The main entrance to Shahr-i-Noor Jehan in North Nazimabad. — Photo by authors

Why is Karachi dug up — District Central’s festival of roadworks

Broken roads in the city's most populated district have left residents tiptoeing through a minefield.
Published June 12, 2023

There are rarely any seasonal sights for people living in Karachi. Crowded beaches are a summer staple when temperatures reach sweltering heights. Winters come with an eerie silence and freezing breeze.

But a common sight in the city, almost all year round, is that of red barriers, clouds of cement dust, and every other paving slab pulverised by monster excavators. It is like a festival of roadworks.

Walking around the port city, one cannot possibly avoid the festival, because the entire city looks like a construction site.

At the moment, Karachi’s Central District — the city’s most populated area which houses a total of 3.42 million people — is drowned in the buzz and thud of drills. Dozens of shops in the 69-kilometre square radius are near-inaccessible and residents are forced to weave and dodge like a footballer tiptoeing through a minefield.

A tale of horror

Karachi’s Central district comprises five towns — Nazimabad, North Nazimabad, Gulberg, New Karachi, and Liaquatabad. Many of these areas, particularly Nazimabad and North Nazimabad, were once regarded as some of the most well-developed towns in the country.

Today, however, they wear the look of war-ravaged towns, with open sewerage lines, potholes, and uneven roads in every lane.

 An open stormwater drain near the Gujjar Nullah in Central district.
An open stormwater drain near the Gujjar Nullah in Central district.

Sara Raza, who was born and has lived in North Nazimabad all her life, has witnessed it all crumble. “The road right in front of my house, Shahra-i-Noor Jahan, is completely unusable. It has been grubbed out from several points. Everything along the thoroughfare — from clinics to shops and residents — is suffering from the brunt of this work,” she told

The road Raza lives on has been dug up on one side. While the other track is usable, a drive down that lane is not recommended because you may end up bumping your head on the roof of your vehicle several times. The danger amplifies if you are on a motorcycle — increasing the chances of slipping or worse, falling into the open sewerage line and stormwater drains.

Residents of the area have been forced to take alternative routes, and pedestrians can often be seen jumping over iron rods, used as fences around the sites under construction, to cross the road — which is extremely unsafe.

A woman helps her young daughter cross the road as construction is underway.
A woman helps her young daughter cross the road as construction is underway.

“A while back, a new commissioner was appointed in our area and we have seen him doing some kind of work, but never has our complaint ever been catered to,” said Raza.

“There is in fact no platform where complaints may be registered or response could be taken. In the past, it was only when the elections were around the corner that they came and repaired roads. But it was only patchwork.

“This is how they trick the public and get their votes. This is how the game is right now,” she added.

Muhammad Furqan Iqbal, who lives in the same neighbourhood, echoed Raza’s sentiments. “My family and I have stopped using Shahra-i-Noor Jehan because the road is in an abysmal condition.”

He explained that the work under way in the area is linked to the construction of a stormwater drain connecting all three channels of the Shadman Nullah. “In addition to this, K-Electric teams recently dug up this road and have now filled the ditches with mud, leaving it in very bad shape.”

“Let’s suppose it rains today or tomorrow; will these open potholes and trenches not be fatal for us? What will happen to the roads that are already in such bad shape? Who will repair them?” Iqbal asked rhetorically.

Raza and Iqbal are not the only ones facing these problems. A number of residents spoke to had a similar ordeal to share and highlighted the following areas where roads are either dug up or unusable due to wear and tear: Qalandriya Chowk towards Anda Mor, from Hamdard Hospital to Five-Star Chowrangi, Peoples Chowrangi towards Water Pump, North Nazimabad Block N, service lane adjacent to Nadra Service Centre, Teen Hatti, and Liaquatabad Dak Khana.

Other side of the story

Karachi’s Central district, despite being geographically and politically significant, has long been neglected by those in power. In the last few years, however, there has been renewed interest in rebuilding the area. One such example is a mega rehabilitation and reconstruction project that commenced in September last year and spreads across 12.4km.

A map of the project provided by the Sindh government
A map of the project provided by the Sindh government

The project, which is being funded by the Sindh government and is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, runs from Cafe Piyala (near Gulberg Chowrangi) to Rashid Minhas Road (near UBL Sports Complex). It also covers Shahra-i-Noor Jehan, Shahra-i-Humayun, Water Pump (Sakhi Hasan), and Qalandari Chowk. The rehabilitation of the road opposite Lucky One Mall also falls under it.

According to Project Director Irfan Ahmed, the plan was to widen the stormwater drains along the roads, install pipes in residential areas for the transportation of silted water after rains, and set up solar-based street lights in the aforementioned areas.

“We have separated the sewerage and water lines and put them in the service lanes. Stormwater drains have been moved to the median of the road to avoid water accumulation during the rains,” he said.

