Pakistan’s sprawling Karachi ‘broken’ by monsoon floods

Record rains inundated Pakistan’s largest city, paralysing city authorities as people were left to fend for themselves.

Karachi floods [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]
For the city's urban poor, the situation has been worse [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]

Karachi/Islamabad, Pakistan – For Shahzad Ahmed, there was no time to think.

“The windows broke and the door caved in, that’s how intense the water pressure was,” he said of the first night of torrential monsoon rain in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, last week.

“We didn’t even try to take the water out of the house. I just tied my rickshaw [to a pole] as tightly as I could and my family and I [got on] the rooftop.”

Ahmed, his wife and children spent more than 10 hours on that roof, in the pouring rain, as Karachi saw more than 230mm of rainfall in less than 12 hours, the most ever recorded, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

This year, Pakistan has seen some of the most intense monsoon rains in years, with more than 189 people killed and thousands of homes washed away in flooding across the country, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) (PDF).

We used to have clean drinking water, but we haven’t had any since the rain started.

by Azhar Abbas, a shopkeeper

Karachi, a sprawling metropolis of more than 20 million people, was one of the worst-hit by the urban flooding. Streets turned to rivers, as the sheer volume of water quickly overloaded the city’s dilapidated and ill-maintained drainage systems.

In Ahmed’s working-class neighbourhood of Yousuf Goth, a video taken after the rains showed water flowing through the streets, mixing with sewage and solid waste, as residents waded through it to salvage what they can from their homes.

“What we need most right now is clean drinking water and vegetables. You can’t make a meal out of oil or just packets [of dry food],” said Azhar Abbas, a shopkeeper in the same neighbourhood.

Muhammad Rashid, 29, a construction worker, said his family was trapped at home, but he had to wade through the sewage periodically to try and find drinking water.

Karachi floods [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]
Shehzad Ansari’s aluminium door and window frame shop was inundated by the floods, and ‘everything was destroyed’, he says [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera] 

“The only thing I left the house for was water,” he said. “We slept without food on the first night. We were safe on our roof, but I kept leaving in the five feet of water just to get [drinking] water.”

The city’s main thoroughfares did not cope much better, submerged under several feet of water, leaving cars stranded or washed away in the flow. Desperate residents took to contracting agricultural tractors to try and winch their vehicles out.

Electricity supply across the city failed, or was pre-emptively cut, almost immediately, as the city’s main utility company reported its substations were being flooded. The pre-emptive cuts were aimed at limiting deaths due to electrocution if exposed wires were to come into contact with water in the streets.

Right now, it's like kicking a dead horse. They just don't have the capacity for it.

by Farhan Anwar, urban planner

At least six people died as a result of such electrocutions, hospital officials told Al Jazeera.

Ahmed said he had to take the risk to move his family after 48 hours spent on their rooftop without electricity, water or natural gas to cook with.

“I was worried about the [electricity] current in the waters, but when the choice is between certain death by starvation or possibly electrocution, what could I do?”

‘Governance system failure’

As the rains now begin to subside, the hard work of cleaning up the debris and rebuilding will begin. In a city as divided and administratively “broken” as Karachi, however, urban planners and researchers said that will be easier said than done.

“It is an overall governance system failure,” said Farhan Anwar, an urban planner and faculty member at Karachi’s Habib University. “You can’t isolate a particular cause for it [because] we have, over the years, allowed the city to develop and grow without planning or regulation or a framework.”

Anwar said the city was “on its knees” after the rains, and that its institutions, plagued by decades of mismanagement, a lack of planning and political contestation, simply do not have the capacity to deal with the situation.

Karachi floods [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]
‘I haven’t seen any patients at my clinic since it started to rain,’ said Arif Javed, a herbalist doctor standing amid the wreckage of his store [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]

“These institutions of governance that are responsible for maintaining services, whether it is water, solid waste management, land, transportation or sewage, they are all totally bankrupt,” he said.

“Right now, it’s like kicking a dead horse. They just don’t have the capacity for it.”

One of the reasons for this, Anwar and others told Al Jazeera, is the complex nature of Karachi’s administrative setup. The city is administered by more than a dozen land-owning civic agencies, all of which work independently and are not beholden to a single set of policies.

The city has a mayor, elected in 2016, but he said he only controls 12 percent of the city’s overall area.

A lot of people have lost everything, a lot of their saving and investment was in the form of their appliances or furniture

by Haris Gazdar, researcher

The rest of the city is managed by a mix of federal and provincial government-controlled landholding bodies, cooperative housing societies, the port authority, the railways department, industrial area authorities and military-run cantonments (PDF).

This situation, Anwar argued, has “straitjacketed” growth and development in Karachi.

“Various agencies have control over resources and management and there is no collaboration or coordination between them … Everyone is on their own.”

