Parched for a Price: Karachi’s Water Crisis

KARACHI, Pakistan – Orangi is a maze, a spider’s web of narrow, winding lanes, broken roads and endless rows of small concrete houses. More than two million people are crammed into what is one of the world’s largest unplanned settlements here in western Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

But Orangi has a problem: it has run out of water.

“What water?” asks Rabia Begum, 60, when told the reason for Al Jazeera’s visit to her neighbourhood earlier this year. “We don’t get any water here.”

“We yearn for clean water to drink, that somehow Allah will give us clean water.”

It is so rare for water to flow through the taps here that residents say they have given up expecting it. The last time it flowed through the main pipeline in Begum’s neighbourhood, for example, was 33 days ago.

Instead, they are forced to obtain most of their water through drilled motor-operated wells (known as ‘bores’). Ground water in the coastal city, however, tends to be salty, and unfit for human consumption.

“When we shower, our hair [becomes] sticky [with the salt], our heads feel heavy,” says Begum.

The only other option for residents is to buy unfiltered water from private water tanker operators, who fill up at a network of legal and illegal water hydrants across the city. A 1,000-gallon water tanker normally costs between $12 and $18. Begum says she has to order at least four tankers a month to meet the basic needs of her household of 10 people.

Farzana Bibi, 40, says she has to ration out when she showers and washes her family’s clothes, because she can not afford to buy enough water every month.

But not everyone in this working class neighbourhood can afford to buy water from the tankers or to pay the approximately $800 its costs to install a drilled well for non-drinking water.

“I’m piling up the dirty clothes, that’s how I save money,” says Farzana Bibi, 40, who manages a household of five people on an income of roughly $190 a month. “We bathe two days in a week.”

Asked how she gets by, with so little water coming via the taps and no access to a saltwater source to clean dishes or laundry, she seems resigned.

“I lessen my use. Sometimes I’ll take my clothes to my cousin’s house or my sister’s house to wash them. Sometimes I’ll get drinking water from them. One has to make do somehow.”

When she washes her clothes, she says, she makes sure not to leave the tap on. She’ll fill a basin with water and wash her dishes in that, rather than under running water. She waits until there is at least a fortnight’s worth of dirty clothes before beginning to wash them. Every drop of water, she says, needs to be accounted for.
But despite all this rationing, the water tank at her home is almost dry.

“There is a small amount of water,” she says. “I am saving it to drink. When I have money in my hands, I’ll get a tanker.”

Orangi’s problems, while acute, are not unique in Pakistan’s largest city. Karachi’s roughly 20 million residents regularly face water shortages, with working class neighbourhoods the worst hit by a failing distribution and supply system.

Areas such as Orangi, Baldia and Gadap, some of the most densely populated in the city, receive less than 40 percent of the water allotted to them, according to data collected by the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), an NGO that works on civic infrastructure and citizens’ rights in the area.

On average, residents in these areas use about 67.76 litres of water per day, according to data collected by Al Jazeera. That includes the water they use for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, bathing and sanitary uses.

So what is going on here? How is it possible that in one of the largest cities in the world, there simply isn’t enough water being supplied? Is it because the reservoirs and water sources supplying Karachi just aren’t large enough for this rapidly expanding megacity?

The answer to these questions is somewhat surprising.

Karachi draws its water mainly from the Keenjhar Lake, a man-made reservoir about 150km from the city, which, in turn, gets the water from what’s left of the Indus River after it completes its winding 3,200km journey through Pakistan.

Through a network of canals and conduits, 550 million gallons of water a day (MGD) is fed into the city’s main pumping station at Dhabeji.

That 550MGD, however, never reaches those who need it. Of that water, a staggering 42 percent – or 235 MGD – is either lost or stolen before it ever reaches consumers, according to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), the city’s water utility.

Karachi’s daily demand for water should be about 1,100 MGD, based on UN standards for water consumption for the megacity of more than 20 million. If that estimate – considered generous by local analysts – were to be pared down, however, Karachi’s current water supply should still be adequate to service most of the city’s needs.

“If 550GMD of water actually reaches Karachi, then right now, with conditions as they are, we would be able to manage the situation very well and provide water to everyone,” says Ovais Malik, KWSB’s chief engineer, who has been working for the utility for more than 12 years.

