, damage to one’s car; even to one’s health.”
He adds that warehouses are also being regularly flooded. The damage thus includes not just loss of business but also destruction of goods by rainwater.
“Unless we’re declared calamity-hit and are given tax relaxations and loans, we cannot sustain the businesses.”
Earlier, when the city was flooded following rains, only a few people would tweet about how they had landed at the Karachi airport and swiftly cruised through Shahrea-i-Faisal, where they would claim the water had subsided shortly after the downpour. Such people would usually travel to posh areas and in negating the misery of the larger populace would mock those whose houses, establishments and roads would remain inundated for days at end. The city administrator would then take to social media to boast about the development work having borne fruit.
However, this monsoon has laid bare the reality across the city. Architects, engineers and policy experts have echoed concerns regarding the same. This has goaded the authorities into action. The administrator is finally admitting that: “Complete drainage is only possible with engineering solutions,” alluding to just how faulty the city’s infrastructure is.
This time around, says the city administrator Murtaza Wahab, the provincial government and the KMC will spare Rs 3.5 billion for the “reconstruction of roads”. Architect Arif Hasan points to a grim reality. “The carpeting of roads is not the solution.” The architect ridicules the practice of repeated carpeting of roads. “What’s really needed is not more layers of asphalt but the compaction of what lies under those.”
He tells TNS that a well-coordinated and engineered overhaul of the infrastructure is the need of the hour. Drains, sewers and other underground networks need to be preconceived to ensure the long-term durability of the roads.
Dr Noman Ahmed, dean of the NED’s Architecture Department, agrees. He goes on to say that not only main roads but also most streets need to be reconstructed. “They must also level up the roads after slashing the ones made recently to their previous levels.” Not only does recarpeting fail the concept of road reconstruction, it also hampers the water flow which then results in flooding of low-lying areas.
Karachi’s only planned areas are those whose masterplans were charted out and complied with well before the city fell into the hands of mushrooming realtors and their sprawling concretisation. Engr Muhammad Bashir Lakhani tells TNS how the disaster could have been averted. He says simple engineering rules were ignored. Lakhani understands water channels and has helped city, provincial and cantonment authorities design and lay drains and potable water lines.
“You cannot have storm water drains of the city and its sewerage system mix or be used interchangeably, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. When you allow rain drains to channel out sewage, you allow sludge to deposit and take up the space. It will require a consistent water flow to wash it away, which doesn’t happen here,” he says. “It’s not a tropical region. Not yet…”
The writer is a journalist covering human rights and social issues. He can be reached on Twitter at @mhunainameen