However, a visit to these sites revealed that stormwater drains along Shahra-i-Noor Jehan were left uncovered and instead concrete barriers had been hoisted on both sides.

Ahmed, while explaining the reasoning behind this, said that during rains, water flowing towards the roads from the Khasa Hills — that form a natural border between Orangi Town and Nazimabad — carries a substantial amount of silt, which the project director said could only be cleaned using excavators after the downpour. “So we have left the roof of the drains bare.”

Moreover, he said, cut-off drains have been built in the streets surrounding residential areas that would help slow the speed of the water rushing down. “When the water flows towards the roads at this speed, it leads to erosion,” Irfan added.

This time, the roads have also been constructed on a two per cent slope so that the water can be directed into the drains and eventually exit into the Gujjar Nullah.

“We will close the open drains in the next few weeks or place jersey barriers around uncovered drains to ward off people,” the project managed assured.

On the other hand, the stormwater drains along Shahra-i-Humanyun, which are also along the median of the road, are almost invisible as they are covered. Unlike Shahra-i-Noor Jehan, this road does not have siltation issues and would not need scary excavators to clean the nullahs.

“There is a food street along the road. Therefore, to save space, we have covered the drains and instead provided inlets for the water,” Ahmed told

Apart from the mega plan, Sindh government has launched projects worth Rs10 billion that are also currently under way in District Central.

Sindh government projects in District Central and their revised cost due to inflation
Sindh government projects in District Central and their revised cost due to inflation

According to Deputy Commissioner Taha Saleem, road rehabilitation work worth Rs800 million for the re-carpeting of links and main roads is under way by the Competitive and Liveable City of Karachi (Click) — a government project aimed at improving Karachi’s urban facilities.

Separately, the Karachi Development Authority (KDA) has tendered Rs500 million for road carpeting in several areas of the district, while the District Municipal Corporations (DMC) have been given Rs300 million for rehabilitating roads around mosques and imambargahs.

Money allocated by departments to District Central
Money allocated by departments to District Central

Saleem told that the recent anti-encroachment drives from Namal Bank towards Peoples Chowrangi were conducted to make way for road widening, construction of service roads, and laying stormwater drains. Similarly, the road from Ziauddin Hospital to Mujahid Colony has been cleared of encroachments, on which a Rs500 million project would soon be launched.

“Once completed, the road would help divert traffic and reduce jams,” the DC said.

Furthermore, a 15-foot-wide road alongside the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs is being carpeted, he added.

While the work is in process, however, the upcoming monsoon season — which is getting erratic and unpredictable every year due to climate change — could turn all these “blessings” for the residents into a pain.

Correcting mistakes with absent precautions

Unlike the 2022 disaster, the Central district may not sink this year, but open sewers, uncarpeted roads, and incomplete projects, in lieu of the predicted heavy showers, may prove to be fatal for residents.

Stormwater drains cleaned in North Nazimabad ahead of the rains.
Stormwater drains cleaned in North Nazimabad ahead of the rains.

DC Saleem appears to be nonchalant about these concerns. “The projects are planned to be closed on June 30th and newer ones will be under way soon after; we can’t wait for the monsoon to end or start, if we do, our fund would lapse,” he told with a shrug.

Most of the projects, he continued, had been delayed last year due to government approvals and the impact of inflation, which the commissioner claims affected the prices of raw materials the most.

In contrast to Saleem’s indifference, North Nazimabad Assistant Commissioner Hazim Bangwar was confident that none of the union councils under him would drown this year. “Everything has been done on our end,” he said.

Bangwar claimed that all the clogged drains in the area have been cleared under his watch.

“I used a hydro-jetting machine, which has not been brought to the area in the last 14 years, to clean drains and it helped clear the lines of trash ranging from sandbags to old furniture and everyday trash,” he said. “When the water started flowing, that is when we knew the line is clear.”

Stormwater drains cleaned in North Nazimabad ahead of the rains.
Stormwater drains cleaned in North Nazimabad ahead of the rains.

Bangwar highlighted that during the cleaning process, it came to the fore that in some areas, drainage lines had been connected to the stormwater drains and blamed this on “gross corruption” in the past.

“I have closed all the potholes, cleaned the sewers, and under my watch, no new work or project would commence until the monsoon ends. There is no point in doing the same work twice,” the AC asserted.

A walk down the memory lane

Contrary to popular opinion, architect and planner Arif Hassan believes Karachi is a well-planned city. “Had this not been the case, it wouldn’t have lasted this long despite all these disasters — both manmade and natural.”

So what really went wrong? To understand this, we need to dive into the pensive of long-preserved memories.

The photo from the 1980s shows a bridge in Karachi’s North Nazimabad. — Old Karachi/Facebook
The photo from the 1980s shows a bridge in Karachi’s North Nazimabad. — Old Karachi/Facebook

According to Dr Noman Ahmed, urban planner and chairman of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University, Karachi’s civic agencies — especially the Karachi Development Authority — previously followed the integrated neighbourhood development strategy, in which town planning was done in synergy with other departments.

