As the car bobs over the potholed University road, one can see a rusty trash truck battling against heaps of waste under the Nipa flyover. Right across the road, a few rickshaw drivers wash their clothes, with water leaking from a pipeline that has remained unrepaired for months. Ahead is a rocky plot that has gradually transformed into a landfill and hosts an informal settlement of the poorest.
Naked children sit outside their vulnerable homes, made from patched sheets and fenced with coconut leaves, as a pool of dark, fetid, stagnant water from the recent rains plugs the ground under their feet.
Meanwhile, social media is flooded with images of the entire city struggling after two spells of monsoon rain. Dozens of start-ups that had offices in basements in Karachi’s posh DHA area were inundated by flash floods, while polluted water surged into houses on the more modest Martin Road.
“The last rain was devastating for us,” says Sania Ali, founder of Clay Biscuits and resident of DHA’s Phase 8. “We lost handcrafted goods worth millions when water entered our basements. After the 2020 rain disaster, we had taken precautionary steps such as securing our storage with plastic sheets to prevent damage, but the basement got flooded again and we had to suffer losses.”
While civic authorities and urban planners of the metropolis seem in denial about climate change, residents increasingly suffer its brunt
Mansha Noor from Caritas Pakistan spoke about providing relief to over 50 families from Holy Mary Goth and Rustom Goth that were stranded after the rains. “There was so much devastation caused by flooding and rain,” she says, “we could not even cook food under our dripping ceilings.”
These Gotham city-like scenes are from one of the world’s biggest and most populated cities, Karachi, battling on many fronts and among the most vulnerable to climate change. The city’s resilience has already been deteriorated by entrenched poverty, increasing urban sprawl, poor infrastructure, a degraded environment and other problems.
As we brace for the next spell of the monsoon, let us look at what the future holds for Karachi, while climate change wreaks havoc on our environment, economy and society.
Sea Level Rise
The port city is expanding endlessly into the ocean, and is under threat because of increasing sea levels related to climate change. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global sea level is projected to rise by about one metre by 2100, which will lead to the displacement worldwide of 630 million people living in coastal areas. The IMF report suggests that most of these people will be in South Asia.
In the last four decades, the south of Karachi has expanded from ‘Two Swords’ to DHA Phase 8-Extension, altering the map of Karachi’s coastal borders forever. Imagine how raised sea levels will consume these extended super-expensive neighbourhoods in the next four decades.
Besides affecting living conditions, the rising sea levels will also impact the environment of the coastal areas by causing soil erosion and contamination, flooding, degradation of mangroves forests, and affecting fish and plant colonies. Researchers at University of Sindh, Jamshoro, predict that 26,000 square kilometres of land will be lost if the sea level rises by 0.66 metres, and 33 percent of the coastal land, along with its wetland ecology, will be lost in the next hundred years if we continue on the same path.
Heat Waves Karachi regularly experiences some of the highest temperatures in the world and remains the most vulnerable city in Pakistan, besides Lahore, in terms of high mortality rates because of extreme heat. In 2015, thousands were hospitalised, and hundreds lost their lives in a single day because of a heat wave.
Pakistan appears as the darkest zone when it comes to climate change-related increasing temperatures on all predictive maps. It is estimated that the number of dayswith temperatures above 35°C will increase in Pakistan from 2022 onwards.
According to the data from the Climate Change Knowledge Portal of the World Bank, all models suggest that by 2100, Pakistan’s average temperature increase will be 3.3 to 5.6 percent higher than the global average, “demonstrating the level of certainty that Pakistan should prepare for above-average increases.”
Both floods and droughts have increased in the past decade, and we frequently witness heat waves followed by severe storms, a pattern that is likely to increase in the coming years.
The Urban Sprawl
Karachi’s population has drastically increased over the last few decades as a result of intercountry migrations. These uncontrolled, unmonitored, and unorganised migrations have a huge socio-economic impact on the city.
We saw how, after the 2010 floods, thousands of families arrived and settled in Karachi. Whenever there is an episode of climate change-related extreme weather, Karachi becomes a shelter for refugees and most of them never go back to where they came from. These migrations are inevitable.
It is estimated by the United Nations that, by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, using infrastructure mainly being built and planned today. It is crucial to design a sustainable and resilient infrastructure for economic growth and to survive climate change. Only then can we provide decent quality living for millions of people living in slums and informal settlements.
Our urban planning needs to prioritise investment in the development of public transportation, housing, commercial buildings, the modification of slums, creation of green spaces and policies to prevent urban sprawl.
The only solution is to make efforts to reverse environmental degradation and adapt to the environmental changes that are bound to occur despite mitigation efforts. With each day, it is becoming clearer that there is an unbreakable relationship between nature, people and economics.
Imagine Karachi being a smart, walkable cycle-friendly city, surrounded by carbon-neutral buildings, a crystal clear beach housing coral reefs, green spaces and wildlife sanctuaries, booming socio-economic conditions, and air so clean that you can see stars in the sky again.
Let us educate ourselves, envision our green future and start to take measures to adapt to the inevitable climate change.
Zahra Ali Syed is Karachi based, environmentalist and sustainability consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 31st, 2022