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Karachi underwater | The Express Tribune



July 16, 2023


Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, has been grappling with severe urban flooding for several years during the summer monsoon season. The situation has only worsened over time, with the city experiencing record-breaking rains in August 2019, August 2020, September 2021, July 2022, that resulted in a near-collapse of its infrastructure. To address the root causes of Karachi’s flooding, a comprehensive understanding of its complexities is crucial. The unprecedented rains and urban flooding brought life to a grinding halt, causing fatalities, billions of rupees in economic losses, and widespread damage to infrastructure and property. The natural drainage system of Karachi, which includes the Hub, Lyari, and Malir rivers, has been adversely affected by urban settlements and development activities, making the city more susceptible to the detrimental effects of flooding.

Urban flooding in Karachi is a complex issue, Karachi’s poorly maintained road infrastructure, heavy rainfall, and inadequate and outdated drainage systems, urbanisation, land reclamation, poor waste management, and the government’s limited capacity contribute to flooding. Water accumulation on roads leads to craters, potholes, and washed-away road carpeting, posing difficulties for commuters, especially motorcyclists. However, flooding in Karachi is not solely attributed to infrastructure issues but is also influenced by climate change. The issue of urban flooding in Karachi is exacerbated by factors such as historical planning failures, illegal constructions, institutional conflict, and corruption. The increase in population, which is expected to reach over 32 million by 2025, puts additional pressure on the city’s infrastructure and exacerbates the risk of flooding.

The response to flooding in Karachi poses challenges due to the city’s complex urban politics involving various factors such as politicians, urban administrators, and state and non-state institutions. Following each flooding crisis, there is a rush to establish authority, consolidate power, and implement short-term solutions. However, long-term planning and preparedness for future floods are frequently overlooked. The flooding disproportionately affects the city’s poor, who reside in vulnerable informal settlements. These settlements are susceptible to flooding and other disasters. Additionally, the flooding disrupts Karachi’s transportation system, hampering people’s mobility and access to essential services.

Factors contributing to urban flooding

Lack of proper planning and fractured urban governance

Lack of proper urban planning in Karachi is a major contributor to the city’s flooding. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation, along with a growing population, haphazard construction without consideration for the natural drainage system, Construction on natural drains, such as nullahs, and building on floodplains worsens the impact of heavy rainfall, Insufficient investment in upgrading infrastructure, particularly the drainage system, poor solid waste management, and inadequate housing. The government’s capacity to collect and dispose of solid waste is limited, leading to waste finding its way into the city’s drains and exacerbating the flooding problem. Karachi’s land is under the control of 19 different land-owning agencies. The conflict between various jurisdictions, including local, provincial, federal, and cantonment authorities, and the lack of coordination and cooperation between these authorities has led to a fractured approach to urban governance, which has failed to address the root causes of flooding.

Outdated and inadequate drainage system

The city’s drainage system is outdated, and inadequate, with the city’s population experiencing exponential growth in recent years. The government’s failure to invest in upgrading the drainage system has resulted in significant shortcomings. Inadequate drainage is a key factor contributing to urban flooding in Karachi. During heavy rainfall, the water combines with openly dumped solid waste, causing blockages in the drainage lines and subsequent flooding. The presence of stagnant water after heavy rainfall creates an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to an increase in diseases. Furthermore, heavy rain damages critical infrastructure, including roads and electricity lines, which can result in accidents, hospitalisations, and even fatalities. Neglecting the inclusion of proper drainage systems in development projects also contributes to the occurrence of flooding.

Lack of investment in infrastructure and maintenance

The lack of investment in infrastructure and maintenance is a significant political factor contributing to urban flooding in Karachi. The poorly designed and poorly maintained existing infrastructure, including roads, embankments, and sewage systems, often fails during heavy rains. Moreover, the government’s failure to implement effective flood management strategies, such as early warning systems and evacuation plans, exacerbates the impact of floods. Unplanned urbanisation, construction on drainage, and insufficient investment in flood management strategies increase vulnerability. The situation is further compounded by a lack of political will and institutional capacity.

Poor solid waste management system

Poor solid waste management is a significant contributor to urban flooding in Karachi. The city produces approximately 12,000 tons of solid waste each day, yet the government’s ability to collect and dispose of this waste is limited. Unfortunately, approximately 40% of waste finds its way into the city’s drains, resulting in blockages that worsen the flooding problem. In addition to inadequate waste management, climate change has caused more frequent and intense rainfall events in Karachi.

Urbanisation and inadequate housing

Urbanisation and inadequate housing have emerged as key factors contributing to the occurrence and severity of urban flooding in Karachi. With approximately 62% of the city’s population residing in informal settlements, the lack of proper housing options has forced these individuals to establish their dwellings in precarious locations, often adjacent to drainage systems. Consequently, these settlements suffer from limited access to essential services such as water, sanitation, and electricity. The failure of the government to address this housing crisis has resulted in a growing population having to endure substandard living conditions that are highly susceptible to flooding and other natural disasters. The absence of affordable housing alternatives has exacerbated the vulnerability of these communities, leaving them ill-prepared to withstand the adverse impacts of flooding events. Furthermore, the presence of elitist housing societies constructed on illegally reclaimed land, exemplified by DHA Phase 7, has further compounded the issue of urban flooding. These societies, typically situated in ecologically sensitive areas like wetlands, disrupt the natural drainage system of the city. Consequently, the already overwhelmed drainage infrastructure is further strained, amplifying the flooding issues in areas like Bahria Town Karachi.

