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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WATER TANKER

Updated December 17, 2017

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Running late on their second trip of the day to Saakran, Bilal turns left from the Mai Gaadi Police Station to catch up to his fellow tanker drivers | Photo by Abdul Qayoom
Running late on their second trip of the day to Saakran, Bilal turns left from the Mai Gaadi Police Station to catch up to his fellow tanker drivers | Photo by Abdul Qayoom

Love is in the air in Karachi’s underprivileged Baldia Town locality. Meet 34-year-old Murtaza* and his water tanker, Mir — partners in crime, literally, for the past two years. Murtaza is a slim, bearded Pakhtun man while Mir is a Rocket 1974. When they first met, Mir was on his deathbed. Murtaza then had a new engine transplanted. Mir is now part Hino too. And thus began their tale of romance.

Dusk is about to set in and Murtaza is busy giving a wash to his tanker. “Chalti ka naam gaari [Whatever moves is a vehicle],” he says, alluding to the great care he gives Mir lest he stop plying long distances like Murtaza wants him to. Doing the washing with him is Bashir* — a companion who makes the trip to a hydrant in Balochistan as well as to clients’ homes.

“Jaldi jaldi kar [Hurry up],” Murtaza tells Bashir. The duo are about to make their fourth round to fill water from a hydrant and deliver it to their clients’ homes. A group of tankers is already moving towards its destination and Murtaza doesn’t want to fall behind from the caravan.

“Let’s move,” says Murtaza to his companion. “Put all the pipes on top of the tank and get in, we need to reach there before dusk.”

Most of Karachi’s water needs are being met through water tankers instead of piped water. How does this work and who is profiting?

Murtaza and Bashir have been in the trade for the past 12 years. Our destination is Saakran, a few kilometres away from Hub City proper, where a number of illegal hydrants are set up for business.

Many years ago, vendors such as Murtaza would not have made this trip since Karachi was dotted with the illegal hydrant business that fulfilled the water needs of the megalopolis. Over the years and through successive law enforcement operations, many of the larger illegal hydrants were shut down. This meant that vendors such as Murtaza were forced to look elsewhere for supply.

En route, they complain about the state of the business of water today. Murtaza claims that it is about to come to an end because of multiple operations by the Sindh Rangers and Police.

“The Rangers have jailed many of our friends and it has become a grave concern to us tanker drivers,” he says.

Why were these men arrested?

“Because the water we acquire and sell to our clients is all illegal,” replies Murtaza.

Surprised at his frank admission, I ask him about the good times of yore.

“There was a time when most tanker drivers had no access to Hub Dam,” he says. “We were not allowed to cross the first toll plaza in Balochistan unless we had a proper permit and a licence issued by the Rangers or the government of Sindh. But as time passed, we found many different ways to get water.”

We have just crossed Luck Point or Lucky, about two kilometres before Hub City and some nine kilometres away from Baldia Town, the starting point of our journey.

Murtaza is hurtling at 90 kilometres per hour and gradually increasing speed.

A couple of minutes later, we enter Hub City and two police officers in civilian clothing wave at Murtaza. He nods back. As Murtaza explains later, for these officials the sight of a water tanker means more money in bribes.

“How much more do we have to travel?” I ask.

“It will take us another 25 minutes to reach Saakran,” says Bashir.

Giants in this business have bigger networks and connections. They supply water all over Karachi, and run even bigger tankers that carry more than 12,000 gallons of water.”

By now, we have left the highway and are now travelling on dirt roads. In stark contrast to the sights and sounds of civilisation that we had been witnessing for the past 40 minutes or so, the scene is markedly one of poverty and deprivation. We are now in an arid region which is dotted by electricity poles and a few hills in the distance. And like Murtaza’s Mir, there are dozens more on the same dirt track travelling to Saakran to fill water.

A panoramic view of three pits in Sakraan that serve as reservoirs of potable water | Photos by Abdul Qayoom
A panoramic view of three pits in Sakraan that serve as reservoirs of potable water | Photos by Abdul Qayoom

“How much does a water tanker cost were someone to buy one?”

“Depends on the condition of the vehicle,” explains Bashir. “The one you are sitting in is the smallest sized tankers. We bought it two years ago on instalment and it cost us around 650,000 rupees.”

