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DAWN - Features; August 31, 2006

August 31, 2006

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Why Karachi turned into a cesspool when it rained


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 289mm rain. Not a fantastic figure by any means.

In 2003, the city received 308mm with record rainfall of 105mm 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 80mm and the water continued to flood many areas and key communication arteries for over 10 days. It also flooded many homes and shops in Clifton that had been quite secure previously. Most horrendously, the sewers got choked and the city turned into a cesspool.

Why 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, the DHA and so on -- whose job it was to have geared up for the rains did not attend to their responsibilities and indulged in a blame game.

In July last year, 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 nullahs. 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 stormwater drains that are designed to carry the rainwater 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 1,000kms in all. Where has the money earmarked for this job being going? This fraud came to the fore when the rains came.

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 this city there was the need to dig up and remove encroachments leading to heated arguments and threats because the encroachers are not poor and disadvantaged. They are the rich and the famous.

There are nullahs that have been given away for car parks – vide the Soldier Bazaar 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 drains. The KWSB says that of the 40,000-feet Soldier Bazaar 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 rainwater. In a city, where garbage is not routinely collected in every locality, 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 the 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 Clifton’s Block-8 into Nehr-i-Khayyam was blocked off during the construction of the underpass. Nespak in its wisdom replaced four 24-inch- diametre pipes with only one 15-inch-dia pipeline, thus creating a choke point. What happened in Clifton was a disaster waiting to happen. On the Mai Kolachi 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. Little wonder Sultanabad was flooded.

But the most serious theft that has taken place has been in the 125-feet-long Nehr-i-Khayyam itself. It is being covered as a box drain only 15 feet in width. The remaining 115-feet land along the nullah has already been used for marking plots – eight in the block on the west of 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 the map. 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 stormwater drains are in deplorable condition;

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

In kutchi abadies, encroachment on nullahs have reduced the natural width of nullahs;

(iii) Kucha 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 or partially choked;

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

Hanif Raza’s Pakistan in pictures

By Mushir Anwar


Hanif Raza’s photographs are not marvels of camera work, astonishing images snapped from impossible angles. He holds his camera somewhat straight for a professional photographer to give you an honest account of not what he sees in things but how they appear to the common eye and what buildings and people and lakes and mountains would look like if you go to see them. He uses his camera as a guide to take you around the country and show you around towns, rivers, mountains, mosques, bazaars, amidst people at their work and when it becomes too tiring to give you a view of how the landscape changes at dusk. As you follow him through his visuals he supplies you with scholarly notes on the history, culture, customs and traditions of the place and if there is anything interesting that the page- turning voyager might miss.

Projecting Pakistan through pictures and writings is the focus of his work. Over the years he has published a number of books among which Where Mountains Meet, Islamabad and Environs, Lahore — Past and Present, Splendours of Pakistan, Cultural Caravan of Pakistan, Portrait of Pakistan, Souvenir Pakistan, Glorious Gandhara, Antiquities of Pakistan, Souvenir Islamabad, Karachi, the Show Window of Sindh, Balochistan — Past and Present, Multan — Past and Present present the vast range of his work that captures the essence of the general scene in Pakistan. His studies of prominent buildings like the Faisal Mosque of Islamabad, the Buddhist ruins of Taxila and giant projects like the Karakoram Highway, the Motorway, the great water reservoirs of Tarbela and Mangla and of cities and their evolution over the centuries —- as in Lahore through Centuries — are authentic visual records that document the developments that are taking place in the country.

His latest work is Best of Pakistan which assembles in one volume of some 260 pages the most representative picks from his work sweeping across the outstanding facets of life, from ancient times to the present, snapping the landscape and watching people in their daily pursuits. There is an interesting chapter on Sufism depicting the humming mausoleums of the saints and another on the local pop culture that one sees depicted in the psychedelic art of trucks and buses. The book pulsates with the rhythm of life in Pakistan.

Hanif Raza also dabbles in poetry. Listen to his geographic verse on Deosai plateau:

For eight months of the year
Deosai is frozen full of snow
Wild wind flies from icy north
As fast and cold as it can blow
Life on Deosai reappears in July
When huge grasses begin to grow