For as long as I can remember, the people of Karachi have always had to deal with state negligence when confronted with a system breakdown, whether civic, infrastructural or political in nature. As we saw throughout the destruction wreaked by the torrential monsoon around Eidul Azha earlier this month, Karachiites resorted to survival mode to literally keep their heads above water.
We, the people of Karachi, are accustomed to arranging curative measures rather than preventive measures living in this city. Come rain or shine, every day we struggle: to reach school or office on time, we navigate driving in the wrong lanes, or in the face of blinding beamers turned on by oncoming vehicles, to try to make it through the rage-inducing traffic. We try to hurry through our daily routines, but we ignore the consequences of our actions or conveniently disengage ourselves from how our actions implicate others.
The recent monsoon rains and their mismanagement are a perfect example of how we try to divorce ourselves from the bigger issues at hand, on a macro level. Every year, the residents of Karachi put up with the inconvenience and bear the damage the rainy days bring. Without any preparations, hoping against hope, we survive against all odds when the city comes to an absolute halt.
We survive even when we are in knee-deep water. We survive despite total structural collapse around us. Each day, we cope. Every day, we survive.
Each day, we cope. Every day, we merely survive.Yet the residents of the metropolis also show a generosity of spirit when faced with catastrophe, such as during the recent urban flooding
I write this piece, along with the others in advance, as another heavy downpour could lead to another round of indefinite power outage. I wonder if, for us, survival mode is the autopilot mode. We are almost always enduring something or the other. Will we ever know what development feels like, what thriving feels like, what it means to be a flourishing city?
Everybody has been distressed over urban flooding in the metropolis but, following the devastation, I would also like to take this opportunity to see the silver lining. Amid all the anxiety and angst, I would like to applaud the courage and selflessness of the people of Karachi as they supported each other in the face of state negligence and malfunctioning and the poor design of the city itself.
I took the liberty of reaching out to some residents of the affected areas, including Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and I. I. Chundrigar Road. Many of these comprised ageing parents and couples with infants, who went through extreme trauma and anxiety, stranded on the roads or stuck in their homes filling up with water and trying to call their friends and family on phones running low on battery.
One such couple, carrying an infant with them, was stuck in the torrential rain when their car broke down in the commercial area of Phase IV, DHA. The water on the streets had risen to shoulder level. The family was rescued by a kind soul driving an SUV.
The house of one of my own relatives, in the commercial area of Phase II, DHA, was gushing with water. As the basement of their house flooded with filthy sewage water, mixed with the remnants of sacrificial animals, the family struggled to save their valuables and furniture. Urban flooding from the past two years had prepared them in that they had suction pumps handy at least, but the uncontrollable variables of the situation were overbearing.
On the second day of Eidul Azha, Syed Athar Ali Shah rescued a friend of his from 10th Commercial Street, Phase IV, after it had rained all night. The latter wanted to move out with his wife and three children when his house was completely submerged. Shah slowly drove his four wheel drive through the flooded streets to find his friend on the first floor of his house, the ground floor having been inundated.
The family evacuated and was taken to their relatives’ house. On the way, they noticed another lady waving at them, asking for drinking water. So Shah offered her two drinking water bottles.
As Shah, a design contractor, is well-connected within DHA and its community groups, he was called for help by several people. This time, along with a servant and some snacks, Shah ventured out to rescue whoever reached out to him.
“It was as though we were in the stone age, without electricity, food and shelter,” Shah tells me. “I saw a young man, standing on 7th Street, with waist-high water, waving at me. Upon asking, he said that his diabetic mother needed insulin. On the way to the shop to buy insulin, we saw three men outside a bungalow trying to rescue their cars from their porches. We towed their cars out and I dropped the boy back to his home. Then I went back home to refuel my car.”
Shah connected with another person, Faisal Latif, from a local social media group. “Together, we rescued as many more people as we could. We also supplied drinking water, dry snacks and juices,” he says. Stories of people providing help in their neighbourhoods show what civic responsibility is all about. In fact, this attribute of helping people in need is a way of life in Karachi.
As Khayaban-i-Rahat [Comfort Boulevard] turned into Khayaban-e-Aafat [Calamity Boulevard] and Khayaban-i-Jami filled with pani [water], I wondered if filth and misfortune are the destiny of my beloved city of Karachi. How difficult is it to stop throwing trash on the streets? How troublesome is it to pick it up and keep our city clean?
As the state failed to play its part, I saw individuals from Offroad Club Pakistan, in their private cars and 4x4s, helping out stranded families as rainwater flooded homes in several areas of Clifton and DHA. They also delivered petrol as people struggled to find fuel for their generators.
Drenched, the city of lights had to shut down everything from grocery stores to businesses, from petrol stations to food deliveries. Underpasses were also submerged and unpassable. But it was also blessed with kindness from strangers in private SUVs and other 4x4s, striving to relocate those stranded in the non-stop rain. To make matters worse, residents did not only have to save themselves, but also their sacrificial animals.
Similarly, there were also doctors reaching out online to patients on various social media platforms to provide medical advice for home-based treatments. With most of the main streets, such as I.I. Chundrigar Road, which houses Karachi’s major financial institutions, also flooded, men and women who couldn’t leave their workplaces were also not left out as people tried to reunite them with their families.
Hiba Malik, a resident of PECHS, shared with me that her husband was stuck on I.I. Chundrigar Road on the way home from his work, due to the heavy traffic jams caused by inundated roads. He stayed put as he thought it was the best thing to do but, eventually, one of his colleagues who lived nearby gave him shelter and a hot meal. Indefinite power outages also led to some restaurants volunteering to provide free hot meals.
This year the highlight of the spirit of Karachiites were the adventures of numerous people with tubes and dinghies, who found moments of merriment even during rescue operations as they made videos and laughed their way while sailing on the waterlogged roads.
All these instances show how resilient my beloved Karachiites are, as they offered unconditional support with little acts of generosity, even while the city drowned.
The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. She tweets @sarashraf
Published in Dawn, EOS. July 24th, 2022