Water is precious in Karachi.
For many of its residents, running water is available only sporadically — in some cases, for one or two hours a day, every few weeks or months.
The coastal city has struggled with a water crisis for the past several years — its distribution system is outdated, inadequate and has received bare minimum maintenance over the years. The governance structure is weak and vague, due to which the water is stolen in broad daylight and sold openly.
According to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Corporation (KWSC) — previously KWSB — the entity responsible for the supply and distribution of water in Karachi, the city needs 1,200 million gallons per day (MGD), however, it only receives 550MGD. What’s worse is that over 10 per cent of the 550MGD is lost before it even reaches the end user.
“The infrastructure was built years ago, but it was only operational for two days, never again,” said Asadullah Khan, a resident of Baldia Town, as he dragged a drum of water towards his house.
Despite having a fully developed system, the water flow in the area is non-existent. The main reason, according to residents, is the people at the pumping station who sell the water to water tankers instead of letting it flow in the lines.
One possible solution was the Greater Karachi Water Supply Scheme or K-IV, launched almost two decades ago. Today, the scheme remains a distant dream, with only 10pc of the work having been completed. In the meantime, Karachi’s residents continue to suffer, most of all, those living at the city’s tail end (towards the South) or in newly developed areas — particularly the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), where many neighbourhoods have never received any water supply to homes.
With time, however, the issue has only become worse and even the city’s older, more established neighbourhoods, which previously boasted a running supply of water, have not been spared.
A new predicament for few
“The water issue existed but it was never this severe … it’s been more than three months now that the water from the supply line has completely stopped,” said Ali Khan, a resident of North Nazimabad.
According to Khan, the shortage started in April, earlier this year. At the time, residents didn’t think much of it as the water supply was usually hampered around the time of Eidul Azha every year. Unlike previous years, however, in some areas, the supply has still not resumed.
“We are spending Rs7,000 to Rs8,000 monthly — another expenditure in the already inflated bills,” said the father of four.
Unfortunately, millions of Karachiites share a similar story.
In a survey conducted through social media and by visiting different areas of the city, Dawn.com identified 20 localities where the supply of water has been suspended in the last three years.
“It started in February. At first, we only got 20pc of our usual supply, but now we haven’t received a single drop for weeks,” said Zain, a resident of Gulistan-i-Jauhar Block VII. He added that this was a recent phenomenon and that they had never before experienced water shortage in the neighbourhood.
Nearly 20km south, Fizza Ali, a resident of Punjab Colony, narrated a similar tale: “We get water once every 15 days, for not more than half an hour,” said the 20-year-old student.
The water from the supply line now has a pungent smell which makes it unusable. Some residents who did end up using the water paid heavy consequences.
A young mother, Sara, who lived in the same area, said: “I had to rush my two-year-old to the hospital in the middle of the night.”
Narrating the tale, she said that the doctors, after hours of investigation, told her that the reason behind his ill health was water. Since that day, using tap water has been out of the question for Sara’s family.
The issue has persisted for over a year and despite several complaints to relevant authorities — both appointed and elected — nothing has changed.
At one point, the elected representatives of Karachi took the water shortage issues from their respective areas to the Sindh Assembly. However, they were told by the provincial government that the issue would persist until the completion of the K-IV scheme.
The incomplete great saviour
Of the 550 MDG that the metropolis receives, 50 MGD is stolen, 100 MGD is supplied to industries and 400 MGD is delivered to its customers, explained the CEO of KWSC, Syed Salahuddin Ahmed.
It was against this backdrop that the K-IV scheme was launched around two decades ago as a solution to the city’s water woes. Funded by the federal government and managed by the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), the scheme was supposed to supply the remaining 650 MGD of water needed by the residents of Karachi.
The project itself has been inaugurated multiple times. The latest inauguration was held around five months ago when former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif laid yet another foundational stone of the K-IV.
Over the last two decades since the K-IV scheme was envisaged, the people of Karachi have been made to buy and consume unhealthy, unregulated water. During this time the government designed a — now revised — faulty water path that would first supply water to the influential people of the city before reaching the ordinary.
After much debate, a revised design — albeit with its own faults — was announced by Wapda on Nov 30, 2021, when the Wapda chairman, retired Lt Gen Muzammil Hussain, also announced that the project will be completed in the next two years.
“Some of the path forged for this flow of water is against the gravitational force, which means that the government will have to use pumps — just an added expenditure when things could have been simplified,” explained Dr Syed Nawaz, an urban planner.
Like most promises, this was always meant to be broken. In February earlier this year, during the 10th Provincial Coordination and Implementation Committee (PCIC) meeting, it was reported that only 10pc of the work on phase one of the project had been completed, using the released amount of Rs23.1 billion. To continue the work, the Government of Sindh asked the federal government to release more funds — this time a handsome Rs45bn.
In August this year, former interim finance minister of Sindh, Muhammad Younus Dagha informed a meeting that the provincial government had decided to approach the federal government for the release of Rs25bn to meet ongoing expenditures for the K-IV.