“This tanker can hold 1,800 gallons of water,” chimes in Murtaza. “The tank is separated into two portions. Each portion can hold 900 gallons of water.”

Although Murtaza owns only one tanker, there are other vendors who own numerous water tankers for the purpose.

“My friend Fareed owns three tankers, bigger than mine,” narrates Murtaza. “His tankers all have three portions and each portion carries over 500 gallons.”

When asked about their income, Murtaza says: “We normally don’t reveal our income to anybody, however, we earn enough to live a comfortable life. We sell one ‘single’ [one portion of the tank] for 1,700 rupees and two ‘singles’ for 3,400 in one round. About seven litres of diesel is consumed in the commute to and from Baldia Town, which costs 504 rupees, plus another 300 rupees for a one-time replenishment of water. I usually make four rounds from Baldia to Saakran.”

Bashir claims that the total profit they get every day is 10,600 rupees. “If we multiply our daily income into 30 days, it would become 318,000 rupees. But it is not the exact amount we get. Sometimes, our hydrant owners demand 1,000 rupees due to unpleasantaries with law enforcement.”

A day earlier, I had an opportunity to come across Anwer*, a tanker driver based in Orangi Town, who makes the claim that he goes to Super Highway to fill his tanker from a hydrant.

“I travel 19.3 kilometres every day from Orangi Town to Super Highway to fill the tanker from the hydrant,” says Anwer. “For this I need to have 15 litres of diesel in my vehicle. I pay 1,200 rupees to fill my entire tanker which is divided into three portions. Each portion is equivalent to a normal water tank at home. I sell a ‘single’ for 1,800 rupees and three ‘singles’ for 5,400 rupees. In my opinion, 1,800 rupees for a single is reasonable but the clients always bargain for even lesser rates.”

Meanwhile, back with Murtaza and Bashir, there is a discussion on what qualifies as pure water and what as impure. Hydrants’ water cannot be specified as pure drinking water because neither has it been testified by the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board (KWSB) nor by any purifying agency and is run under the supervision of the Rangers at various locations, one of which is located at Super Highway.

Each tanker driver has contacts with different hydrant owners. The tanker drivers do not acquire water right from Hub Dam but through the canals which are built to deliver water into farms. Many tanker drivers or owners run their business locally without any official number or office. Every household has contact information of one or two owners of tankers. The delivery of water is just a click away.

About half an hour later, we stop abruptly in what seems like the middle of nowhere. There are fruit-laden forests in the area producing chikoos, sugarcane, bananas and guavas. But a nearby canal of crystal-clear water gives it away: we are finally at the hydrant in Saakran.

Canals such as this one are constructed at various locations in Saakran. The water coming to these canals is from Hub Dam, largely for the purpose of watering the fields nearby. But private parties have constructed pipelines to divert water away from the canals and into the hydrant. These individuals then pay 50 percent of the income generated to the landowners of Saakran whose water is being pilfered away.

As our truck grinds to a halt, the hydrant owner, Shahid*, approaches Murtaza with salutations. It is clear from this interaction that the two men have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship. Shahid then attaches a pipe to a generator affixed to Murtaza’s truck. This generator operates as a suction pump, one end of which is attached to the water reservoir. The generator then sucks the water out and drops it inside the water tanker. As soon as the tank gets filled, Murtaza pays the hydrant owner 300 rupees for the water filled. Shahid offers Murtaza a cup of chai which he politely declines.

“I wish I could have a cup of tea with you but my phone is constantly buzzing,” says Murtaza. “My clients are waiting for me and I have to deliver two ‘singles’ as soon as I get back to Karachi.”

True to his word, Murtaza rushes to his tanker and begins speeding back to Karachi.

PARCHI AT THE PITS

Sometimes water is also drawn from underground pits
Sometimes water is also drawn from underground pits

It is a Wednesday morning and Bilal* is making his second trip to Mai Gaadi, the locality in Saakran where most water tankers proceed to buy water from.

“You were sleeping this morning,” chides Bilal, “when I told you that the first round will be before Fajr prayers.”