“They were all well-planned and designed because KDA followed standard provisions in which they provided disposal points to residents, maintained the quality of the roads, and efficiently managed the stormwater drains,” he told

The roads were specifically constructed in view of Karachi’s physical planning prescription. Hence, the width of roads in areas such as North Nazimabad and Federal B Area is wide and the performance of these roads is better compared to the newly-developed societies. The same is the case with stormwater drains.

“But trouble began when these planned neighbourhoods were altered with the construction of high-rise buildings. One-story houses were replaced with giant structures housing hundreds of families,” the urban planner said.

He explained that as the population density of the areas increased, the systems in place slowly became outdated. And when sewerage in these areas surged, the authorities did what is poison for city planning — they connected stormwater drains with sewerage lines. “This altered the entire drainage plan.”

Dr Nauman explained that earlier, the centre of North Nazimabad was planned as one of the finest neighbourhoods in the country. “The stormwater drains would flow without any disruption and fall into the Gujjar nullah. This was done with such precision that roads would never flood.”

Over the years, however, the areas around Orangi and Gujjar nullahs — which were initially low-rise and high-density — became high-density and high-rise and altered the existing path of Karachi’s natural drainage system.

“The original drainage pattern was fairly simple due to its natural slide-like topography. The water flowed down from the north towards the south due to gravity. But gravity only functions when there are no hindrances. Over the years, the rapid construction in these areas has created obstructions, which cause spot inundation,” the planner said.

Construction rubble and solid waste, he continued, was thrown into nullahs which created impediments in the flow of the drains.

“Rising populations, lack of maintenance, and isolated mechanism of road development have led us to where we are today.”

Doing the bare minimum

But even if we put the past aside and focus on the projects currently under way, there is very little that can change the fate of Karachi’s most populated district.

First, over the years, persistent carpeting has increased the level of roads. “Over the years, the height of the roads has risen above that of houses, which enables rainwater to easily accumulate outside residences and sometimes even enter homes,” Dr Nauman explained.

This, he continued, was because road maintenance in all these years was not done in uniformity. Instead of allowing the water to flow like it previously did, the water gets trapped and instead discharges into streets.

Another glaring issue in these areas is that stormwater drains and sewerage lines have been connected, leading to clogging and obstructions.

Nullahs in several areas are clogged with waste.
Nullahs in several areas are clogged with waste.

“As neighbourhoods densify without planning, these problems will continue to emerge because the previous gutters and drains no longer have the capacity to hold the amount of waste — which is tenfold compared to the original plan,” the urban planner told

With the sewerage lines and stormwater drains merged, flooding is imminent because there is no space for disposal. “This is one of the major reasons behind the flooding in Nazimabad and North Nazimabad during the 2022 rains.”

Dr Nauman also lamented the rapid construction of flyovers in the area and said that these “monolithic structures” played the role of dams during heavy rains. Flyovers, he explained, do not have space to allow the water to flow out. “So when the water comes down at a high speed, it erodes the top layer of the roads and leaves behind potholes.

Talking about the several mega projects under way in the city, including the rehabilitation of Central district and the construction of Green Line and Red Line BRTs, Dr Nauman said the pressing issue was that the timeline of these constructions did not include the period of monsoon rains.

“Excavation for these projects, which goes down to several feet, is hazardous for people during rains and can even prove to be fatal,” he warned, suggesting that not jersey but concrete barriers needed to be prominently placed at a reasonable height on the construction site to stop people from falling into ditches and trenches.

Imagining a permanent fix

For once, as part of our wildest dreams, let’s imagine that the government wants to fix all the issues highlighted above once and for all. Is it possible? Yes.

“First and foremost, we need to develop a rain-flooding memory and prepare a directory of areas that have a history of inundation,” Dr Nauman said.

Once you have the list in hand, it would be very easy to highlight vulnerable areas, identify all its issues and work on solutions. Because repeatedly patching up roads with cement and asphalt will only further deteriorate their condition.

Secondly, existing stormwater drains need to be de-silted during the pre-monsoon period so that drains can be utilised to their maximum capacity.

Monster excavators pull out trash from nullahs.
Monster excavators pull out trash from nullahs.

Thirdly, a physical survey of all road levels in the district is required to list down the roads that are an anomaly to stormwater drains and need to be immediately fixed.

Another long-term solution suggested by Dr Nauman involves clumping all the services — such as electricity, gas, and water — underground and connecting them to a concrete box. “So for any kind of maintenance, all you would need to do is open a case and do the repair work.”

But all these measures require the government to revisit its existing design, and believing that it would do so is akin to living in fool’s paradise.

Header image: The main entrance to Shahr-i-Noor Jehan in North Nazimabad. — Photo by authors