What can be done to combat flooding?

To combat the pressing issue of flooding in Karachi, a multifaceted and inclusive approach is crucial. This entails a comprehensive overhaul of infrastructure and drainage systems, alongside the efficient management of solid waste. Furthermore, the implementation of sustainable urban planning practices, effective flood risk management strategies, and integration of climate change adaptation measures are imperative. Achieving these goals necessitates seamless coordination and collaboration among various stakeholders, including governmental bodies, community organisations, and international entities. By fostering a holistic and sustainable response to flooding in Karachi, long-term integrated strategies can be developed, employing planning tools and practices that account for the escalating risks.

In addition, institutional reforms, effective governance, and enhanced collaboration among stakeholders are paramount to tackling the issue comprehensively. A pivotal step in this endeavour involves the removal of structures obstructing natural drainage channels, such as nullahs, and the diligent cleaning of accumulated solid waste within them. This restorative measure will help reinstate the city’s natural drainage system and mitigate the impact of heavy rainfall. Empowering the local government, investing in the construction of new infrastructure like roads and sewage systems, and ensuring the proper maintenance of existing infrastructure is equally vital to preempt future flood occurrences in Karachi.

Comprehensive survey and clearing of drains

In a distressing state of affairs, a significant portion of Karachi’s natural drainage system, commonly known as nullahs, is facing blockages caused by constructions or accumulation of solid waste. To tackle this pressing issue, it is imperative that an extensive survey or study be conducted by impartial experts, actively involving local residents who possess invaluable knowledge about the exact points of congestion within these drains. Additionally, many settlements within the city boast mapping expertise that can greatly aid in determining the magnitude of the drainage problem.

Regrettably, Karachi’s nullahs and land have been encroached upon by a multitude of actors, including private builders who, with the connivance of state functionaries, have engaged in this unlawful activity. However, it is important to note that discussions surrounding encroachments primarily focus on the areas affected by the poor, such as Gujjar Nullah or Lyari Naddi, whenever the city grapples with flooding. This biased narrative that disproportionately highlights encroachments by the underprivileged must end.

What Karachi urgently requires is a comprehensive evaluation of all encroached land, regardless of the parties involved. Once this assessment is completed, a well-crafted master plan should be devised to address both encroachments and the issue of blocked nullahs. The city’s authorities must act swiftly and decisively to mitigate these challenges and safeguard Karachi’s future against disruptive consequences.

Empowered local government

A city like Karachi needs an empowered local government. The main challenge lies in resolving Karachi’s jurisdictional issues first. There is a need for a consensus to empower local government and decentralise the administrative setup. The current top-down urban governance model has failed to address the root causes of urban flooding and has led to a tussle between centralising and decentralising authority. An empowered local government can take ownership of the city’s problems and work with the community to find sustainable solutions.

Upgrading the existing infrastructure with good engineering

The government also needs to invest in the construction of new infrastructure, such as roads and sewage systems, and upgrading the city’s infrastructure, including the drainage system, solid waste management, and housing facilities. In addition to these measures, technical solutions are also needed to prevent future floods in Karachi. One such solution is the construction of small ponds to store large quantities of water by patterns of rain harvesting. This will help to regulate the flow of water into the city and reduce the pressure on the existing infrastructure.

Provision of affordable housing by the government

Land has also become contentious because of the gap in demand and supply of housing units. It may seem impossible, but the government needs to make a correct assessment of the city’s housing needs, provide low-cost housing solutions, and coordinate with urban planners and academia. The affordable housing option will reduce the intensity of informal settlements in the city. Addressing the challenges of housing is crucial to mitigating the impact of urban flooding in Karachi.

Planning for sewage and solid waste management

The disposal of Karachi’s sewage into its nullahs and drains has significantly contributed to their obstruction. Establishing a comprehensive sewerage system for the city entails an extensive undertaking that demands substantial time and resources. To address this challenge effectively, a meticulously devised plan for a city-wide sewerage system must be formulated and implemented through a phased approach. In conjunction with the sewage issue, Karachi’s solid waste management system is intricately linked to an indigenous and informal recycling industry. Enhancing and formalising this sector is imperative to unlock its full potential in terms of economic generation and employment opportunities at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum, in both the short and long term. This necessitates upgrading and systematising the existing framework to optimize the benefits derived from this sector. By prioritizing the development of a robust sewerage system and streamlining solid waste management practices, Karachi can embark on a path towards sustainable and efficient urban infrastructure.

Community participation in planning process

It is imperative for elected representatives to facilitate the convergence of stakeholders, encompassing policy experts and marginalized communities, to foster participatory planning and the co-production of knowledge. While a plethora of proposals and recommendations are consistently put forth, a critical aspect lies in comprehending the barriers that impede their implementation, as well as the subsequent impediments to alleviating these constraints. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of these limitations, a deeper insight into the dynamics of the city of Karachi can be attained. Consequently, this discernment empowers citizens and their organizations to identify and pursue actions that align with the overarching goals and aspirations of the community.


The writer is an urban planner and geographer. He is Associate Director at Karachi Urban Lab, IBA


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