Karachi Flooding and the Infrastructural Mayhem

Outdated drainage systems, inadequate waste management and rampant negligence have led to a catastrophic situation

Karachi Flooding and the Infrastructural Mayhem
Karachi Flooding and the Infrastructural Mayhem
Namra Khalid
March 15, 2023

Days, even weeks after rain, water stands stagnant all around Karachi. If you are lucky, you find only a few centimeters on your commute; if not, you might have to navigate through a series of knee-deep puddles - micro lakes. This water, unfortunately, is a perfect haven for breeding dengue mosquitoes, diseases like cholera, and faulty wires carrying electrocuting currents.

A viral video on social media shows what looks like a tractor attempting to plough water? The earthmover struggles back and forth to collect brown water from the street and pour it into an already leaking truck’s cargo bed. Such are the rain-coping mechanisms in Karachi, officially the 12th most populous city in the world.  

1.1 | Truck and Tractor attempting to clear rain water in Karachi: Are they trying to contain a micro lake in a truck? What will they do with this water? One wonders.

With PAF Masroor Regional Meteorological Centre having already received over 817 millimeters of rain (total would include +12 days TR* data) by the 311th day of 2022, Karachi was expected to experience approximately 1000 mm of rainfall this year, surpassing all its previous documented records. This is almost 1.5 times the last highest of 713 mm in 1967. 

This extent of precipitation might be new to the area but is nothing unprecedented in the global urban scape. Metropolises like Lahore, Chittagong, Delhi, London, and New York encounter much more wet weather. Yet, systems continue operations, homes are not destroyed, and mortalities remain unheard. Karachi, however, resorts towards hibernation. Opposed to the latter, the former five have unblocked well functioning water evacuation channels each. This can be credited as the primary reason for their rain management successes. 

1.2 | Karachi's Elevation & The Flow of Water: Screen Recording - Google Earth Pro 2022 (Landsat). Karachi's topography lowers as it moves North to South, being less than a meter above sea level at the coast near the sea. The water flow naturally follows the same pattern downstream.

Rainwater flows from high ground to low ground, not unlike Newton's gravitational apple. It streams down, seeking passages to gush off until finally evacuating into the sea. Before mass settlement, rain would collect into thousands of mini nalas (storm/rainwater drains) across Kolachi-jo-Kun's (then name of Karachi) terrain. From there water would feed into the 64 larger nalas (still existing and many more unknown underground) below, whose catchment areas would then empty into the Malir River, Lyari River, and Boat Basin Backwaters, before finally reaching the Arabian Sea. Today, this natural flow has been obstructed at high, middle, and low levels through human development, sprawl, and densification.

Post-1947 partition, Karachi went through an influx of muhajirs - an instant population. There was a pressing need for accommodation; fast and quick. Attaining a roof over the head was the top priority; there was no time to plan. Designing with the understanding of nalas and other physiographic features was completely discounted. People built wherever they could, however they could. This lack of planning led to haphazard development and construction, with buildings erected anywhere they could be housed, regardless of their impact on the city's drainage system.

1.3 | OPP and Perween Rahman’s Conceptual Drainage Map: Map shows the natural flow of water from nalas to rivers and backwaters to the sea. Perween Rahman had a deep understanding of Karachi's deteriorating water system. One of her key works was the study of nalas and drains and through which channels Karachi's sewerage and industrial waste gets directly disposed into the sea.

Following the annual Karachi floods, katchi abadi encroachments on nalas are consistently criticized for decreasing water path capacities. Continually, mass demolitions are rushedly ordered after monsoons. Where squatters on Gujjar Nala are demolished, bungalows on Nehr-e-Khayam remain untouched. The unequal enforcement of these demolitions belies the wider issue at hand. Though elite colonies, roads, car parks, and mosques have also equally encroached upon nalas and contributed to the degradation of the drainage infrastructure. This extensive filling of nalas have caused them to camouflage fully into their surroundings, becoming almost impossible to distinguish. Orangi Pilot Project and Perween Rahman’s ‘Conceptual Drainage Map’ holds immense importance as it attempts to locate even those nalas that are no longer visible.