Indeed Bilal’s day starts before daybreak. As with Murtaza, his Hino truck is his prized possession. But unlike Murtaza, this one has a spanking new body and paintwork. We make the hour-long journey to Saakran again but unlike the last time, the location now is dotted with pits that are collecting rainwater. Nobody owns these pits but there are men manning these pits everywhere. For all ostensible purposes, these are the owners of these ‘hydrants.’

The dynamics of a sale differ too.

While the system at Murtaza’s hydrants is more structured, water is extracted out of these pits with the help of a portable mechanism that can be installed anywhere. The system is placed on small metal rods and has a generator, an exhaust for the generator, large metal and plastic pipes. When one pit is exhausted, the hydrant owners move their machinery to another pit with water.

There is a ‘parchi’ [chit] system at play in these transactions.

When a tanker driver goes to these hydrants, he pays money to a munshi for a parchi. This parchi acts as a cheque of sorts — the hydrant owner simply keeps collecting these parchis from the tanker drivers throughout the day. At the end of the business day, he hands over the parchis to the munshi, who then pays out the amount that is owed to the hydrant owner. Most of this work happens during the night although some of it carries on during the daytime as well.

“These pits are the source of meetha paani [sweet water],” describes Bilal. “It is all rainwater that was accumulated some time ago.”

Back in Karachi, a similar source of meetha paani exists in underprivileged localities. Along secluded stretches of Karachi such as Orangi Town, Mauripur and Baldia Town, businesses exist that are pilfering water from the pipelines of the KWSB. Water is diverted into pits and sometimes into cemented reservoirs, from where it is sold on to tanker drivers. Many tanker drivers take water from these purpose-built pits but, of course, the volume on sale and its pricing is a different matter altogether. Sometimes it is prohibitive enough for the tanker owners to make the journey to Balochistan instead.

WATER VARIETIES

A portable mechanism of drawing water from water pits at work
A portable mechanism of drawing water from water pits at work

Water ought to be colourless, tasteless and odourless. Not so in Karachi, however.

“In areas such as Orangi Town and Baldia, three grades of water are supplied,” explains Murtaza.

The first kind is brackish water, which is completely salty and is not suitable for any kind of household use. This is sold for as low as 500 rupees for a ‘single’. Then there is ‘mix’ water which is a blend of sweet and brackish water. This is sold for at least 900 rupees but can go up to 1,000 rupees. And then of course is sweet water, which is considered useable for everyday purposes such as drinking and cooking. Sweet water costs 1,700 rupees for a ‘single’. Rates of this type of water do not decrease but increase up to 2,200 rupees.

Other vendors also explain that there is a type called “added nutrients” — this relies on the age-old mechanism of using the phitkari (alum) to purify water and sell it on.

In more privileged localities such as the Defense Housing Authority (DHA), water suppliers tend to deliver ‘mix’ water. This is only meant for washing and bathing purposes as citizens commonly rely on bottled water for their needs.

“We purchase a tank of water for 2,500 rupees,” says Asfar Ali, a resident of DHA Phase 2. “But rates often fluctuate. Sometimes a tanker costs between 4,000 and 5,000 rupees. The reason why the rates rise is due to the shortage of water, the tanker drivers tell us.”

Meanwhile, others in DHA quote a minimum of 5,000 rupees for every fill. In times of crisis, this rate swells to at least 7,000 rupees. The further away from the centre of Defence, the higher is the rate charged by tanker owners.

“It is a sin if someone else gets hurt by your deed,” says Razzak Khan*, a resident of the upscale Naval Colony. “My brother supplied water to many clients. Over the course of time, as soon as I came to know of the type of water he was supplying, I stopped him. It’s been many months since the rain stopped yet he was delivering the rainwater stored in the hole which had already turned into contaminated water a few days after rain at Bakra Pirri, A-25 Bus Stop.”

Illegal hydrants are only one facet of an industry estimated to be worth in trillions ... But the other aspect, often criminally discounted, is legal hydrants which also exist in huge numbers in the city.”

But in the same locality, there are a few houses that buy water from water tankers, filter and purify the mix, before selling it on. Tanker owners are aware of the practice, claiming that these houses are their most consistent clients.

