Why did Karachi sink in the rain?

The city's topography has been altered without any regard to the overall form of the megapolis.
Updated 16 Sep, 2019 04:55pm

As per the Meteorological Department's near accurate prediction, Karachi experienced torrential rain this month.

27 people died and many more were injured. The situation was compounded by Eidul Azha that was being celebrated at the same time. Scores of cattle markets were set up in different locations across the city in addition to the central outlet along the Super Highway. Poor animals and their hapless keepers had to face a tough ordeal. Prices fell down sharply as animals began to fall sick due to the downpour and the filth.

The rain caused a complete breakdown of urban life. Poor design and management of roads, drainage, intersections, underground sewers and sidewalks caused unparalleled chaos and damage. Due to the over spilling of drains and the absence of properly directed flow of rain water, streets, transit ways and lanes were rendered unusable.

The mayhem exposed grave shortcomings in planning, development and management of a city that houses over eight per cent of the national population. Many factors contributed to this disappointing scenario.

Editorial: Monsoon devastation

The lack of any bulk drainage mechanism along the major streets was an obvious cause of the problem. It is ironic that the prime corridors — I.I. Chundrigar Road, Shahrah-e-Faisal, Shaheed-e-Millat Road, Karsaz Road, Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan Road, Shahrah-e-Pakistan and many other arteries — all became pools of water.

It is not that these streets are devoid of storm drains. Even before Partition, they were built with storm drains of appropriate capacity on their sideways. The hierarchy continued to the secondary- and tertiary-level streets and by-lanes.

Karachi is also blessed with more than a dozen natural drains (nallahs) that used to flow during rains and carried the water into the sea and creeks. A reasonable environmental balance existed thanks to the separation of sewerage and rain water.

As the city expanded in a haywire manner, the storm water drains were transformed into sewerage trunks. Even the planned neighbourhoods had their primary sewerage conduits ejecting into the nallahs.

Over the years, land grabbers and builders recklessly constructed structures on, and along, the nallahs. With the irregular reclamation of nallahs' banks, the width of the water stream decreased. This created a perpetual problem both for the usual flow of sewage and the rain water during monsoons. In certain cases, these constructions made the maintenance of nallahs impossible.

Karachi's topography has been altered without any regard to the overall form of the city. Whether it's widening a road, constructing an underpass or a settlement, only local engineering benchmarks are taken into account. This causes disasters like the present episode, and the flooding alongside the Super Highway and its adjoining areas is an example.

Read next: Why Lahore gets flooded every year — and how to stop it

Coordinated decision making for development and management is necessary to prevent such disasters. Decisions that stem from scientific wisdom gained through analysis and evaluation of realities give rise to better results.

In Karachi's case, decisions are geared to generate political benefits, instant praise from masses due to high visibility and short-term gains only. Neglect of pressing issues in favour of stand-alone mega projects and the over dominance of the provincial government on the local tiers of government are just the few glaring issues.

Demographic data, maps and scientific opinions are needed for proper urban drainage and flood prevention plans. While this information is gathered, its usage is constrained due to difficulty in free access, lack of updates and incompatibility and differences in formats.

In the recent past, Karachi has seen intense densification in existing neighbourhoods due to the street commercialisation policy enforced by the erstwhile City District Government since 2002. Over 40 major corridors have been declared commercial areas.

The policy has enabled the plots on these streets to be converted into high-rise constructions. At the same time, the ensuing pressure on water supply, electricity, sanitation, drainage, transportation and parking space was not taken into consideration. It was criminally assumed that by earning revenue, the vices of development could be ignored.

Spot commercialisation is already taking place in various areas of Karachi. Multiple jurisdictions, lack of motivation to enforce the law and the absence of political will to differentiate between short-term revenue gains and sustainability are the common issues found here.

Spot densification alters the rain and sewage water flow gradients. Property owners only develop their own plot-level services with no consideration of the overall flow of water. In many cases, physical structures such as speed breakers obstruct the water path.

In-depth: Cities, climate change and Pakistan’s extended urbanisation

A short while ago, a federal minister launched a cleaning drive for Karachi. At the onset, the clean-up of storm drains began. With enormous expenditure on manpower and machinery, some nallahs were partly cleaned and the recovered solid waste was deposited at their edges. As rain intensified, the collected waste slipped back into the drains.

