Karachi’s collapse

Published June 9, 2020
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

YET another building in Karachi has collapsed, this time in Liaquat Colony, Lyari on June 7. Initial reports revealed that residents were given notice to vacate due to the building’s precarious condition. Building stock in the city has faced numerous disasters in recent months due to various reasons. About 20 houses were destroyed or damaged when Flight PK-8303 tragically crashed on May 22 in a residential area. Recently, more buildings fell in the Ranchore Line and Gul Bahar neighbourhoods, while on social media, users shared images of one suburban building tilting as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Building collapses, fires in informal settlements and production spaces/godowns/warehouses, flooding across major waterways and many other tragedies have become the norm in Karachi. The metropolis functions in an institutional limbo without a valid city plan, zoning controls and minimal allocation of development and management resources.

Our institutional capacity to monitor building stock and identify land use-related malpractices is shamefully negligible. The illegal conversion of land use from low to high density is rising meteorically, despite repeated Supreme Court interventions. The nexus of builders-developers-officials has led to dubious authorisations of land use for lucrative commercial gains. Since zoning codes are outdated and no valid city plan exists to manage development, such activities flourish without restraint, with the so-called land-grabbing mafia a partner in crime. Enforcement mechanisms are too frail to withstand enormous commercial stakes.

Normally, a city plan would be prepared by the concerned planning agency, notified after seeking and addressing stakeholder inputs, and enforced by the zoning and building control authorities. In Karachi, this process has been ruptured for some time now. Recently, the Supreme Court directed the Sindh government to legislate on the province’s urban and regional planning matters. A draft law is being prepared, and may be forwarded to the legislature. However, the bigger issue is the need to create a capable and independent planning authority. With rising urban disasters, there is an urgent need to complete these pending tasks. Besides, local institutions must also shore up relief and rescue capacities in the wake of disasters.

Urban development functions in an institutional limbo.

Karachi’s built environment is exceptionally challenging. Only a small fraction of building stock can be categorised as properly designed and constructed under the building control regime, such as the planned neighbourhoods of the south, east and northeast. Most structures (residential, commercial, industrial, etc) have not received any design and supervision input, resulting in whimsical plans and poor materials being used. Dozens have been declared dangerous by various committees, but are still occupied by overzealous tenants. Punjab, Neelum, Shah Rasool and Delhi colonies, and upper and lower Gizri are saturated with haphazard multistorey structures.

People live in such inhumane and unsafe conditions to save on high transport costs. Access to fire tenders, ambulances and other emergency vehicles are a serious issue, with rising incidents of building fires and collapses exposing these inadequacies and leading to greater loss of life.

To make residents lives safer, many baseline interventions are needed. The location of the plane crash last month, for example, will require a detailed engineering investigation to assess the damage to and structural fitness of impacted buildings and remedial measures.

Similarly, all in­­formal settlements where multistorey construction exists need detailed assessments. Buildings must be analysed on their current status; occupancy and utility; structural stability; safety provisions; design and retrofit exercises; potential hazards points; parking lot study; and hazard assessment to identify the risks of the micro environment in which the building is located. Similar appraisals must be done of under-construction buildings and building plans. Building safety standards must be developed from this comprehensive inventory.

On a district-wide scale, information on hazardous activities must be obtained. It is commonly observed that such activities have penetrated city neighbourhoods unchecked. Storage of gas cylinders, chemicals, flammables, etc must be documented and dealt with according to safety regulations.

There are many larger issues that directly affect construction activities and violations. A large number of agencies, mainly cantonments, do not follow the provincial or local government’s writ on issues of development, thus creating differing standards. Land-use data, required as a baseline to enforce any regulations, does not exist. Without the required institutional planning and regulating and monitoring mechanisms for urban development, more accidents cannot be ruled out.

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

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2020

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