The Nature of The Issue:
August 2020 saw massive flash flooding in Karachi, with 40 lives lost (Ahmed Ahsan, Unraveling the Urban Flood, Dawn, Sept 2020), streets inundated with dangerous, rapidly moving, deep water; landslides; collapsing houses and complete inundation of neighborhoods with stagnant water for days. Government officials made excuses for the administrative disaster, citing unprecedented rainfall this monsoon season. However, anything above 50mm to 70mm of rainfall within an hour causes urban flooding in Karachi (Sardar Sarfaraz, Pakistan Meteorological Department Karachi Head, Third Pole). At the status quo, Karachi will continue to be vulnerable to flash flooding with even a basic level of rainfall every monsoon season.
Urban flooding in Karachi is caused primarily due to three major factors involving a number of government, private sector and individual stakeholders. The main reasons include, (i) encroachment on stormwater drains due to officially mandated but completely illegal authorisation of construction, (ii) Waste dumping into stormwater drains (iii) lack of urban planning in the absence of a single, updated land use map.
A lack of affordable housing policy to accommodate Karachi’s burgeoning population resulted in the aggressive, illegal growth of informal kachi abadi settlements established in collusion with government officials. These kachi abadis are created alongside nullahs with municipal waste bought from KMC by contractors who are further selling the land on to buyers. This issue of illegal reclamation isn’t isolated to the informal sector alone, with posh housing also existing on similar illegally reclaimed land near the sea. Moreover, the illegal reclamation of shallow backwaters that harbour mangroves results in erosion of Karachi’s indigenous drainage system, as the mangroves act as a natural buffer to urban flooding.
A lack of cohesive urban planning policy and absence of a single, updated land-use map also play into the issue. Urban development plans are devoid of community participation and reflect a lack of input by urban planning experts. One such example is the Mai Kolachi bypass constructed directly over Karachi’s mangrove backwaters, drastically reducing their area and leaving Karachi vulnerable to urban flooding. Illegal encroachments surrounding the backwaters exacerbate the issue by shrinking the area further. An absence of urban development plans, mounting pressure for commercial space and lack of due diligence by Sindh Building Control Authority in granting building permits has led to constructions over existing storm-drains. Urdu Bazaar and Tyre market, for example, are commercial developments built over nullahs (Arif Hassan, Why Karachi Floods, Dawn, 2020).
Rapid growth of informal settlements due to an explosion in Karachi’s population combined with lack of urban planning has caused major shortfalls in the sewage system. Sewage and trash waste is deposited in stormwater drains, severely choking the remaining nullahs that have not already been constructed over. The city does not possess the capacity to properly and systematically collect the sheer volume of waste generated by its population. The portion of the waste that is collected is expensive and laborious to transport to one of Karachi’s 2 landfills in the outskirts of the city, resulting in waste deposited in various nullahs and roadsides along the way, thereby further limiting the capacity of the already choked drainage system.
Policy Recommendation & Citizens’ Demands:
Any long-term, systemic solution to the urban flooding issue needs to involve a single, updated land use map; a cohesive urban development policy implemented in unison amongst various concerned government departments; expansion and improvement of the sewage system; regulation of encroachments for commercial and housing purposes; and finally, an efficient waste management system.
In the matter of waste disposal, there needs to be (i) immediate expansion of Sindh Water and Sewage Board’s capacity to collect and transport waste; (ii) implementation of a waste sorting system within the city in order to reduce the volume of waste taken to the landfills (this can be done in potential partnership with the private sector); (iii) Expansion and development of the sewage system to reduce dumping of sewage and waste in nullahs; (iv) a complete, rigorously enforced ban on plastic bag usage contributing heavily to clogging of nullahs.
An updated land-use map and daily mapping practice should aid in ensuring a ratio of soiled / open space to concrete space, as well as prevention of encroachment on nullahs and ocean backwaters which are essential to preventing urban flooding. Karachi’s urban development plan should involve community participation by relevant experts in the field. This would ensure environmental considerations and urban planning best practices to be taken into account. The Orangi Pilot Project serves as a successful example of a housing and community project done in collaboration with the community. Important lessons can be drawn from its development plans and implemented city-wide.
In order for there to be an end to illegal land reclamation in collusion with KMC officials, the concerned officials should be held accountable for allowing encroachments being built in the first place and for selling municipal waste to land developers for reclamation of land from the sea as well as around nullahs. This can be done by imposing heavy fines/charges on the concerned officials each time a demolition is ordered. In addition, homes and businesses should be fairly compensated and relocated within the same locality. Government authorities should not discriminate when launching demolition drives and if any demolitions are at all necessary, they should equally extend to all areas, including encroachments by Government authorities. They should not be limited to low-income settlements and businesses alone so the effects of countering illegal encroachment are not disproportionately felt by the impoverished. The Sindh Government owns significant areas of land within and outside Karachi which can be used for a relocation program.
PILAP’s Work on Relevant RTI’s:
With no cohesive governing authority overseeing finances and administration in Karachi, the citizens continue to witness the blame-game that is a quintessential feature of Karachi’s politics. The Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan mandates to hold accountable all government organizations who are party to this issue.
PILAP has issued RTI (Right to Information) applications under the Right of Access to Information Act 2017 and the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act, 2016 to the relevant government agencies. The aim of these RTIs is to hold public bodies accountable for mismanagement, malpractice and/or corruption. RTI’s have been issued to Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC), Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC), Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), and the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), requesting information regarding how they have fulfilled their respective mandates with regards to urban flooding in Karachi.