The ordeal that residents of Pakistan’s coastal megacity face is not only due to climate change but also deplorable urban planning.
“When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You're a thousand minds, within a flash.”
- Here Comes The Flood, Peter Gabriel
Rishad Mahmood, 59, is a journalist with a career that spans 30 years. He has gone through many evolutions and done it all – sports, current affairs, newspaper and digital. However, he never envisioned himself becoming the story, a part of the reporting statistic, and a victim as well as survivor. All thanks to recurring floods in Karachi, the federal capital of Pakistan until 1958, and now the country’s economic and social lifeblood.
Since 1992, the megacity on the coast of the Arabian Sea has increasingly become vulnerable to urban flooding due to climate change, exponential population growth and sprawling yet unplanned urban infrastructure. Recurring floods have disrupted normal life and caused irreparable damage to the city. Rishad’s family home in one of Karachi’s oldest, nicest and poshest localities has bore the brunt of it all.
In 2020, Pakistan ranked the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change, according to think-tank Germanwatch. The country’s climate vulnerability is further amplified by lack of planned urban development, economic and political instability, record rural to urban migration and systemic corruption.
Climate change: An inheritance of generational loss
Rishad and his family live in Pakistan Employees’ Cooperative Housing Society (PECHS) located in the city’s East. It was founded in 1950, three years after Pakistan was founded by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The family has experienced disruption and loss by climate change and inefficient urban planning first hand and recurrently. PECHS is a decidedly coveted area to live in till today and Rishad’s story shows that even those with means can fall prey to the perils of climate change – it is coming for us all, eventually.
PECHS as well as the greater city of Karachi was steadily populated by what is referred as the “Urdu speaking” or Muhajir (immigrant) community, Muslims immigrating from India to Pakistan post-partition. Rishad’s ancestry is Muhajir as well. His father served in the army and mother was an Urdu teacher, both holding esteemed roles in public office. But with public sector salaries, they had to dutifully save to build a life and home in Pakistan. In 1972, Rishad’s parents finally built a house they could call home and the Mahmoods’ have been living there since. “My father was crazy about gardening; it was his passion. Our house is spread over 1,000 yards and he ensured that half the plot was a garden,” said Rishad.
Rishad showed me photographs from the garden a few years ago, which had the indelible stamp of the delicate and meticulous touch of his father’s green thumb. Though his father passed away in 2003, the seeds he so lovingly sowed, the plants, flowers and trees he so meticulously tended were apparent in the lush bloom of the garden.
Unfortunately, though, the Mahmoods’ garden is now a shadow of its former self. The incessant rains and water-logging from the floods has made the once fertile soil near barren. The mighty 30-year-old coconut and shahtoot (mulberry) trees have limped to the ground.
The garden is not the only untimely casualty to climate change and unchecked urban planning. The Mahmoods have lost everything that was passed from one generation to another –appliances, furniture, children’s toys, clothes, documents, priceless photo albums and books.
In 2021, Karachi witnessed Pakistan’s most deadly flood and torrential rain in the past 89 years. After it caused havoc in Mahmoods’ residence, the family decided to sell their family home with a heavy heart.
“I wouldn’t have imagined even giving this house up, but the mental torture and losses are becoming unbearable. Every year, we live in fear of what is to come and how much destruction will happen,” said Rishad.
In August 2020, Karachi was soaked under knee-deep water, resulting in the loss of lives, mounting property loss and triggering massive electricity failures. A state of emergency was declared in the province as choked drains overflowed city roads, flooding cars and people, bringing the bustling metropolis to a complete standstill. The city recorded a whopping 300 to 400 times more than average rainfall for the month[i].
According to the National Disaster Management Authority, 184 people died in Pakistan due to rain-related incidents. A total of 80 deaths were reported in Sindh province out of which Karachi alone had a toll of 47. These deaths were caused by either by drowning, electrocution or collapsing roofs. In total, Karachi received 604 mm of rainfall in the month of August, making it the wettest August in almost a century.[ii]
The Mahmoods – Rishad, his wife, two twin daughters, his brother, sister-in-law and nieces and nephews – rushed to vacate their residence when the devastating rains and flood hit them. “The water level inside the house was around five and a half feet, ruining our LCD TV. The devastation was so quick that we knew there was not much we could save. We just evacuated the home and went to my in laws. That’s just the procedure we follow now because we know we can’t save everything,” said Rishad.