Solid waste is deposited into the drains as no alternative is available. With rising consumerism, solid and liquid waste has multiplied. An intelligent approach is required to manage the waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

Scores of technological options are available that convert solid waste into electrical power. Sindh Solid Waste Management Board and municipalities shall do well to explore them. This would also ensure proper water flows into nallahs and prevent them from becoming a total liability.

Header photo by Sabir Mazhar

Have you been affected by extreme climate patterns? Share your experiences with us at prism@dawn.com


Author Image

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

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (30) Closed

Aug 15, 2019 05:16pm
The country infrastructure based on proper and advanced planning. Then come the intense and regular maintenance and gradually upgrading. Last, the proper and timely funding and backing of government civic bodies. All we have for Karachi are useless political employees of PPP who worships wealth and MQM who didn’t even bother to clean up the dead bodies left behind. Wonder why these two parties think that they owned Karachi? Result is that the city of light can’t even bare the monsoon rain. Leave the city to educated and honest people to look after.
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Aug 15, 2019 06:14pm
And people from Karachi continue to vote for the same two parties again and again? They got what they deserved.
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Nadeem Hyder Shar Advocate
Aug 15, 2019 06:44pm
Infrastructure issues are becoming rather common in Karachi. Their main cause is the absence of effective infrastructure management. The abounding of an eight four -inch water pipeline on University Road near Federal Urdu University in Karachi, which caused the main road to be flooded as vehicles plunged under more than a few feet of water in the parking areas, seemed almost like a strange scene from a film. The fact that it happened in one of Pakistan ‘major cities is concerning. The pipeline in question was forty-years-old and the immense leak happened when Karachi Water and Sewerage Board personnel were laboring on it. The issue was made worse when a passing car belonging to the KMC impaired a valve and released further water onto the Karachi roads.
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Amjad Durrani Engineer USA
Aug 15, 2019 07:01pm
A good article though correctly pointing towards lack of city planning & mismanagement by the civic agencies such as KWSB, KEC, KMC & KBCA, resulting in encroachment of 40 water channels & their fallouts, choked drainage system due to solid wastes, especially plastics, but without providing a long term solution to this ever increasing problem causing loss of life and damage to property. As a matter of fact no matter how often existing drains, drainage channels & their outfalls are cleaned, as recently has been done by SC appointed commission’s directives, the problem will reoccur. The reason being that Karachi producing 13000 ton of solid waste including 1 ton of plastic, with 60% of it not disposed to dumping sites, is the real issue. Mostly strewn on streets requires public awareness compaign to segregate such waste, securely in separate bags prior to disposal, increasing KMC’s waste haulage capacity, mechanical periodic cleaning of drains & dismantling encroachments, are required
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Nadeem Hyder Shar Advocate
Aug 15, 2019 07:06pm
Over the past decade, all major storm-water drains of the city [over 40 in number] have been encroached upon and concrete structures, including housing colonies, banks, shops and even markets, have been built over these channels. Land owned by the Karachi Port Trust and development of infrastructure by the Defence Housing Authority as well as by the KPT that resulted in the closure of discharge points of city’s natural drains. Absence of waste management system puts Karachi at risk of urban flooding. Disasters as ‘natural’ allows people to accept poor urban planning, which results in increased socio-economic inequalities, poorly regulated policies and a lack of proactive adaption and mitigation to avoid detection of future natural hazards.
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Aug 15, 2019 07:33pm
A perfect analysis of the management and planning faults that brought Karachi to this point! The expertise and suggestions of the author should be valued and used by anyone in power who is genuinely concerned for improving Karachi. But alas rarely anyone in power in Sindh cares, and almost no one in power seems to have a vision to restore Karachi :(
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Ajeet Nagdev
Aug 15, 2019 07:44pm
We all windge and blame politicians - that has long been established that are corrupt FULL STOP. What about people - do everyone pay their fair share of taxes NO. Then where from government will get money to built and maintain infrastructure?
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Aug 15, 2019 08:01pm
