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Water woes

June 08, 2018

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KARACHI’s raging summer has exposed intrinsic shortcomings in the overall water supply, with ordinary folks, especially in remote peri-urban areas, most affected. Long queues at designated and non-designated hydrants showed a largely dysfunctional piped water system. The city’s centre and affluent south rely heavily on exorbitantly priced tankers. This state of affairs is not sustainable in the short or medium term. That Supreme Court-mandated water commission has been inquiring into Sindh’s water and sanitation affairs proves the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for solutions.

The status of water supply cannot improve unless relevant institutions undergo reform and capacity building. In March 2017, the Supreme Court advised on reforms for the Sindh government, Karachi Water and Sewerage Board and other public bodies. These included: revising the water quota for Karachi, having civil society representation in KWSB, fixing existing water plants, recovering pending water charges from public departments, limiting water hydrants to emergency use, installing water meters for bulk consumers, instituting a geographic information system for scientific monitoring, prioritising completion of the first phase of the K-IV project, and revamping distribution lines all the way to tail-end users.

The then provincial government submitted a comprehensive report to the court, pledging compliance with the directives. The caretaker government must consider revisiting this task to ensure that Karachi’s citizens get timely relief.

Supply lines at the bulk and neighbourhood level must be examined for their performance efficiency. Many of them have outlived their utility or become defective due to organised thefts. For a comprehensive picture, this should include an assessment by third-party experts. A programme may then be prepared to repair leaking pipes and joints, starting with remote residential areas. Supply standards and specifications must also be updated to reflect current lifestyles and urban densification.

What will it take to fix Karachi’s broken supply system?

It is also important to revisit revenue collection from retail and bulk consumers of the service. While water from tankers costs around Rs3 per gallon, the normal bills charged to consumers are 10 times lower than this. A realistic tariff, backed by solid financial analysis, must be worked out to enable the utility to sustain operations and maintenance of the network. A ‘willingness to pay’ also needs to be promoted through campaigns targeted at consumers. In my research, I found that many users simply refuse to pay their bills, believing that water is nature’s gift to them.

Some years ago, in Orangi, Baldia and Surjani, the communities constructed collective tanks to manage and distribute water to less privileged households. These were constructed on public spaces and could store about 2,000-4,000 gallons. Once water was procured through tankers purchased with pooled funds, it was then distributed under joint management of the areas’ people. Efforts must be made to revive this option, which became ineffective several years ago when people were made to believe that piped water will soon be available in abundance.

The Indus river, from where Karachi gets the bulk of its water, is a highly contested source. It is safe to predict that acquiring additional quantities of water in the future may prove nearly impossible. Alternative options, such as desalination, must be explored. There are examples around the world for us to learn from to generate large quantities of water with fewer costs and investments.

One of the most efficient large-scale desalination plants was set up in a Middle Eastern territory in 2013. It is capable of generating 160 million gallons of fresh water from the sea, at a cost of Rs0.25 per gallon or $0.58 per cubic metre. Desalination experts believe that this is a much lower cost compared to the normal $1 per cubic metre elsewhere in the world. This plant costs around $500m but is able to prove its worth by accounting for 20 per cent of the input to that territory’s water supply.

Karachi possesses a spread-out coastline and can certainly benefit from desalination after undertaking proper feasibility studies, reviewing past attempts that did not work, and implementing appropriate engineering improvements.

Nowadays, technologies are also available that can harvest water from the atmosphere. As Karachi maintains a high rate of humidity for most of the year, it may be useful to instal low-tech solar- and wind-powered atmospheric water generators of small and medium scale.

It is, however, important to remember that such solutions need to be attempted by cutting through bureaucratic red tape. The sooner we embark on approaching out-of-the-box solutions, the better it will be for improving the quality of life of millions living in Karachi.

The writer is a professor and dean, Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2018