While the family slowly recuperates the material losses of appliances, furniture, toys, clothes and trinkets, losses of important documents and certificates are difficult or at times impossible to replace. They make arduous rounds of universities, government offices and previous employers. “We lost our professional documents and university degrees in the flood of 2017. We are still trying to get those re-made,” said Rishad.
While the recovery of official documents is an understandably time-consuming exercise, the loss of irreplaceable generational items is much more traumatic for the family.
For instance, over generations the family lovingly pieced together a library. Rishad’s mother, who passed away last year after a meaningful career as an educationist, got her flare and finesse for the Urdu language from her great grandfather, Ameer Minai, a 19th-century Indian poet, respected by several iconic contemporary poets including Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal. She had received countless books from her family that were priceless and timeless collections, most washed away with the floods.
“We had a huge library, probably more than 1,000 books. My wife and I also added to the collection and despite trying our best to store these books, only the top shelf of books remains intact today,” said Rishad.
Photograph albums are also irreplaceable items for the Mahmood family. While Rishad’s father’s garden only exists in its pristine state in photographs, other photographs of cherished memories and told family histories have been washed away. He said one could recover anything but memories and inherited knowledge. Speaking with Rishad, it dawns on me that we often talk about climate change most passionately when it is in the context of the youth, our children who deserve to live in a livable world unmarred by the human-made catastrophe of climate change and unfettered capitalism. We rarely talk about the impact of climate change in how it can literally destroy generational legacy and rob people of their inherited familial history, much like the Mahmood family has suffered from.
The irony of having to leave the family home behind is not lost on Rishad as well who also shares how this decision is to protect his children and their future as well. “My twin daughters are 12 now. When they were younger they thought the flooding was fun as they played in the water and rain. But as the floods have become worse and more frequent by the year, and they are now older, they are terrified of the rain, I don’t want them to develop fear,” said Rishad.
More than a climate change issue
Many residents of Karachi are acutely aware that the urban floods are not just natural disasters but a man-made problem due to multilayered and systemic neglect of urban planning by city municipality. Rishad is one of them, as he has tried to improve the causal infrastructural issues that lead to the flooding in the first place by speaking with government authorities.
Syed Mustafa Kamal, the then mayor of Karachi, visited Rishad’s neighbourhood to assess the drainage of the area. “We get some hope when we see officials coming but they always just do a superficial cleaning of the drains, offer their sympathies and leave. We need an infrastructural overhaul not just maintenance,” said Rishad, frustration visible on his face.
These comments are echoed by researchers who posit that, “Mitigating flood risks are connected to the development and improvement of urban drainage infrastructure. Karachi's storm water channels into two major water bodies, the Lyari river and the Malir river…Instead of strengthening the drainage in the city with increasing population, the drains are covered with more and more projects further chocking the drainage.”[iii]
In addition to insufficient drainage, inefficient solid waste management further complicates Karachi’s urban functioning, particularly during heavy rainfall. Shockingly, a metropolis with a population of 27.5 million, Karachi only has two landfill sites.[iv] Due to long distances, lack of time and monetary resources, often the solid waste does not even reach the destined landfills and ends up on streets and drainage openings, causing even more hazardous choking of the sewage system. Increasing the number of landfill sites at regular city intervals has been proposed for each district but plans are yet to be executed. However, even landfills pose sustainability concerns as they are seldom built scientifically, acquire huge tracts of land and lack robust waste segregation. The landfills keep piling up till another landfill has to be sought. Currently, there is no government level plan or initiative that is centered on the circular economy and recycling, which would be a more sustainable option.
“The population and needs of citizens cannot be met if the city is not growing to accommodate these rapid changes. Shahrah-e-Faisal (road) is like the main artery of Karachi. About 20 years ago the municipality reconstructed it to accommodate increased traffic but didn’t account for better drainage systems and we are all facing the repercussions of that now,” said Rishad.
