Why did Karachi sink in the rain?

The city's topography has been altered without any regard to the overall form of the megapolis.
Published August 15, 2019

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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