Karachi's woes from the lens of an urban planner, a demographer and a water expert

Monsoon rains have, for decades now, flooded parts of Karachi, but this year almost the entire city was brought to its knees.
Published September 5, 2020

For decades now, monsoon rains have been flooding parts of Karachi. But this year, nearly the entire city was brought to its knees as the country's biggest metropolis was battered with torrential downpour, with the met office recording over 480mm of rain falling in the month of August alone.

Urban flooding is now a household name for the residents of this city. What's more worrying is that climate experts have been saying that what Karachi witnessed in the past weeks was in fact only a trailer of what is to happen in the coming years. They are calling it the 'new normal'.

Others say the inundation of Karachi was due to decades of poor planning, failure of municipal governance and zero accountability. Whatever new development is taking place is not factoring in the contours of the city's water-flow or its topography with hills in the north and sea in the south.

Still others say that the city is not geared to accommodate or cater to even the very basic needs of its residents, such as providing them with secure housing, and ensuring quality education and healthcare to its many migrants who come here in the hopes of building a better life. Most of these poor migrants, when they land in Karachi, end up living in areas that are most vulnerable to disasters, such as on top of or along the edges of this city's water bodies — its storm-water drains.

We speak to urban planner Farhan Anwar, water expert Simi Kamal, and demographer Dr Farid Midhet, to get a sense of Karachi's problems and what course correction can be undertaken to avert disasters, such as the recent flooding.

Failure of municipal governance

Farhan Anwar says that Karachi's civic infrastructure and associated service delivery has been in a continuous state of decline. "Civic services, like supply of water, management of sewerage and solid waste, and drainage are severely strained as these have not been maintained let alone upgraded," he says.

Simi Kamal adds to this and says that the "concretisation" of Karachi is not the act of, what is often termed disdainfully, a 'vagrant horde of uneducated people'. It is the result of "contract-driven greed of officials in numerous government departments and six cantonments that 'own' two-thirds of the city"; as well as the city administration that governs over the remaining third where "responsible agencies are only too willing to alter land use and let people who can ‘pay’ build illegal concrete structures".

Additionally, investments made in the transportation infrastructure in the form of flyovers and widening of streets, says Anwar, have only served and benefited automobile users with little thought for non-motorised transport users that form the majority of the city.

Rising population, rising poverty and resources spreading thin

Half of Karachi's population lives in informal settlements with just a handful having any legal tenure. What should be of concern to city leadership, says Anwar, is the rise in population levels in these settlements, which is twice that of the overall annual rate of population increase in Karachi.

And these high levels of urban inequality will lead to increased socio-economic and environmental disruptions. "The only way to resolve the crisis is to structure a political consensus between the key political and administrative entities of the city," says Anwar.

Anwar adds that despite Karachi being a potpourri of cultures, languages, ethnicities and religions to be celebrated, we also see fault-lines developing around these. "Political associations have merged with ethnic identities, leading to the worst form of identity politics thriving in the city," says Anwar.

Demographer Dr Farid Midhet gives the example of the impact of population overgrowth on health systems, saying the city's workforce density is a major indicator for measuring the population's access to healthcare.

"The number of physicians and other healthcare workforce need to rise proportionately with the rise in population. If trained healthcare workers are not there, the likelihood of death or disability from otherwise preventable causes increases," says Dr Midhet. Furthermore, population growth puts similar stresses on healthcare facilities that start to require more equipment, medication, medical supplies, as well as inpatient and operating beds, so they can cater to the growing numbers.

He adds that when faced with such challenges and shoring up resources to cater to growing demand in some sectors, other necessities often get overlooked. Electricity is among these necessities, as well as water availability, which Dr Midhet says is perhaps the most important resource needed to establish a well-run health facility.

Kamal says that while it is easy to relate lack of development to population growth with population control as a panacea, the real problem is in fact the "unbridled consumption of the elites, who continue to commandeer more and more space for their private use. They are not interested in public or civic concerns; they do not care for safe drinking water, clean air, green areas or open spaces for citizens, and they continue to generate mountains of solid waste".

Informal municipal services

Anwar adds that there is an informal economy that operates in Karachi that is running into the billions but is neither documented nor regulated. Among these sectors are facilities regarding provision of land and municipal services employing unlawful means as they involve "non-regulated informal sector operators and are facilitated by a nexus between political and government entities that are in charge of civic agencies and land" he adds.

This system is gnawing at the city which "gets nothing in return in terms of revenue while its resources and services are abused, leading to an extremely unsustainable growth pattern", he points out.

Plan for Karachi

In many ways, Karachi is decentralised in terms of operations, service delivery and land control. But "decentralisation is good only when decentralised functions are embedded within a shared vision of the city in terms of economic growth, environmental sustainability and social cohesion," Anwar says.

Kamal wants a "proper mayoral system or a similar system under a unified command with laws that apply equally to all areas of the city (without exception) and which can then work under a proper plan to demarcate green areas, carry out indigenous tree planting, control emissions, control new housing and habitat, carry out zoning and serve all its citizens."

On what can be done to keep the city clean and add to its green cover, Kamal says: "Urban forests, allotments for food production, growing herbs, vegetables, bushes, trailing vines and flowers, all can and do work, with the right varieties. Karachi does not need green lawns — it needs low water-using plants in pots, on rooftops, on walls..."

To alleviate the city's population and demographic challenges, she says that if satellite towns can be established across the country and rural areas can be provided with better facilities, it can help lessen the burden on Karachi as well as control the population influx in the city.