There used to be a water drain, probably one of the largest size in Karachi, which could be seen when coming from Korangi area towards defence society and shahrah-e-Faisal. It has completely vanished from the earth and plots have been cut and sold and built out not only by the land grabbers alone but also by the defence housing authority which has allotted the cut out plots to its members. The Frere Road Naalah over which not only Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah Zafar Markets plus Urdu Bazaar were built long ago has also otherwise been used for construction of department of College Education as well as some library plus car parking behind the Burns Garden and also Shaheen Complex opposite the Supreme Court Registry in Karachi. Besides these almost all the Naalahs have been covered by vested interests and sold for builders or others for construction of houses and shops. The coming of the federal government to save Karachi will be a welcome step in the present process if it is willing to act.
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Aug 15, 2019 08:04pm
The first time water came inside the rooms of our home was in 1978. We live in Phase 4, DHA. And everytime the Monsoon season comes we pray that the water does not come inside our homes. But on average it comes in every third year. And the situation has worsened every time. I don't think the authorities have any solution except talk and promises.
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Aug 15, 2019 08:40pm
Last time road was constructed ( or maintained ) in my area before 2008. Same thing apply for sewage and water lines. Pathetic condition of sewage and road in Karachi. Just wondering where all the tax money are gone which are collected from Karachi. If things did not get fix this time than no more votes to any political party.
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Aug 15, 2019 08:56pm
Khi sank because Sindh is sinking. Save Khi, Save Sindh...get rid of the current Provincial govt before its too late!
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Aug 15, 2019 09:17pm
Wadera & mafia Inc have destroyed Karachi; and yet Islamabad is not taking ownership of Karachi to develop the much delayed infrastructure development!
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Aug 15, 2019 09:36pm
Thadho Dam built on Thadho-Konkar drain system to hold run off rain water to re-charge underground water in the surrounding area because here agriculture solely depends on groundwater. This dam is no way responsible for flooding Saadi Town but Pakistani media however made it responsible under some hidden agenda. In fact responsible for Saadi Town flooding is Latt Nai, whose natural course has been blocked. Its unfortunate on the part of media to mislead the nation for petty motives.
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Alla Bux
Aug 15, 2019 09:46pm
Simple. We spend all our money on our Army who always promise to deliver Kashmir to us instead of spending it on improving our infrastructure. That they never did, never do and never will is a different matter.
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Aug 15, 2019 10:25pm
@tq, although DHA is collecting huge amount of property taxes they have ghosts employees working under areas inspectors with zero result.
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Waheed Rehman
Aug 15, 2019 11:01pm
Thanks for a very informative article, here's a bit of history. For those of us who's families lived in Karachi since the 1800's the news is very tragic. After Lord Napier conquered Sindh the British developed Karachi (a fishing village) with well laid out plans but not on the scale of Bombay which was expected to be a big metropolis, like London. At the most, Karachi was expected to grow as big as Lahore today. Karachi was never planned to instantly accommodate hundreds of thousands after Partition and that's where the problem started. It exacerbated after Field Marshal Ayub Khan abruptly transferred the nation's capital from Karachi to Islamabad usurping Karachi's much need development revenue. Unfortunately, since then the problem multiplied as the population exploded and Karachi continued to be robbed of its fair share of development revenue.
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Syed A. Mateen
Aug 15, 2019 11:27pm
The job of cleaning of Nallah's should be done on daily basis by the concerned authorities but major job is not undertaken by any authority in Karachi. The dispute between Mayor of Karachi who is elected by MQM and CM of Sindh who is elected by PPP is the core issue that becomes the main reason for Karachi to sink after every rain. The issue between the Mayor of Karachi and CM of Sindh will never settle as both of them are not from one political party. People of Karachi pay taxes to City Govt. as well as to Provincial Govt. of Sindh, therefore, people of Karachi are not concerned as who undertakes the responsibility of cleaning Nallah's but what people need is that Nallahs should be kept cleaned so that in case of moderate or heavy rain people should not suffer in any case. It is unfortunate that whether it is City Govt. or PPP Govt. they are least bothered to solve the problems of the people living in Karachi and due to their non-serious behaviour people are killed due to rain.
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soumen ganguly
Aug 16, 2019 12:55am
because you think more about other country's internal matters than your own problems.
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Aug 16, 2019 12:57am
I will say two words to explain the cause- "Plastic bag".