As political parties play out their contestations over civic institutions, analysts said, it has left most bankrupt.

“The confrontation between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement over the years has resulted in a tug of war that is played out within these institutions,” said Anwar.

Nazish Brohi, a social sector researcher, says Karachi’s history of violence – it was the site of brutal political violence through the 1990s and again from 2008 onwards – means there is a high price associated with any kind of reform.

“Because Karachi has been so volatile, in terms of conflict and violence in the past, no one wants to disturb the equilibrium,” she said. “The minute someone intervenes, there is fear of a conflagration.”

In 2012, Karachi was the world’s most dangerous megacity, with a homicide rate far higher than any other city of its size, as the battle for power in the city, rooted in ethnic and identity-based politics, played itself out on the city’s streets.

Karachi floods [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera]
This year, Pakistan has seen some of the most intense monsoon rains in years, with more than 189 people killed [Aysha Imtiaz/Al Jazeera] 

A military operation targeting the MQM party, which was held responsible for much of the violence, has since reduced the number of violent deaths in the city considerably, although critics said the operation itself involved a large number of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The scars of that violence can affect everything, even the rebuilding of the city’s drainage system, argues Brohi. She gives the example of the need to clear the city’s drainage channels of illegally built structures that have blocked them.

“The drainage channels are choked right now, and those encroachments obviously need to be cleared,” she said. “But when the city is undergirded by an ethnic grid, then questions of which drainage channel you touch first can lead to a conflagration.”

The worst-hit area

One of the largest landholding bodies in Karachi is the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), a civic authority run by the country’s powerful military that controls 5 percent of urban Karachi’s land (PDF).

This week, hundreds of residents protested outside the offices DHA’s sister body, the Clifton Cantonment Board (CCB), demanding authorities do more to drain water that had been standing in their streets and homes for days.

In a statement, DHA said its staff was “working round the clock to bring life back to normal”, adding that it would work with the protesters to address the concerns of residents.

Monsoon rains in Karachi
The impact of the floods is also continuing for many, as their livelihoods or businesses have been decimated by the water [Muhammad Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu]

A day later, it also registered police charges against protest organisers for “rioting [while] armed with a deadly weapon” at the angry, but peaceful protest.

The area, one of the richest in Karachi, was surprisingly some of the worst-hit, with many neighbourhoods remaining inundated a week after the worst of the rains. Video footage shared with Al Jazeera showed residents complaining of flooded roads and basements, with many forced to sleep on rooftops on in stairwells.

For the city’s urban poor, the situation has been even worse.

“A lot of people have lost everything, a lot of their saving and investment was in the form of their appliances or furniture,” said Haris Gazdar, senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research. “And if you are even poorer than that, you have no assets other than maybe your [food] ration that you had stored up.”

“We live from hand to mouth and it was the end of the month,” says Kulsoom Bibi, a housekeeper in the Mehmoodabad neighbourhood. “For two days, neither my sister nor I could get out because to [leave] the … tunnel was filled to the brim.”

The impact of the floods is also continuing for many, as their livelihoods or businesses have been decimated by the water.

“How will patients reach me? They can’t. I haven’t seen any patients at my clinic since it started to rain,” said Arif Javed, a herbalist doctor standing amidst the wreckage of his store.

Azhar Abbas, a shopkeeper, returned home after having moved to a relative’s home in a drier neighbourhood for a few days.

“It’s been 12 days since we had proper electricity,” he said. “We used to have clean drinking water, but we haven’t had any since the rain started.”

Climate change

On Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan directed authorities to prepare a plan within a week to reform Karachi’s administrative systems.

Experts, however, scoffed at the idea that anything will change on the ground unless the underlying political contestation and other issues are not addressed.

“It’s not that the city has not been planned for,” said Anwar, the urban planner. “There are so many plans, so many master plans, it’s just a matter of implementation and political consensus existing, and a level of sincerity of how you want to do it.”

For Gazdar, fixing Karachi’s problems goes beyond bureaucratic reshuffles – it requires both a fundamental reorganisation of administrative authority, and a clear focus on climate change.

“Flooding happens everywhere, even in cities in very advanced countries – they also suffer flooding and droughts and fires and so on,” he said.

“A lot of it is a failure to detect what the planet is trying to tell us. If you look at a global picture of the planet, [this is] a failure of the way we live our lives.”

In recent years, Karachi, and the Sindh province of which it is a part, has seen increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, leading to periods of drought and flood, and rainfall intensity changes that have badly affected agricultural practices that have stood in place for centuries.

Asked if he believes any of this will change, however, Gazdar laughs.

“What will happen in the coming weeks is that some other issue will take the spotlight,” he says. “Seven days is a nice period of time, because on the seventh day something else would have happened somewhere else in the country, and that needs another seven days, and before you know it another 70 years will go by.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera