City Running Dry

THERE are neighbourhoods in Karachi that receive water for one or two hours every 36 days; there are those who have not received water for the past six months or more; and there are those where pipelines have been laid but water has never come.

In these conditions, people have to fend for themselves. The well-off make independent bores to a depth of 30 metres or more at a cost of Rs200,000 to get brackish water. Those who cannot afford to do this pool money to develop a collective bore. Those who cannot afford to participate in this process purchase tankers collectively. In all cases, portable water is mixed with brackish water to increase the volume.

Meanwhile, the private sector has stepped in to provide relief. Entrepreneurs have taken over the abandoned filtration plants that were set up (one in every union council by the city government). They operate these plants ‘illegally’, in connivance with the police and ‘officials’. There are long lines at these plants where water is sold at Rs1 per litre. Water vendors also pick up water from here on Suzukis and sell it at a cost of Rs2 per litre at the household door. Entrepre¬neurs have also put up osmosis plants where water is sold at Rs3 to Rs4 per litre.

Around 40pc to 50pc of Karachi’s water is lost through leakages.

The poorest can’t make use of any of these options and wait for KMC tankers to provide them with water. These tankers function erratically, and so people, mainly women and children, wait in long lines, sometimes for an entire night to fill their cans and utensils.

Surveys show that the water situation stops children from going to school, women from working, and men from being punctual at their jobs. The situation is also responsible for domestic violence, neighbourhood quarrels, and abusive language against the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) and KMC staff, who along with the informal private sector are the main financial beneficiaries, through bribes and coercion, of a system that informally provides relief to a thirsty public.

Politicians constantly remind the people of Karachi that their water problems will be solved when the K4 water scheme which is supposed to bring additional water to the city will become operative. However, it will take three to four years before the project can be commissioned. And even when commissioned it will not solve Karachi’s water problems in the absence of an efficient and empowered KWSB. This is because Karachi’s water-related infrastructure needs repair, replacement, and maintenance, especially since more than 40 per cent of the city’s pipes are 50-70 years old.

As a result, 40pc to 50pc of Karachi’s water is lost through leakages. Most of the pumps are old and energy inefficient, and require heavy maintenance. The diesel pumps which are to function during load-shedding often do so erratically, and in many cases do not have any diesel available, for whatever reason.

Water is also tapped illegally in a big way and lines are often laid in the sewage-carrying nullahs. Parallel lines, depriving the system of water, are also laid for political reasons, and are not documented. On the outer fringe of the city, councillors and KWSB staff are continuously extorting money from people promising water supply which never materialises. A bulk metering system was installed at an enormous cost but it no longer functions, making a rational water-rationing system impossible.

In all this, line men are kings. They determine who gets water and who does not, and they arrange for illegal connections and extensions. Only they know the location of pipes, thousands of the smaller leakage points and the amount and process through which people are willing to pay for the service.

Given this situat¬i¬on, it is necessary that the system be documen¬ted, a human resource audit carried out, and its recommendations implemented. This can only be done effecti¬v¬ely with the involvem¬ent of the line man and mid-level KWSB staff. In addition, the KWSB requires a culture of continuous lear¬ning, training, and documentation. It also re¬¬¬quires being accountable to the people thr¬¬ou¬¬gh presenting them with its plans and their costs, and incorporating their concerns.

It is assumed that accountability can be achieved through a board of respectable citizens. However, the board has proved to be an incompetent entity composed of competent people. What the KWSB requires is a paid executive committee drawn from civil society that advises the KWSB executive in carrying out the agenda outlined above. It is a difficult task that has to be done.

As for sustainability, the KWSB will require a large subsidy for the foreseeable future. But over a 10-year period, with consultative reforms, sustainability can be achieved. Mega projects funded by international funds have not worked in the past and will not work in the future without mega management. We have learnt this at an enormous expense. We must not make the same mistakes again.

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