Perhaps a larger question in the business of water is why it exists in the first place. A water board operates in the city as does a municipal corporation and cantonment boards. Providing water to households through pipelines is their job. Why does a void exist and why are private tankers filling it?

Illegal hydrants are only one facet of an industry estimated to be worth in trillions. The ongoing Karachi Operation stemmed a large part of its flow. In part, this was because terrorist groups would often rely on money earned through illegal hydrants to fund their activities. In the low-income locality of Orangi Town, for example, the business of water was largely manned by various factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). When these were destroyed during the operation, it choked much of the TTP’s everyday financial flow.

But the other aspect, often criminally discounted, is legal hydrants which also exist in huge numbers in the city. Some are owned by the KWSB and the cantonment boards, others by private parties. The KWSB itself lists 10 surface-water hydrants on its website as well as 44 sub-soil hydrants.

Interestingly enough, although these hydrants exist to provide water where pipelines don’t exist, mostly consumers even with legal water connections are receiving water instead from the tankers, simply because not enough water is coming through the line. The KWSB claim that there is a shortage of water is belied by the fact that water is nonetheless available, only at a higher price that is going into private pockets.

Thus consumers are being charged twice — once in the utilities bill, and second, when they order water from tankers. There is, of course, the associated social and economic cost of these hydrants. When operated in settled localities, they inevitably inflict great damage to the road network as well as to traffic management. Police officials also claim that in times of great violence, even weaponry is transported inside water tankers.

All of this points to collusion between government officials and private profiteers. Meanwhile for hapless citizens, their only recourse for this basic necessity for life remains exorbitant payments to water tankers.

CLIENTS’ CALL

We are on our way back to Karachi and Murtaza’s phone starts ringing incessantly. He finally picks up one call.

“Yes, I am on the way, count to 20 and I will be there,” he responds to a client berating him for being late.

A few seconds later, Murtaza hands his phone over to Bashir, and instructs him to make a call to another client and tell him that their vehicle’s tyre is punctured and it will take time for them to reach.

“Tell him to expect water by early morning tomorrow,” says the water dealer.

“But your vehicle is okay and we are driving back,” I interject. “Why tell the client something else?”

“Because the last call I received was an old client and I need to deliver water to him as early as possible,” he responds. “The other fellow will get the delivery tomorrow.”

While crossing Hub City and returning to Baldia Town, a police officer — the one who waved his hand at him — gestures the vehicle to stop. Bashir extracts his wallet and pulls out 200 rupees to hand it to the police. This entire exchange is 20 seconds long and is over without a word being spoken.

“What was that for?” I ask.

“Parchi,” laughs Bashir.

“If we don’t hand them some bribe, they would not allow us to enter Hub City or will throw us behind bars,” adds Murtaza.

“Our clients fight with us due to the increase in the amount we charge. But you have to understand, we only increase the rates because we have to pay them as well,” says Bashir.

The conversation continues as we enter Karachi proper.

“How big is your scope? Are you supplying water to all of Karachi?”

“I only deliver water to certain locations,” responds Murtaza. “Yousuf Goth, Naval Colony, Moach Goth and areas of Baldia Town such as Saeedabad and Muhajir Camp.

But there are also giants in this business who have bigger networks and connections. They supply water all over Karachi, and run even bigger tankers that carry more than 12,000 gallons of water.”

According to the duo, driving water tankers in Karachi is not very easy. If one enters the profession, they must know the consequences it entails.

“But this business has its own beauty, too. It can make someone rich overnight if he is fortunate, otherwise there have been many who have ended up in prison. I am thinking to sell my tanker as soon as possible and find a stress-free job. My parents and my wife both are concerned about my roster. I don’t want my family members to mourn my future.”

Before we know it, Murtaza stops the tanker in front of a gate and rings the bell. In the meantime, Bashir quickly climbs up the tank and takes down the pipes. He sticks one side of the pipe with the tank’s tap while the client takes the other side into his home and puts it into a water tank. Upon the client’s call, Bashir opens the tap.

“Meetha hai sahib! [It is sweet water!]” Murtaza tells the client.

** Names changed to protect identity and privacy*
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
He tweets @JunaidAhmed

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 17th, 2017