Politics of urban water

Updated December 30, 2016


IT was sadly ironic that on Dec 27, 2016, while the political leadership of Sindh was busy taking a dig at their political rivals, the Supreme Court’s Karachi Registry was constituting a judicial commission to investigate the poor state of drinking water in Pakistan’s largest city. The two-judge bench, headed by Justice Amir Hani Muslim, asked the Sindh High Court chief justice to nominate a serving high court judge to head the commission.

It is common knowledge that the quality and level of service related to water and sanitation in Sindh cities, including Karachi, has declined drastically. At the same time, there have also been World Bank-led consultations on water and related infrastructural matters under way since the past few weeks.

Some of the core problems include: acute shortage at the bulk supply level; increase in water theft and leakages; institutional shortcomings due to unsatisfactory performance by the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB); financial handicaps faced by the water utility; an exponential rise in the operations of water tankers (especially during the peak of summer); aging and decrepit pipeline network; lack of a comprehensive maintenance and network rehabilitation plan for older neighbourhoods; and the inability of KWSB to add more fresh water connections in suburbs and elsewhere.

Karachi increases by 0.6 million people annually, but the water supply does not scale up correspondingly.

However, ground realities have to be addressed with the right depth and perspective, which is often missed in some of these deliberations.

About half of Karachi’s population resides in Orangi, Baldia, Qasba, Korangi and Landhi. The water supply situation at the retail level is one of the worst in these localities. People living here have no option but to purchase expensive water through tankers after setting aside other essential priorities in spending. This diminishes the possibility of escaping from the poverty spiral. Options for access to water include erratic supply (where pipelines exist), collusion with area gangs who puncture water mains for commercial sales, boring and the use of semi-brackish water and purchasing tanker loads.

Karachi adds more than 0.6 million people to its tally every year, but the bulk water supply does not scale up correspondingly. For the past many years, the supply has been static at 550m gallons per day (mgd) against a standing demand of 1.1 billion mgd. Less than one-third of the consumers pay the water bill, even though it is charged at an extremely low tariff. The biggest defaulters of KWSB include federal and provincial governments; they owe the utility over Rs22bn.

The culture of non-payment has now trickled down to the level of the ordinary consumer. A study by this writer revealed that many folks considered urban piped water a gift of nature that does not need any monetary compensation! Sometime ago, the KWSB managing director was reported to have complained that 95pc of over 200,000 mosques and imambargahs in the city do not pay their bills.

On the other hand, the water tanker operators are able to recover much of the revenue for the over 50,000 tanker trips that are estimated to take place every single day. Most of these transactions are informal and cash based in nature, the proceeds of which are believed to be shared amongst the many layers of influential stakeholders.

The water supply is also facilitated through illegal hydrants developed by informal entrepreneurs. In this scenario, the quality of water is below the desirable level that would be suitable for consumption. Where water lines and supply do manage to work in concert, it is only after illegally installing suction pumps. Very limited action on this is taken by the concerned authorities despite the gravity of the situation. The bottled water business is another beneficiary of the breakdown of the water supply in the huge city. A multimillion-rupee enterprise, it thrives without any regulatory control.

The reform agenda for the water supply in the city must be prepared according to a realistic perspective. The KWSB board may be reconstituted in order to make it practical and relevant with respect to providing policy guidance to the utility. The addition of relevant stakeholders such as civil society organisations linked to water and sanitation, prominent professionals, representatives of trade bodies and developers may also be considered a part of this exercise. The recovery of bills may be considered as packaged services for targeted outsourcing. That could help raise the much-needed operational revenue for the board.

KWSB must make efforts to help acquire a brand name and status so that competent engineers and management professionals are encouraged to join it, which would bolster its human resource. A multipronged strategy must be worked out to invite interns — comprising technicians, engineering and management students — to the water and sewerage board. The latter’s consumer relations must be upgraded, in which the creation of a robust complaint redressal mechanism is essential.

This unit should be geographically decentralised in order to address the range of operational grievances filed by respective consumers. Policy decisions related to tariff and operational privileges of tanker operators must be worked out so as to be more structured rather than ad hoc and laissez faire as they appear to be at present.

KWSB must negotiate with the bulk consumers, including the government agencies, to work out the schedule repayment of pending dues. The water board may consider preparing a business plan to fully utilise the options of water and sanitation related and other possibilities for revenue generation. The powers that be must note that Karachi, with a dysfunctional water supply, will not be able to shoulder strategic responsibilities in the wake of the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2016