According to experts, another lacuna in the urban management puzzle in disaster risk reduction of urban flooding in Karachi is that while the capacity of the city’s sewage treatment plant is 151 million gallons per day, the plant is underutilised to a mere 25 million per day due to inefficient resource management and lack of sustainable practices at these plants.[v]
There is no dependable data on how much of the city is connected to the sewerage system as Karachi’s urbanisation is rampant and unchecked, sprawling continuously. However, according to a report on Karachi’s water and sewage system, 93 per cent of households have a sewerage connection for disposal of toilet waste but variations do exist over towns depending on proximity to the city’s centre. At least 69 per cent respondents from informal settlements reported the absence of a sewerage connection. Other factors such as, sewer cleanliness and upkeep also contribute to the choking of sewage systems, nodding to the fact that establishing infrastructure has to go hand-in-hand with maintenance. Almost 83 per cent of households in this study reported that sewers are only cleaned when “blocked”[vi].
Architect Perveen Rehman was the Director of Orangi Pilot Project, an NGO and Research and Training Institute in Orangi, the world’s largest slum (United Nations World Cities Report 2016) situated in the periphery of Karachi. It is a cluster of 113 low income settlements with a population of about 2.4 million. Rehman had been proficiently documenting the role of insufficient drainage causing urban flooding. She was also vocal about the blind spots in foreign funded infrastructure programmes that overlooked bottom-up needs, lacked implementation knowledge in cultural context and had incidence of corruption. In 2013, Rehman was gunned down and killed in Karachi after a series of death threats.[vii] Eight years after her murder, despite suspects being identified and the case being re-opened in 2021, Rehman’s murderers are yet to be brought to justice[viii].
She also founded the NGO Urban Resource Centre in Karachi in 1989. The current director of URC, Muhammad Younas, feels that though Rahman left a lasting legacy, the problems Rehman was working towards still remain.
“Rapid urbanisation and mega development projects are ignoring the drainage system or damaging existing or natural drainage. The drainage is an important aspect of planning, which is largely ignored in Pakistan. If urban planning ignored this concept then it will cost a lot to drain water out of city, this also one major reason for urban flooding,” Younas said.
Rehman’s murder and the intricate web of factors resulting in mismanagement in urban planning is something sinister and systemic in Karachi, manipulated by various socio-political and economic features.
Rishad himself has faced the way corruption and conflict shapes Karachi’s urban planning, resulting in climate catastrophes such as urban floods.
Corruption and conflict: Keeping Karachi vulnerable
Lack of urban affordable housing for the poor in Karachi results in large-scale proliferation of informal low-income housing called katchi abadi (illegal squatter colonies).
More than 60 per cent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadi or informal settlements.[ix] Rishad’s neighourhood has also become populated with informal settlements and he says that the Sindh government and city municipality have used the mushrooming of this katchi abadi as a pretext to not further invest in the betterment of the drainage infrastructure.
Furthermore, city officials told Rishad that if he did not stop campaigning for improvement of the neighbourhood, they would incite a conflict between the Muhajir community Rishad is a part of and the Pathan (immigrants of north-western Pakistan) and Afghan refugees that comprises the majority of the informal settlement in Rishad’s neighbourhood. Then, there is rising discrimination and suspicion between Muhajirs and Sindhi community, the natives to the land who did not immigrate from India.
Following the independence of Pakistan, Karachi's population increased dramatically with the arrival of Muhajir’s from India who also occupied influential positions of power in public and private arena and were termed the “architects of Pakistan”.[x] However, steadily the Muhajirs’standingin Pakistani society and particularly the city of Karachi has been slowly dwindling as political factions have been fostering animosity between Sindhis and Muhajirs for political gain.
“Muhajirs aren’t seen as son of soil and so treated discriminatorily. The tussle between various political parties in Sindh has made Karachi’s infrastructure and planning the casualty. In this political tug of war where neither of the two major parties wants to invest in improving the situation in the city, Karachi and its residents are just losing out,” said Rishad.
This “tug of war” principally refers to the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) founded in 1984 to safeguard the cause of Muhajir community and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which, Rishad notes, was more equitable previously but now is increasingly more Sindhi majority[xi]. In the power struggle between MQM and PPP, urban planning and betterment becomes a political ploy and avenue for corruption rather than a genuine improvement of the city’s infrastructure.[xii]
According to researches, the Muhajirs "have faced discrimination and attacks in linguistic conflicts involving Sindhi-speaking locals,” and since Muhajirs were urban settlers, their connection to Sindh’s hinterland is weak, which gives them an added vested interest in the city.[xiii]
Rishad feels his community can and should play an active role in pushing for the betterment of the city and liveability together with other groups. But community action can only work along with political will and commitment.
