Why Karachi turned into a cesspool when it rained

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE rains this monsoon have devastated Karachi. The impression sought to be created by the city fathers on whom blame is being heaped is that the rainfall this year was exceptionally heavy. It is also being suggested that the city has never emerged unscathed whenever it has poured. But these are myths. First of all it must be pointed out that admittedly the rain in late July and August this year was more than what is normal in lean years. But it did not set any record. In the last few weeks Karachi has had 289 mm of rain. Not a fantastic figure by any means.

In 2003 the city received 308 mm. What is more, it received 105 mm in a few hours on July 28, 2003 when the city was drenched with water which drained out from the main thoroughfares in a day or two. This year the maximum rain Karachi received in one spell was 80 mm and the water continued to flood many areas and key communication arteries for over ten days. It also flooded many homes and shops in the Clifton area that had been quite secure previously. Most horrendously, the sewers got choked and the city turned into a cesspool.

fea1Why this catastrophe? The answer to this question lies in the fast growing land hunger, greed, corruption and inefficiency of those responsible for the civic infrastructure of Karachi. The various agencies – the city government, the town administrations, the KWSB, the cantonment boards, DHA and so on — whose job it was to have geared up for the rains did not attend to their responsibilities and are now indulging in a blame game.

In July 2005 the Sindh governor admitting that the drainage system was in a mess decided that the KWSB should be assigned the task of cleaning and desilting of the nullas. But the decision was not actually implemented until June 2006. By then the city government had already received a fund of Rs 242 million for rain preparations.

There are, however, some basic facts that have not been fully revealed. They need to be laid before the public which has suffered so much misery and is entitled to compensation for the losses incurred for no fault of its own. The storm water drains that are designed to carry the rain water were not cleaned – one cannot say since when. What happened to the millions that are allocated year after year for the cleaning of the drains and nullahs stretching over 1,000 km in all. Where has the money earmarked for this job being going? This fraud came to the fore when the rains came in 2006.

But could the nullahs have been cleaned in normal course even if someone wanted to do his job? No, not at all. Because the stage has been reached that many of these nullahs simply cannot be cleaned without massive digging up and demolition as has been partly done now. These drains have been encroached upon and the openings used for the dredging and cleaning operation have been blocked off. That is why when crisis struck there was the need to dig up and break down encroachments leading to heated arguments and threats because the encroachers are not poor and disadvantaged. They are the rich and the famous.

fea1bThere are nullahs that have been given away for car parks – vide the Soldier Bazar Nullah behind Shaheen Complex, and the Glass Tower Nullah in Clifton next to Habib Bank – with no mandatory provision being made for constructing manholes and openings for cleaning the nullahs. Map A shows the nullahs that have been encroached in the Clifton area. But even other areas have suffered the same fate. The KWSB says that of the 40,000 feet Soldier Bazar Nullah 25,000 feet have been encroached upon. Aesthetically they might look superb being neatly covered and the muck hidden away from the naked eye – but they are most unpractical as far as maintenance and cleaning operations are concerned.

The choked drains can prove to be a disaster in the rainy season since there is no outlet for the accumulated water. The excess water was allowed to flow into the sewers that also got choked spewing out the effluent into the stagnant rain water. In a city where garbage is not routinely collected in every area, the nullahs are conveniently used as garbage dumping sites and they are virtually covered with a layer of plastic bags and waste which can be lethal. Besides the nullahs are also being used as sewers – in many cases illegally after bribing the KWSB and city government functionaries.

Worse still, ineptitude and corruption have also played a role in bringing matters to a head. At Schon Circle where the famous KPT underpass has been designed and built by Nespak, the branch of the Glass Tower Nullah that had drained water from the eastern side of the main Clifton Road into Nehr-i-Khayyam was blocked off during the construction of the underpass. Nespak in its wisdom replaced four 24 inch diameter pipes with only one 15 inch pipe, thus creating a choke point. What happened in Clifton was a disaster waiting to happen. On the Mai Kollachi Road end, the pipes that drain water into the shrinking mangrove swamps were also reduced in size. Besides the swamps have also been denied free access to the sea because land has been reclaimed and allotted. A marriage hall has already sprung up and PICIC’s signboard announces that its head office will be built there. This has emerged as a new choke point. Small wonder Sultanabad was flooded.

But the most serious theft that has taken place has been in the 125-feet wide Nehr-i-Khayyam itself. It is being covered as a box drain only 15 feet in width. The remaining 110 feet of the land along the nullah has already been used for marking plots – eight on the western side of the Khayaban-i-Iqbal and more on the other side. The EDO, when I asked him about this land scam, vehemently denied it but others provided me Map B. It is important that this matter be investigated to establish the truth of the matter.

Then there are the road builders who did not attend to the drainage of water from the newly constructed roads now in ruins. The drains that line the road to carry away the rain water are virtually non-existent in many cases. In others, they are choked.

Some excerpts from a note describing the state of the storm water drains prepared by the KWSB when it took over the cleaning operation are quite revealing:

“(i) A major number of storm water drains are in deplorable condition;

(ii) Many of the storm water drains of the city, particularly in the old city areas, have been covered and markets and other buildings built thereon;

In kachchi abadis encroachment on nullahs have reduced the natural width of nullahs;

(iii) Kuchcha nullahs in several places are fully silted and are used as a track by scooters/bicycles or pedestrians;

(iv) Shuttering was not removed after construction of culverts at road crossings;

(v) RCC pipes used at road crossings are fully/partially choked;

(vi) Most of the storm water drains are dust bins and people throw all their garbage into these drains which has reduced their capacity to drain away rain water.”

Source: Dawn