Speaking to Dawn.com Dagha said that the Planning Commission’s deputy chairman told him last month that he would prioritise the project during the quarterly review in October 2023.
Not everyone is optimistic though. The CEO of KWSC does not see the project being completed even in the next five years.
“The project requires Rs80bn this year, but they have only been given less than half the required funds. If they don’t get the required capital, how will they complete it?” Salahuddin questioned.
He said that if the funds are allocated at the same pace, the project will take five years to complete at the current estimated cost of Rs200bn. However, with delays and skyrocketing inflation, the estimated cost can rise to Rs300bn by the time of completion.
While the government debates and delays the project which could potentially solve Karachi’s water crisis, the citizens after years of waiting, complaining and pleading have turned to alternative sources of water.
Alternative solution — Shallow wells
Karachi’s population and its density has grown rapidly in the past few years. Naturally, the need for housing has also increased. However, the city has grown more vertically than horizontally. This has left the civic infrastructure of the city in a state of shambles.
“Karachi’s water supply lines were built for residential areas. They were never there to cater to portions and buildings,” said Farooq Fazal, a civil engineer.
Areas like PECHS, Nazimabad, and Federal B Area were once well-designed residential areas. A 300-square-yard house was meant to accommodate 10-12 people. However, many owners turned their houses into portions or small buildings, despite the presence of laws that forbade it. Today, the same 300 square yard space, on average, accommodates about 20-25 people.
This led to an increase in the demand for water, which the ageing and crippling water supply infrastructure of Karachi could not handle, causing leakage from damaged supply lines and abrupt water supply disruptions.
To solve their water crisis, people turned to shallow wells — commonly known as boring — where water-retaining sandy soil is found near the surface. Shallow wells are four to six inches in diameter and installed with a small suction pump that draws water at a rate of eight to10 gallons per minute. Thousands of such wells are operating in Karachi.
“We got a shallow well for our building two years ago. The water from the supply line was never enough to fulfill our needs,” said Anwar Durvesh of PECHS Block III.
Over in Garden East, Erika Bronshin shared a similar story: “We started using water from shallow wells a few years back when the water levels dropped. The water from the well is clean, never muddy or salty.”
The demand for well water is increasing with each passing day. Almost every building in these areas has one boring through which water is supplied to its occupants.
A similar phenomenon exists in the west of Karachi.
Talking to Dawn.com, residents of Baldia Town no. 5 said that the water lines only receive water once every three months for an hour. Since most residents are unable to afford shallow wells, others who can afford them have stepped up to help. They donate water from their wells on a daily basis.
“I come here to drop off my water drum in the morning and take the filled can back after five hours of waiting — but it’s free,” said Shahida Memon, a resident of Gujrat colony, Baldia Town No. 5.
Memon added that the water she gets can only be used for washing and cleaning, not for drinking purposes.
Not everyone is helpful though; some residents sell the water at a rate of Rs1,800 for a 5,000-litre water tank.
What people using this water fail to realise is that the water contains bacteria and germs in huge proportions, making it unsafe for human consumption. Untreated subsoil water can also give rise to a number of ailments ranging from minor skin diseases to more serious ones such as typhoid and hepatitis.
The popularity of small wells is also causing the groundwater table to recede at a rapid pace.
“We used to find water 30-40 feet below the ground. Now it’s at 200 feet, sometimes even 500 feet,” said Farooq.
There are also several illegal subsoil hydrants along the banks of the Malir and Lyari Rivers. The subsoil water is also being pumped up through hundreds of wells, and poured into water tanks that are subsequently distributed to unsuspecting citizens or used by industries within the SITE area.
Since the water is crystal clear and has no taste or odour, the only way to detect is through a salt testing device called TDS (total dissolved salt) metre. These digital metres are handy and available at scientific stores. One can just fill a glass and dip the pencil-type meter in it.
“Anything above 300 ppm (parts of salt per million parts of water) is tubewell water and must be rejected,” Farooq warned.
The unregulated consumption of groundwater by residents, factories and illegal hydrant owners is causing the groundwater level to recede at an unnatural pace which will have disastrous consequences for the city’s environment.
Political control of one over all water
While these wells have become a popular solution, some residents chose a different route. An area in central Karachi secured its water supply when an elected representative took matters into his own hands.
The Federal Capital Area (FC Area) is a federal territory that is home to active government employees. The water supply of the area is managed by the Pakistan Public Works Department (PWD) that receives water from the KWSC hydrant. Utility bills such as water are deducted from the employees’ monthly salaries.
An employee of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), Irfan Ali, has been a resident of the FC area for over two decades.
“When I first came here in 1992, we used to get water daily, then it reduced to weekly and then monthly. But in the past 10 years, the water has been completely cut off,” said Irfan.
Irfan added that a few years ago, new pipelines and connections were installed in the houses, but the issue of water supply never got resolved. Whenever residents complain about the issue, officials say that “the lineman is not here” or “water has not come from the source”.
