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.
Updated 05 Sep, 2020 01:58pm

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.


Author Image

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is an independent journalist based in Karachi.

She tweets at @zofeen28.

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

Comments (25) Closed

M. Emad
Sep 05, 2020 12:48pm
Karachi now a Dirty Moonscape.
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Sep 05, 2020 01:27pm
1. Karachites should understand the consequences. 2. Everyone should understand that every services will cost. 3. Poor should not get leeway to put shanty in illegal area. If they know how to count money, then they understand social contract. 3. When voting, every voters should know whom they are voting. 4. Karachi before 1986 And after 1986 is because of the ethnic party. 5. Now people are talking about those improperly planned flyovers. It was obvious when made. Nobody dared to criticize.
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Sep 05, 2020 01:34pm
Without honest census in Karachi, everything will go down the drain.
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Nick, NY
Sep 05, 2020 01:47pm
For things to change for better in Karachi, Islamabad must take ownership of Karachi, otherwise all efforts will disappears in the bottomless pit of corruption!
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Yawar Awan
Sep 05, 2020 02:19pm
Ms Zofeen- Excellent article.Born in this city 60 years ago,I have experienced its Peak days. We have corrupted the entire system. Although all agencies are there,none has the capability to deliver.They get hired by paying huge bribes,ultimately their only remains to mint money.I am a graduate Engineer from NED,our top fellows used to join, KMC,KDA,KWSB,Traffic Engineering Bureau,SBCA, town planning,KTC/SRTC .We have to restart from scratch by getting competant people & first make & approve MASTER PLAN for next 10 years before proceeding.
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Adnan Iftikhar
Sep 05, 2020 02:20pm
Next time when you blindly buy a house on DHA or Bahria or anywhere - just ask the local authorities for sewerage and flood mitigation plans (other than corner plot hei ya nhi). Then you will understand that it’s worth nothing. Because plans will either be not there or if there, then get them checked.
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Kirtan Varasia
Sep 05, 2020 02:54pm
Isn’t the people living in Karachi are partly to blame for what has happened to the city of lights! Why only blame the govt and authorities. You/we are part of the same system! Once the water dries up, we will begin doing the same
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Sep 05, 2020 03:11pm
Theresa alot of work to be done
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Sep 05, 2020 03:43pm
Karachi is the next New York.
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M. Saeed
Sep 05, 2020 04:12pm
Karachi is not a city but, an Amazon of mud and concrete with endless mushrooms.
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Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad
Sep 05, 2020 04:57pm
Great, well researched ang nicely articulated article by the author. Well done and keep it up.
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Papa John's Pizza
Sep 05, 2020 05:37pm
@Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad, you are 100% right.
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Sep 05, 2020 07:11pm
Well done Zofeen. Karachi needs help and must be free of corruption. Who is going to take the lead? It is broken city that must be put together or disease will spread from the poor to the elite.
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Sep 05, 2020 08:01pm
Karachi is like Venice of the Indian subcontinent. Need boats to traverse through the City. Economic boom, isn't it?
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Sep 05, 2020 08:06pm
An articulated analysis and summary of the crisis prevalent in the megacity .This monsoon deluge was just a current shock to the so called governance and policy makers which have ruined the facade of the metropolis. High time the federal government takes the matters in own hands and appoint a Federal administrator who keeps a strict audit and check balance on the funds and planning needed to pull us out of this quagmire
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Bvs Prasad
Sep 05, 2020 08:42pm
Though the city infrastructure may have played its part, but it must be accepted that there was a record rainfall. Commenting from India, I did see satellite images of very very dense clouds. The Kutch region of Gujarat also saw continuous rains
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Imran Sheikh
Sep 05, 2020 09:13pm
Unlike other cities of Pakustan, Karachi has a majority of people from all provinces, leading to ghettos, and a lack of ownership. Thus the focus in planning is no longer a holistic city improvement, but constant fire-fighting efforts to pacify the most rowdy areas. Mega-corruption can be addressed, but lack of ownership, as demonstrated by setting buses and buildings on fire, breaking streetlights and other public property, even a blatant dis-regard of traffic signals on most roads, shows a lack of ownership. A change in the mind-set, through bringing the public into the mainstream by giving them respect by government is required. The availabilty of services more or less equally to all will change the present selfish approach by individuals towards shared services, by making people understand hospitals, and traffic lights, for example, serve a common good, and are to be cared for. Ultimately, it is the committment of people that spells success. Most else is just a part of the logistics that sustain success, not the cause of it.
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Hansoti Sh
Sep 06, 2020 12:29am
@Sherman, Gloating isn't cool is it?
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Hansoti Sh
Sep 06, 2020 12:30am
@Yawar Awan, Agreed, Well done ✅
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Think Twice
Sep 06, 2020 08:08am
@Sherman, courtesy ppp
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Sep 06, 2020 08:14am
My Father used to take us in "Trams" from Boulton Market to Saddar when we were young.after that came the nice Buses from Sweden with automatic Doors,after that came PPP, MQM,etc and the rest is History!
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Sep 06, 2020 02:30pm
@Beguiled, This wont happen because clearly the drains don't work.
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Sep 06, 2020 04:21pm
The future is same for all countries of the world ; well guarded, walled city for the rich, it will be guarded by drones and robots with machine guns and CCTV camera, the poor will live outside the city walls in slums, ruled by rival gangs, controlled and managed by elites in the walled city. Once in a blue moon an Ertugrul like character will be able to break into the City. The Elite class will gang up on him with help from abroad. And the rich will win again and the saga continues.
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Syed Husain
Sep 06, 2020 04:55pm
@Yawar Awan, Approving a good Master Plan does not mean anything unless everyone is honest, sincere and willing to implementing it.
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Sep 06, 2020 05:29pm
For all the time the people i.e. those who suffer the consequences of their inaction, do not organise their Peoples' Union in every locality to get themselves involved collectively and make sure things move to improve their common lot, nothing good will happen. So if you wake up for your own good, organise your action group i.e.Peoples' Union, Mahullah Committee or whatever you like to call it, you must come together to get involved. Involved in those matters that concern you welfare and future.
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