So where is it all going?

Malik complains that the water supply infrastructure in the city is aged, parts of it running for more than 40 years, and that the funds simply are not there to fix the problems.

KWSB is, by any standard, a sick institution. This fiscal year, it estimates that it will be running at a deficit of 59.3 percent. Only about 60 percent of consumers pay their bills, with the biggest defaulters being government institutions themselves, which owe KWSB about $6 million in arrears.

Moreover, Karachi has expanded in a largely unplanned fashion over the last several decades, with informal settlements ‘regularised’, but not properly brought under the ambit of civic services, he says.

“Our [settled] area has grown too much. Our…system has not been able to bear it,” says Malik.

Farhan Anwar, an architect and urban planner, told Al Jazeera that KWSB was almost bankrupt.

“There is nothing left for any kind of maintenance or capital investment.”

That lack of capital investment affects not just the ability to provide water, but to make sure that it is clean enough to be consumed, Anwar argues.

“The water is obviously contaminated,” he says. “There are discharges, there are cross-connections of water, where sewage lines are leaking into supply lines. Construction practices are such that…often sewage lines are side by side with water lines, or even above them.”

And KWSB never seems able to get around to addressing these problems, several analysts said.

“There is corruption, inefficiency, political interference, so it’s an organisation rooted in a number of problems.… You need institutional reform, to begin with. Instead of starting by fixing the pipes, you need to fix the institution that fixes the pipes,” says Anwar.

The problem, however, is not just leakages and inefficiency in the system: it is theft.
The bulk of Karachi’s ‘lost’ water is being stolen and sold right back to the people it was meant for in the first place.


Akhtari Begum, 48, has to manage a household of five people on her husband’s income of $160 a month.
She ends up spending more than a third of that on water.

“Water does come [in the main line], but it gets stolen before it gets to us,” she says. “So we don’t get any water, we have to get tankers.”

A typical 1,000-gallon water tanker costs anywhere between $12 and $16, depending on where you are in the city, what time of year it is, and how desperate you might be.

Water tankers have been a part of Karachi’s water supply landscape for decades. Initially introduced as a stop-gap measure while the KWSB was meant to be expanding the city’s water supply infrastructure, they have grown to dominate the sector.

Today, there are more than 10,000 tankers operating across the city, completing roughly 50,000 trips a day, according to Noman Ahmed, the head of the architecture and urban planning department at Karachi’s NED University. They are meant to fill up at 10 KWSB-operated hydrants, but the business is so lucrative that more than 100 illegal hydrants operate across the city, tapping into the city’s mains to steal water.

“There are more than a hundred of them [illegal hydrants], and those are just the ones that have been identified. Every day there’s a new one being made somewhere,” says Anwar Rashid, a director at the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), which tracks the tankers’ illegal activity.

“They’re visible easily. They tap into the bulk mainline. They syphon off the water. And then there are tankers standing there, and they’ll fill up directly from the [illegal hydrant] and then drive off.

“When they take from the bulk, then that means that the water that was meant for residential areas will be reduced,” says Rashid.

The scale of the theft is staggering.

If tankers in Karachi are making 50,000 trips a day, with each trip priced at an average price of Rs3,000 (prices vary between Rs1,200 to Rs7,000), that amounts to an industry that is generating Rs150,000,000 a day.
That’s $1.43 million, every day. In a month, that adds up to $42.3 million. By the end of the year, stealing water in Karachi is an industry worth more than half a billion dollar.”

“We have carried out more than 400 operations against illegal hydrants in recent years,” Rizwan Hyder, a spokesperson for the KWSB, told Al Jazeera. “We are acting against these things … and working with the police …. We have lodged scores of cases against people operating illegal hydrants.

The local police station chief in the area where [there is] a hydrant is the one who is responsible for acting against them. The moment they inform us, we act against it. In the last few days, we have taken action against three illegal hydrants in Manghopir [near Orangi Town].”

But the people who are meant to be controlling the theft are the ones cashing in, tanker operators, analysts and former KWSB employees told Al Jazeera.

“Unauthorised hydrants are run with the connivance of the water board and the police,” claims Hazoor Ahmed Khan, the head of one of the city’s main water tanker unions. “There are about 100 illegal hydrants still operating in the city…most of them are in Manghopir, in Baldia, in Malir, in Landhi, and Korangi. They’re running in Ayub Goth on the Super Highway.”

