Pakistan’s largest city and Sindh’s provincial capital Karachi is like any other large metropolis — especially those in developing countries. It’s massive, complex, diverse, et al. It is not the only city that experiences urban flooding. And it is also not the only city whose resources have been remorselessly exploited. Especially ever since the mid-1980s when the city’s population witnessed a 36 percent increase, creating tensions between its many ethnic groups.
Its population was 3,606,744 in 1972. But by 1981, it had jumped to 5,437,984. Five years later in 1986, it was 7,443,663. Records of monsoon rainfall in the city kept by the British from the late 19th century till the 1940s show that Karachi had an arid climate. Even though monsoon rains were largely moderate-to-low here, the same records also show uncharacteristic monsoon rains in 1902 that flooded the city. The next major flooding took place during the monsoon rains of 1958, eleven years after Karachi became part of Pakistan.
During the 1967 monsoon, the city received 713 millimetres of rain which is still a record. Karachi witnessed one of its worst flooding. The city remained flooded for days and the navy had to run motorboats to evacuate thousands of people stranded in various areas of the metropolis. In 1976 and 1979, the city received severe monsoon rains once again. Various areas of Karachi remained flooded for weeks. The military and navy had to be called in to aid marooned populations.
Urban flooding became a norm from the mid-1980s. Then, the severity of monsoon rains began to increase in frequency, especially from the early 2000s. The worst years so far have been 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2020. 2022 has been a disaster as well.
Every political party operating in this city has found it incredibly tough to negotiate so many complex variables that continue to compound the infrastructural problems faced by Karachi. According to Arif Hasan — perhaps one of the very few people who actually knows what is going on and why, and has no political baggage: “To tackle these issues, a long term plan for Karachi will be required that is in keeping with the finances that are available or can be generated. However, this cannot be done without an empowered local government and without the participation of the people who live along the nalas”
First, let’s see the obvious trend here. The frequency of heavier-than-‘normal’ rainfall has increased manifold. Till the late 1970s, heavy monsoons in Karachi were infrequent. Their intensity began to increase steadily from 1979, until they became more frequent from the early 2000s onwards. There is every likelihood that this is due to the gradual impact of climate change, even though a lot of folks believe climate change is a more recent phenomenon. Not quite. The fact is: climate change was first recognised as a ‘serious problem’ in 1979 during the First World Climate Conference in Geneva. The global effects of climate change are certainly retarding the intensity of Karachi’s monsoon downpours.
Whereas climate change is a reason that has seen an increase in cases of urban flooding in many cities, there are other factors at play as well when it comes to urban flooding in Karachi. The following factors are often pointed out by the celebrated architect, planner and researcher Arif Hasan:
The vast increase in population of the city and the lack of investment in sewers. In the early 1950s, Karachi witnessed a 161 percent increase in its population. It jumped from being 435,887 in 1944 to 1,137,667 in 1951. The city’s population has continued to grow, constantly challenging its infrastructure that has been slow to match the increase or has done so in an ad hoc manner.
Informal settlements and informal drains. Between 1947 and 1990s, the influx of refugees from India, labour from the former NWFP, and refugees from Afghanistan, saw the government(s) mostly settling them along Karachi’s storm water drains(nalas) which carry rainwater into the sea. These nalas also began to be used to dispose waste. This often clogs them. During 1979’s heavy monsoon rains, a lot of settlements along the nalas were washed away. But they constantly re-emerge, continuing to clog the drains. Recycling businesses also use the nalas to dispose waste that can’t be recycled.
Building over the nalas. During the past decades, markets, malls, buildings, homes, roads and parking lots have been built over nalas. As a result, it has become difficult for rainwater to flow out into the sea.
Real estate development. In the hilly formations north of the city, massive real estate development is taking place. Much of this development has demolished the geological formations that contained natural drainage channels and water collection depressions. As a result, when it rains, areas south of this region are completely submerged by flood waters.
Karachi is a city of diverse ethnic groups that have competing views about the issues faced by the metropolis. Tensions and disagreements have also resulted in violence. In recent years, urban flooding in Karachi has often become a rallying point for different groups to manifest their politics. The PPP that has been ruling Sindh since 2008, is frequently accused of ignoring Karachi’s infrastructural issues because its main vote-bank is outside Karachi. This, despite the fact that, recently, the party has been active in trying to build electoral support, especially in the city’s areas where the Mohajir are not in majority.
There was urban flooding in 1979 when the country was under military rule. Karachi was handed over to the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) after the 1979 local bodies election. JI controlled Karachi till 1987 when a number of residential and commercial areas were built over and along the nullas. During the urban flooding of 2003, the city again had a JI mayor, whereas another military ruler (Musharraf) was at the helm in Islamabad. 2006 and 2007 saw severe urban flooding during those years’ monsoon. At the time, the mayor of the city belonged to the MQM. MQM was also an ally of the Sindh government headed by a coalition of anti-PPP parties. Musharraf was still in power in Islamabad.
Now, more than ever, whenever the city witnesses urban flooding, a lot of noise emits from populist TV channels and on social media. Many are concerned citizens of the city. However, these too can’t help but get swept away by Karachi’s politics of rain. Everyone becomes a campaigner, as if he or she has all the answers. As the intensity of monsoon rains and urban flooding increases, so does the noise. It’s less about what is to be done, but more about using the impact and misery of the flooding to score a political point. In 2003, the JI mayor was constantly criticised by the MQM for ‘causing the flooding.’ The mayor blamed previous governments. During the 2006 and 2007 flooding, JI lashed at MQM’s mayor for “doing nothing for the infrastructure of the city.”
The media jumped in, so much so that the MQM mayor had to use not-very-polite language to address the media’s typical sensationalist balderdash. During the 2020 flooding, PTI pounced on the PPP, even though the former had 14 NA and many PA seats in Karachi. In 2022, MQM, PTI and JI are castigating the PPP. With local bodies elections on the horizon, some independent candidates have jumped in the fray as well. But the truth is, no party or military ruler has been able to address the issue. Because the issue always becomes politicised, and divisive.
Every political party operating in this city has found it incredibly tough to negotiate so many complex variables that continue to compound the infrastructural problems faced by Karachi. According to Arif Hasan — perhaps one of the very few people who actually knows what is going on and why, and has no political baggage: “To tackle these issues, a long term plan for Karachi will be required that is in keeping with the finances that are available or can be generated. However, this cannot be done without an empowered local government and without the participation of the people who live along the nalas.”
So far, how they can be made part of the planning and rehabilitation process has not been considered by the government agencies. In addition, climate change only adds to the urgency of addressing the issues raised above.