“If I had any hope that the government would work towards improving city planning and infrastructure, I would not be moving homes. However, I really do not have any hope as we have been struggling for decades,” said Rishad.
Myth of the Saint as Saviour
The sprawling city of Karachi is a living organism affected by political, economic and social factors that draw tangents across class, sect, religion, gender, caste, history and culture, constructing an ever-changing, dynamic and intricate tapestry of lived realities and aspirations. One urban myth, so to say, however, ties all Karachites (people of Karachi) together, whether one believes it or not. That the late Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, and his largest shrine built almost 10 centuries ago, protects the city from cyclones.[xiv]
Rishad does not really believe in this myth but says that the power of people’s belief in the protective powers of the late Sufi saint are palpable across all sections of Karachi city, from young to old, rich to poor, across genders and even religions.
“It is quite amazing in some ways that for decades we have been hearing that such and such cyclone will come and destroy Karachi but somehow we are always protected from the worst. I don’t believe in this myth fully but I understand why millions of people go to the shrine each year,” shared Rishad.
Notwithstanding the myth of the protective eye of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, residents are getting increasingly worried because it is now enough to save Karachi from climate catastrophes if ineffective urban planning measures that are not climate resilient continue.
The British High Commission in Pakistan recently released a statement quoting experts that Karachi could be “completely submerged by 2060 if the current trajectory of rising sea levels continues.”[xv] While this news is alarming, it is not new. In 2015, the Senate's Standing Committee on Science and Technology issued a letter to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, warning against sea intrusion along the coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan. Six years and a new political administration on, Pakistan has not built climate resilience and mitigation policy that would be crucial to the country’s very existence. Temperatures in Karachi this year have already been the highest in 74 years and by 2030, property damage due to coastal storm surges and rising sea levels is set to increase tenfold.[xvi]
Even those who believe in the power of Abdullah Shah Ghazi to protect the city against disastrous floods are also unnerved by these projections. Some political leaders have been vocal about their conviction in the Sufi saint’s mystical defence of the city. Member of the Sindh Assembly, Agha Siraj Durrani, speaking on the topic of Cyclone Nilofer commented, “(Saint) Abdullah Shah Ghazi has saved us many times before and he will save us this time as well.”[xvii]
Others are not so convicted that Sufi Ghazi will be able to save Karachi from a suffocating watery end as climate change is becoming exponentially dangerous in the coastal city.
“It will be very sad if my family will be forced to to leave this home because of climate change; my children will have to leave Karachi, maybe even Pakistan,” said Rishad.
[ii] Niazami, Sarah. “Preliminary Survey Report After Monsoon Rains in Karachi”, 11 September 2020. https://economics.iba.edu.pk/images/priliminary-survey-on-monsoon-rain.pdf
[iii] Zafar, S., & Zaidi, A. (2015). Landuse Changes and their Impacts on Natural Drainage System of Malir River Basin. Journal of Space Technology, 5(1).
[v] Hanif. (2020). Record-breaking rain may dent exports | The Express Tribune.
[vi] Water and Sanitation Program (2010). Karachi Water and Sanitation. Citizen’s Report Card: Sustainable Service Delivery Improvements. https://www.zaragoza.es/contenidos/medioambiente/onu/1190-eng.pdf
[vii] Sohail (2013) Orangi Pilot Project director gunned down in Karachi. https://tribune.com.pk/story/520216/orangi-pilot-project-director-dies-in-firing
Verdict in Perween Rahman murder case on 28th https://www.dawn.com/news/1652413
[ix] Karachi — housing without a future? https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/621740-karachi-housing-without-a-future
[x] Gayer, Laurent (2014). Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for City. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 368. ISBN 9789351160861. Archived from the original on 23 December 2016. Retrieved 30 October 2016.
[xiii] Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Pakistan: Situation and treatment of Muhajirs, particularily in Lahore, Islamabad and Faisalabad; situation and treatment of members of the Pakistan People's Party in Lahore, Islamabad and Faisalabad; whether the Muttahida Qaumi Movement targets Pakistan People's Party members in these cities, 5 July 2012, PAK104126.E, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/503736244127.html [accessed 17 November 2021]
[xv] Karachi could be completely submerged by 2060, warn experts https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/904708-karachi-could-be-completely-submerged-by-2060-warn-experts