“[Illegal hydrants] can only be run by people who are in the government, or in the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, the police, or the revenue department,” claims the OPP’s Rashid. “And they all have the share in it.
His view is borne out by a former KWSB chief, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject.

“The mafia is very strong …. There is no doubt that the illegal connections that are made, our KWSB man knows about it. Even if it is an [illegal] connection within a building, he will know that a connection has been installed in the night,” he says.

“The valve man takes his money, the assistant engineer takes his money … I could never say that there is no corruption in the KWSB. But I also know that the builder has so much influence, that no matter who [the KWSB chief] is … he will get a call from [a] minister [or senior bureaucrat] to just do it.”

The ex-chief said he had himself received phone calls of this nature. Another current senior KWSB official who asked to remain anonymous confirmed that he, too, had received such phone calls from members of the government, asking him to curb operations against illegal hydrants.

The result is a system where water is being stolen, commodified and then sold to citizens through the free market. A market, analysts say, that inherently favours the rich over the poor.

“The social contract, regarding what is the role of the state vis-a-vis the people, that is now mediated through the medium of money and privatisation,” says Daanish Mustafa, a professor of geography at Kings College London who studies the sector. “The rights-based approach to water, that water is a fundamental right of the people and a fundamental responsibility of the state, that has ended.

“Who is going to make money getting water to a poor man? Where there is money, the water will reach very quickly, and very easily.”

When asked about KWSB personnel being involved in the theft of water, the KWSB’s Hyder told Al Jazeera, “It has never been our position that no member of our organisation is involved [in the theft of water]. But the moment someone is found [to be] involved in this, they are fired and charged under the law. We have charged our own staff … we have zero tolerance for this.”

There are periodic drives to shut down these illegal operations. But none last for long.

“If there is ever a crackdown, if there is pressure, they do not cut the [hydrants] on the bulk mains, they just demolish a little bit of the infrastructure [of theft], and then four days later it’s back up and running,” says Rashid.

“The illegal hydrants are still running. They can never be shut,” says the former KWSB chief.

If the very people responsible for shutting down the illegal theft of water are the ones benefitting from it, who will watch the watchmen?

“If I fix the water system in an area, then no one will take a tanker. If we fix the system, whatever illegality is happening will [be] finished,” says the current senior KWSB official.
“These things are possible. We can do them,” he adds. “But we don’t want to do them.”

For 16 years, Ali Asghar, 75, tended to his small herd of cows and buffalo on a small plot of land behind his cramped four-room house in Orangi. Four years ago, when the water supply to his area began to suffer, he had to give them up.

Today, his entire household of 17 people is dependent on water bought from tankers.

The biggest injustice, he says, is that he is still paying his bills to KWSB, for water that never comes.

“The [mains] pipe is lying out there, completely dry,” he says. “This is how it is in this whole neighbourhood.”
“The people of the water board are the ones who are doing this. They are the ones who create the water crisis, and they’re the ones who don’t provide the water, and take the bills,” he says, his voice rising in exasperation. “For every job, there is a price. And if you don’t have money, you won’t get anything done.”

Ali Asghar, 75, says he still has to pay bills to the utility company for water that never comes in the pipes
A few streets away in Orangi’s spider web, Rabia Begum says the city’s poor are trapped because no matter what the price, people need water.

“We cannot tolerate the expense of water … and we cannot live without it,” she says.

In March 2013, four gunmen on motorcycles boxed in a car near the Qasba Mor intersection in Orangi. They proceeded to spray the car with bullets, killing its occupant, Perween Rehman.

Rehman was the director of OPP, and had worked tirelessly for the rights of Karachi’s working class communities, particularly when it came to land titles and access to water. Much of her research focused on documenting the locations of illegal water hydrants, for which she received several death threats.

Shortly before her murder, Rehman spoke to a documentary crew, who were making a film about her work. Her words ring as true today, four years later.

“It is not the poor who steal the water. It is stolen by a group of people who have the full support of the government agencies, the local councillors, mayors and the police; all are involved.”

Who will watch the watchmen, while the poor remain parched – for a price?

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