A Town Under Water

Muhammad Iqbal Memon, DCO Dadu invited me to visit Khairpur Nathan Shah to “advise” him on its “rehabilitation”. In the briefing held in Dadu on 10 October 2010, and attended by Imran Zafar Laghari (the MPA of the area) and Sikandar Panhwar (the TMO) , we learnt that the town had over 15,000 plus homes and shops, its water came from tube wells seven kilometres away as the local subsoil water was brackish, and that the sewage system consisted of open drains (as in the rest of the small towns of Sindh) and disposed into cesspools or pumped untreated into the saim nali through three disposal points. The absence of an underground sewage system is a major cause of disease and environmental pollution. The town is divided into thirteen community based paras or neighbourhoods. It has functioning educational and health institutions including degree colleges for both girls and boys.

At the briefing the pros and cons of reshaping the town to a new and better form were also discussed. Earlier in the week, some NGOs and architects had visited me to discuss this concept of reshaping towns and villages through grants and contractors. My question was “How many units can you build at three and a half lakh rupees each?” When we worked out the figures, it was no more than a drop in the ocean. Also, these schemes were based on highly questionable assumptions of land availability and community acceptability.

On 11 October we drove to Khairpur Nathan Shah through flooded countryside using the surviving link roads. At the town we took a boat and surveyed the town. Except for a portion of main bazaar, the rest of the town was completely under-water and except for a few people guarding their homes from their roof tops, it was devoid of population. Since the town was under-water, it was difficult to assess the extent of damage. Some of the government buildings were badly damaged but many of them seem to have survived rather well. However, almost all the houses had either collapsed or had been badly affected and so had the shops in the bazaar except for a few on higher ground.

Although the houses had collapsed, their doors, windows and various steel, brick and timber roofing elements, are all available for reuse. Most of the walls in burnt brick in cement mortar have survived the floods. However, burnt brick walls in mud mortar have collapsed but the bricks can be reused. Mud houses have collapsed but the collapsed mud is available for reuse in construction.

The people we spoke to are very clear about what they require. To begin with they need potable water, toilets and a roof under which they can sit while rebuilding their homes. Such a roof can be a temporary one. They do not want the government to construct houses for them. They feel that these houses will be substandard, contractors will make large profits at their expense and “others” will make commissions. They want cash to which they can add their own cash and labour to build a home. They hope to invest part of the eighty thousand rupees that the government has promised to give them in this process and if they do not get the rupees eighty thousand, then they will “block the Indus Highway forever”. But above all, they want to repossess their original piece of land and would like to see a dispute-free process through which this can be done.

As such, the priority has to be the restoration of the water supply system; the preparation of a road, landuse and ownership inventory (this can be done through satellite imagery); a rapid assessment of damage and its extent to properties and infrastructure and the creation of para committees to help in the process of rehabilitation and to manage the construction of the components required for building cheap pit-latrines and “a roof” which the affectees require.

Post-disaster reconstruction in many countries has led to the creation of a better physical, social and governance environment and in the case of Khairpur Nathan Shah this is what the long term plan should aim at. People can build their houses themselves but the new civic buildings in the town should be austere, climatically friendly and provide dignity to the people who use them. The open drains should be converted to an underground sewage system and pumping for water supply and sewage disposal should be converted to solar power so as to avoid the immense problems the town faces in their O&M. To give a boost to the local economy all construction, including that of roads, should be in burnt brick and the Forest Department should work with the TMA and the different para committees in initiating a large scale tree plantation and a home based urban agriculture programme.

Mud construction can also be much improved by supplying neighbourhood committees with two to three manually operated mud brick manufacturing cinvaran machines. The cost of each machine is thirty to forty thousand rupees. Architects and planners can play an important role by setting up a small office to provide technical and managerial guidance to house builders and the TMA. Meanwhile, for all reconstruction work in the town local labour and skills should be employed. It is estimated that over five hundred million rupees of reconstruction and development work will be carried out in the next five years in and around the town. This should provide over one million work days for local labour.

What is recommended above is not difficult to do and if it is done, Khairpur Nathan Shah can be a learning model for other Sindh towns. It seems money is available but the need is for a governance system or a pilot project that can access, organise and coordinate the finances and the expertise and human resources to make this possible. But for this political will and over and above that, love and affection for the affected population is required.

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