In 1957, Karachi Development Authority (KDA) was established to manage urban planning in the city. The KDA's original plans included provisions for separate systems to manage the flow of the manmade sewage and the natural nalas. Katchi abadis, however, fell outside of their jurisdiction and were not subject to regulations.. Hence the authority played no part in providing sewage infrastructure to the sector which now constitutes over sixty-two percent of the city's population. When there was no sewage system nearby, the inhabitants were forced to figure out ways to remove their own waste. Nalas were an already present drainage system that could perform the task. Hence began the redirection jugadh. By the mid-1970s, this had become the norm, an easy way out. Rather than creating a sewage system for the katchi abadis, the formal sector also began adopting the informal model. 

Unsurprisingly, the word nala became synonymous with gutter or sewage drains. but this was never its intended purpose. Nalas are natural open trenches that are supposed to contain and carry rainwater from the surface until it is released into larger water bodies. On the other hand, sewage drains are supposedly covered channels to carry contaminated wastewater to treatment plants to be cleaned before being transferred into larger water bodies - in Karachi’s case the sea. 

The uncleared sewage unloading in the nalas gradually solidifies, creating a dense sludge. Since landfills have not been made at close distances and there are no routine garbage collection procedures in place, residents tend to dump trash into nearby nalas. Unfiltered contaminants from Karachi's six main industrial sites are also poured into the same. This nala-sewage mixup becomes a source of nauseating stench on regular days and much worse on rainy days. Together the slush and silt end up blocking most waterways. Due to this, water is unable to evacuate at a rainfall equivalent speed, during peak monsoons. This leads to an overflow and an outpour of the filth rain mixture, locally known as “gutter ka ubalna.”  

1.4 | Karachi - Land Reclamation - Now & Then: The coastal areas of Karachi; District South and Clifton Cantonment have gone through the most alarming amount of land reclamation. 

Land reclamation is the practice of creating new land by filling low-lying water bodies to raise their elevation. In 1882, the British began this process in Karachi by transforming natural swamps into the Clifton and nearby Bath Island areas - as the name suggests it was once actually an island. The creation of the harbor helped establish Karachi as the largest grain exporter of the British Empire and the quickest route from the Asian part of the empire to the Suez Canal. However, this undertaking was not accompanied by ecological or environmental considerations.

This lack of oversight persisted post-partition, with both formal and informal sectors proceeding without proper infrastructural considerations. For example, the construction of DHA Phase 8 has narrowed the mouth of the seasonal Malir River, leading to increased risk of urban flooding during high water seasons. Additionally, the Mai Kolachi Bypass, built where backwaters previously existed. This has led to a decrease in the area available for mangroves to flourish and for fish and shrimp to breed, thereby increasing the risk of erosion and coastal damage from natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis.

The land in this area has been reclaimed by adding layers of soil, garbage, clay, heavy rocks, and cement on top of what was once the sea. As a result, the likelihood of sea water infiltration, where sea water comes from beneath the ground, is extremely high. This can be observed when building house foundations or basements in DHA, as water may gush through.

Coastal katchi abadis, such as Machar Colony, are becoming increasingly overcrowded over time. Since they only have limited space to expand within the inner city, they are resorting to reclaiming land from the sea. This process is often unofficial and carried out without proper equipment or techniques by community members, resulting in an unstable base and land subsidence.

Karachi is facing a crisis of epic proportions as it struggles to deal with massive urban flooding wreaking havoc due to a multitude of infrastructural issues. Outdated drainage systems, inadequate waste management, and rampant negligence have led to a catastrophic situation that demands urgent attention. As climate change intensifies this dire situation, the need for immediate action cannot be overstated.

Stay tuned for our upcoming folio, 'Drowning City: Karachi's Urban Flooding - a Bigger Disaster in Making' by Namra Khalid and Ghasharib Shoukat, where we will delve deeper into more causes of this crisis!

About Namra Khalid

Namra Khalid is an architectural designer turned urban researcher and activist. Her work strives to create socio-climatic justice in the most vulnerable communities of Karachi and beyond. She is the founder and principal of Karachi Cartography. For this, she was selected as one of the World Around's 25 under and 25 climate designers 2023, by Meta. She is also co-founder of Tabahi Naqsha, a real-time disaster information-sharing system under development, that aims to accelerate humanitarian response in Pakistan. 

Email: khalid.namra@gmail.com
Twitter: @khalid_namra | Instagram: @karachicartography

Karachi Flooding and the Infrastructural Mayhem

Namra Khalid is an architectural designer turned urban researcher and activist and strives to create socio-climatic justice in Karachi.

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