Disheartened from hearing similar excuses time and again, Irfan and his family switched to using water from RO plants for drinking and a shallow well for washing and cleaning.
“The water problem in this area began in 2005 when KWSB disconnected the water line of the public works department over non-payment of dues,” said Mumtaz Wahab, a retired government employee and resident of FC area.
Wahab recounted that after the closure of water supply, some residents started digging wells in their houses. Meanwhile, others greased the palms of pipeline operators and KWSB officials to restore the flow of water.
“A few years back, MPA Kanwar Naveed Jamil, after tiresome efforts, was able to get a four-inch water pipeline from KWSB for the area,” Wahab said with adoration.
“The residents of the area wanted the water line to supply water to the Public Works Department of the area so that water could be distributed to all residents equally,” he added.
However, the water line was dropped at tank one, a station located less than a kilometre away from the PWD pumping station, due to the influence of close aides and the MPA’s personal assistant. Hence, now the PWD’s main office has to request water from the tank so it can supply water to more than half the residents of the area.
Talking to Dawn.com, PWD officials present inside the office said that the station has not received any funding in the last two years due to which they have been unable to repair the pumps or do any maintenance work on the pipelines.
Some residents like Shamim Fakhri, who has spent his entire life in the residential area, have stood up to make things better for everyone.
“I have spent Rs80,000 of my own to help repair the damaged pumps of the Public Works Department station and that’s the reason we get water once a week,” said Fakhri.
After that, Fakhri has helped PDW repair lines with his own money several times. Now, he collects donations from people to fund the often-needed repair expenses.
When Dawn.com spoke to the CEO of KWSC about the issue, he said that he was not aware of the situation but would look into the details.
While the departments fight over the payments of water bills, the residents of FC area who pay the bill every month suffer from water scarcity.
And even as the charity and dedication of residents like Shamim Fakhri should be appreciated, it should also be noted that this is a failure of the federal government authorities.
“Why can’t the federal government give PWD appropriate funds to do maintenance work?” questioned Fakhri.
Will the impending reforms be a solution?
In a historic move in July 2023 — apparently against the suggestion of many political bigwigs, — the Karachi Water and Sewerage Corporation Act, 2023 was passed through the provincial assembly.
This is seen as a key factor in ensuring the success of the Karachi Water and Sewage Services Improvement Project (KWSSIP). The 12-year project, with funding of $1.6bn, was launched in 2020 by the World Bank, which is providing 40pc of the cost through loans. Another 40pc is provided as a loan by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while the remaining amount is being covered by the Sindh government.
The project is divided into four phases — the first costing $100m, comprising managerial and operational changes of the department. The project is moving into its second phase — costing $600m and will be inaugurated in 2024. This comprises an overhaul of the water infrastructure.
As per the previous law, the water utility was functioning as an extended department of the Sindh government. However, the new law, despite having substantial government influence, has given the water utility some operational autonomy.
The law grants the KWSC the authority to subcontract water supply, sewage maintenance, and related services, encompassing communications, complaint management, and user fee recovery, to all consumers in low-income areas and Katchi Abadis.
“Currently, Rs50bn revenue of the water board has to be recovered, Rs38bn from people and Rs12bn from bulk consumers [such as Pakistan Steel Mills which owes Rs7.9bn],” said Salahuddin.
He added that with the help of this new legislation, he will be able to outsource the work of recovery through agents. The agents will then be paid off through the same liabilities.
The city mayor will be the chairperson of the KWSC board and in the absence of the mayor, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation administrator would serve as the chairperson.
The board will also have seven ex-officio members — the commissioner or his nominee, local government secretary or his nominee, finance secretary or his nominee, planning and development secretary or his nominee, director-general of Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority and the chief executive officer of the corporation.
There will also be six non-official members with technical expertise in different fields on the board.
“The presence of civil society and technical experts, despite them not having any power, will have a positive impact, as it will help bring transparency in the operations,” said academic and researcher, Dr Noman Ahmed.
“With this law, we will digitise the whole system, the crew will be monitored, the tanks will be tracked, and there will be geo-fencing and barcodes. Everything will be controlled through the central operations room and all data will be collected,” said the KWSC CEO.
Until the digitised system becomes operational, the manual system will continue whose incompetence has allowed the ‘water mafia’ — men who control the water taps that supply water in the lines — to prevail in the city.
“There is not a single water board official who would be able to tell you, with certainty, how many end users of a water pipeline have received water and how many haven’t,” said Dr Ahmed.
“The Act looks good on paper; it’s progressive and provides solutions to several previous complaints of the authority,” he remarked. “However, we will only be able to see its impact on the ground with time.” If the Act works as it is supposed to, the water corporation should be able to become self-reliant.
Through loans and taxpayer money, millions of dollars are being poured into the water utility projects to make it ‘better’. Only time will tell how successful it is in addressing the water scarcity issues of the city.
Meanwhile, for common citizens like Asadullah, conditions remain the same. The only choice they have is to buy water or to consume unsafe water from shallow wells.
Additional reporting by Abdul Sattar