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Ali S
Aug 16, 2019 01:04am
The only consideration in any construction or planning related to Karachi's infrastructure and development is "how can money be made off it" and to a lesser extent "how can this be used for PR". Basic principles like sustainability, environmental suitability and above all its service to the residents are nonexistent from the conversation. This city it's not a place to live, it's a financial playground for various vested interests. Until this approach is changed, Karachi will remain a cesspit with no solution in sight - the PPP and MQM governments are symptoms of this disease, not necessarily the cause.
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Aug 16, 2019 02:57am
Main problem is lack of storm water drainage systems and ponds in neighborhoods. Even the most affluent societies like defense have storm water system design. IT is important that developers of societies install these systems before selling plots. In addition, most of the area of the plots including outside has concrete pavement. This prevents percolation of water to the ground. Normally in USA, we cannot have more than 10-15 percent of the plot area to be built up. In Pakistan all 100 percent of the area is either a building or paved area with concrete and tiles outside the house. I do not understand how housing authorities like KDA etc. can allow this to continue.
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Aug 16, 2019 03:02am
for every city, there should be one single drainage and sewerage authority. with more than 10 different areas with separate authority who are not under the mayor, it is not difficult to imagine they never coordinate in these matters.
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Habib A Zuberi
Aug 16, 2019 03:05am
I am not an engineer, but I have observed few things in America that may be done in Karachi. Rain is a blessing, learn to collect this water, so it may be used later...perhaps several fairly large ponds filled with water and place greenery around these ponds...including several large trees and number of plants with flowers. It would be a nice place to visit and enjoy the beautiful small lakes surrounded with trees and flowers.
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Aug 16, 2019 03:07am
what about Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Larkana? every time there is urban disaster Karachi (or the big cities) takes all the limelight and due attention from media and authorities are not paid to medium and small size cities. there are 59 cities in Pakistan with a population between 100,000 to 1,000,000. are we waiting for them to be like Karachi, unmanageable. at this momement, it is easy to plan and reform in these small cities but within a few years, as the population grow, will be impossible just like Karachi. its time we focus on these cities and plan it well so that no future crisis is waiting.
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Syed Nazim
Aug 16, 2019 07:17am
Karachi is an orphan beautiful person, every one wants to grab and rape it. Leaders of Sindh government are bent upon looting it as if they have captured an enemy property. Karachi is truly a metropolitan city , city's problems can not be solved unless people living in this unfortunate city are seriously involved in its management. With the money generated by city, city representatives can solve all these problems provided they are backed by legislative powers.
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Aug 16, 2019 09:33am
Once Karachi was known as city of lights but now it is to be known as city of fights. Keeping cleanness is everyone's responsibility but everyone is blaming every other one. It has to be understood, how much money one may spent to keep it clean it will never be clean because, till the mindsets of the people in or out of the government are changed , only money can not do anything First of all, awareness at a wide scale has to be brought. And then cleaning process has to accepted as a CONTINUOUS process. It has to be done on routine basis. Secondly, the expansion of cities must be monitored, Inspections of drainage system must be held before the onset of rains not after that. Money collected for this purpose must be spent on this but this is the actual fault or the root cause.
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Aug 16, 2019 02:56pm
Karachi has a sewerage system ( badly and unprofessionally maintained ) AND a rain water drainage system. Talking of the latter, what is needed is periodic cleaning and ensuring the outlets are clear. Many storm drains rely on a pumping system to push the water out and during rains when electricity is shut, the system does not function, resulting in flooding of the area. Solution is to provide power by generators. All the above is not rocket science ..... but what is lacking is the will.
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Aug 16, 2019 04:54pm
By monitising waste collection, we can create an incentive for garbage removal. Gvt must focus on recycling centers for this purpose.
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Aug 16, 2019 09:02pm
@Ajeet Nagdev, You have posted the most sensible and honest comment on Karachi.
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Syed Ahsan
Aug 16, 2019 09:58pm
In 2 words:- PPP's misgovernance
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