A MAJOR flaw in the system exposed in the recent heavy monsoon rains in Karachi was that over a period of several decades, due to criminal neglect on the part of the authorities, sewage is disposed of in storm-water drains by both unofficial katchi abadis and formal sector schemes with official sanction. These drains have also been blocked by encroachments. All this resulted in the flooding and overflowing of sewage all over the place.
What Karachi needs immediately is a technical assessment of the urban flooding disaster carried out by experts, along with democratic consultation with the public and local stakeholders, before any drainage improvement and sewage disposal schemes are proposed. The objective should be to make this a part of proper town planning in order to create a master plan for Karachi. Otherwise, making a plan without coordination with the various stakeholders and departments would be tantamount to pouring more concrete and steel into the already heavily built-up metropolis, resulting in worse urban flooding in the future.
Briefly, the immediate need is: (i) The appointment of a panel of experts as a planning body; (ii) public consultations (conducted with the help of the panel); (iii) a city master plan and project designs based on research/technical assessment of urban flooding impacts and stakeholder consultations. Not following these guidelines would be like saying we can make a building more quickly if we skip laying the foundations.
The master plan should be implemented by one empowered municipal government, which is responsible for the planning and problems of all of Karachi and overlooks all areas, including the cantonments. This will do away with the confusion of having multiple and uncoordinated authorities. This was also agreed to in the Master Plan 2020 prepared for Karachi, but which was never implemented.
The city needs a technical assessment of urban flooding.
Any master planning done for the city must take sustainability, with its core concerns for environment, social equity and economics, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation, into account. This enables focus on aspects such as a zero-carbon economy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, rainwater harvesting, storm-water storage and groundwater recharge. Sustainable public transportation and green architecture and industry become essentials. Building by-laws would then also be revised keeping sustainability and climate change adaptation in mind.
Karachi has suffered from many extreme weather events — heatwaves, drought, urban flooding — which are expected to get worse with time — along with sea-level rise already being witnessed in the Indus Delta. This metropolis also serves as the hub for Pakistan’s climate refugees from other regions.
Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Agenda 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs), and the Paris Climate Agreement, which are designed to address what our country is going through. The Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997, requires public consultations on large project planning. The national and provincial climate change action plans also commit to this way of thinking.
The Pakistan National Climate Change Policy, 2012, identifies both disaster preparedness and well-coordinated town planning as major areas for preparation for climate change (with Karachi and Lahore mentioned by name as the largest cities needing urgent and extensive planning) that can bring all challenges, including those of water and energy, together effectively.
This planning before development work would need to be paired with the revision of the city’s building by-laws which would incorporate the revised drainage and sewage guidelines as well as what are referred to as ‘green building norms’ around the world (including our neighbouring countries which are just as poor). These norms address the environmental crisis and climate change adaptation agenda. At the moment, our buildings are unbearable with regard to heatwaves and other extreme weather events and are highly energy inefficient, further wasting our dwindling water and energy resources.
It is high time that we brought the discourse on SDGs and climate change adaptation into our local and national planning, as we have been promised by the highest quarters. Or are we, as technocrats and educated citizens, expected to believe that all these conventions we signed onto through our elected heads of state and the laws that were passed by our elected representatives, as well as all standard planning and building practices that we were taught as being essential from an ethical, legal, engineering, health and safety point of view, are only meant to look good on paper but are actually a farce? Can they be thrown out of the window whenever some lower, more selfish gains come to tempt us?
The writer heads the Department of Architecture, Karachi Institute of Technology & Entrepreneurship.
Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2020