As Karachi struggles to supply water to its population, a mafia is slowly replacing the government as a major supplier.
Pakistan’s most populous city has enormous water needs, with an estimated core population of over 17 million. As an industrial hub with over 10,000 factories, the city also handles 95 per cent of the country’s exports. The huge demand means that the city is facing a massive water crisis that is increasing in severity with every passing day.
Machar Colony, one of the Karachi’s many informal settlements, has been facing the paucity of water. “I never witnessed such water scarcity in my life,” said Abdul Sattar, an elder living in the area. “Besides water shortage, quality is another issue.”
“Even after paying huge sums, the quality remains questionable,” said Sonu Khangrani of the Hisar Foundation, which works on water management issues.
It is not just the poor that suffer. “For industries, water is the raw material, but the government has raised the price many hundred times over, due to which even our export has suffered a lot,” Asad Nisar, president of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, told thethirdpole.net.
Leaky infrastructure, burgeoning population
Up to 80 per cent of the city’s water is pumped to homes through a 10,000km network of pipelines, and the rest of the city is supplied through tankers. One of the major sources of water loss is through leakage. Unfortunately, the low price at which the water is supplied by the state-run agency, between PKR 200 to PKR 500 (US$1.91 to US$4.78) per month, means that there is not enough revenue to adequately renovate the aging system.
“The leakages are causing a loss of around 25 per cent of the total water available in the system, due to which we are unable to provide water to several areas,” said Misbahuddin Farid, managing director of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB).
Khangrani agreed. “The underground water pipeline supply in the city has become outdated,” he said. “For the last 25 years, no new pipeline has been installed despite the city’s growing population.”
“The way Karachi’s population is increasing it is becoming very difficult to govern it. No matter how many schemes you bring in, the population keeps growing and new industrial units are set up,” agreed Farid. The fact that the KWSB supplies water for an additional 2 to 3 million people that live on the outskirts of the city adds to the strain.
Enter the water mafia
As the state-run water supply fails, the water mafia steps in. Tankers supply 20 per cent of the water in the city, including to those who already have a KWSB supply to overcome the shortfall. Quite often they will pay anywhere from PKR 6,000 to PKR 10,000 (US$57 to US$95.50) for a month’s supply, or about 30 times the rate the government charges. But people are glad to pay, as they have little choice.
Belying general assumptions, the supply is sometimes bad in rich localities, and good in less well off areas. This is primarily because of the quality of already established infrastructure.
“We get water from tankers but sometimes the quality is not good. And despite paying a huge amount we have to wait for hours for a tanker,” said Zubaida, a resident of Clifton Block 8, a posh locality of the city which does not get regular water supply from the KWSB.
We are here to help citizens to get water. We do not run the hydrants, we are just transporters and we ensure to take water from the hydrants and supply it where it is required.
Mohammad Tariq Sadozai, president, All Karachi Water Tankers Ittehad
However, in the commercial areas like Sadar Town, most residents receive KWSB water on a regular basis. “We pay only an average of PKR 250 (US$2.39) a month and get two-hour water supply from KWSB every day and the water is not bad,” said Mohammad Haroon, a resident area of a plaza located on M.A. Jinnah Road.
Of course, the slums have the worst of both worlds, having no established infrastructure, and their residents being worse off. According to an Orangi Pilot Project study, those living in unplanned settlements of Karachi pay 13 times more than those residing in affluent localities.
From illegal hydrants to illegal tankers
Illegal water hydrants are built to siphon off the water from the main supply. Over 10 million gallons per day (MGD) is stolen from the system through these means. A fleet of illegal water tankers then transports the stolen water. These are the people who have set themselves up as unofficial and unregulated water suppliers using tankers.
The frustrated authorities of the provincial government of Sindh have launched many operations against these illegal hydrants and they demolish the facilities. Undeterred, the water smugglers lie low for a few days and then continue with their nefarious business.
“Unofficial tankers steal water worth PKR 57 billion (US$540 million) annually from illegal hydrants in Karachi,” claimed Khangrani. But despite successive operations by the Sindh government, their success was partial. Corrupt police officials allegedly warn the water smugglers in advance of operations. Nevertheless in a recent operation, the KWSB succeeded in dismantling illegal water hydrants in some areas like Malir and Landhi.
For all of these cities, the costly tangle of old, badly maintained water infrastructure, corruption in politics, and a staggering increase in demand as the urban areas have expanded, have led to similar problems.
“Despite all hurdles we are trying to make this drive successful. In some areas on the outskirts of the city – like Manghopir and Northern Bypass – the people of the area erect water hydrants very quickly. Unfortunately, although the police in the area know of the problem, they do not act. This is one of the main reasons we are not succeeding,” said Farid.
He asserted that many First Information Reports (FIRs) had been registered against offenders in different parts of the city, but these had not been acted upon, nor had the cases been pursued to their logical end in the courts of law.
Is the tanker fleet a problem, or a solution?
The president of the All Karachi Water Tankers Ittehad, Mohammad Tariq Sadozai justified the presence of the tankers in the city, saying that the quantity of water required for the city is available in the system, but KWSB is unable to provide that water to the citizens.
“Therefore, we are here to help citizens to get water. We do not run the hydrants, we are just transporters and we ensure to take water from the hydrants and supply it where it is required, most of the hydrants are run by influential people, and are supported by KWSB,” he alleged.
The huge price difference was, he said, because of the price the hydrant people set. Sadozai suggested that since the authorities have singularly failed at shutting down these hydrants, it might be better to legalise them, and for KWSB to take a portion of revenue.
Hydrant owners have their own justifications. An owner told thethirdpole.net on condition of anonymity that since the KWSB is unable to supply the required water, the demand is there. This is acted upon by influential people who have set up the illegal water hydrants. “We arrange water, pay bribes so that these hydrants run smoothly and all this we do to ensure that every citizen gets water,” he said.
These water problems, from lack of supply, to illegal water hydrants, the water mafia, and claims of public service by those operating them, is not just a Karachi problem. New Delhi, India’s capital city, suffers the exact same problem. Not only that, Delhi’s water mafia too justifies its practices by pointing to the state’s failure to properly supply water to those in need – especially those in unregularised colonies without proper infrastructure.
To India’s east, the capital city of the state of West Bengal is slowly turning from being water-rich to water-poor because of similar leaky infrastructure, and proliferation of illegal stand-posts (as water hydrants are called in Kolkata). For all of these cities, the costly tangle of old, badly maintained water infrastructure, corruption in politics, and a staggering increase in demand as the urban areas have expanded, have led to similar problems.
Nobody has found a solution yet, but some are staring to echo the sentiments of the water tanker fleet, suggesting that the best way to deal with this huge extra-legal supply is to regularise some of it, while using its revenue to repair and build up the infrastructure.
Noman Ahmed, an author and urban planner suggested that the Sindh government should figure out a way to take the water tanker service into its fold and make it a commercial commodity and regulate it officially.
That way at least some of the illegality would be curtailed as the city struggled to provide access to clean water for its citizens.
Zulfiqar Kunbhar is Karachi-based water journalist. This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.
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