Karachi’s looming water crisis

Karachi’s looming water crisis

Water shortages pose a grave threat to Pakistan’s viability

From 2600 to 1700 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation flourished as one of the cradles of civilisation. At its peak, it had a population of five million and sustained cities of up to 50,000 people.

This was made possible by sophisticated irrigation systems that featured sewers, indoor toilets, and water wells—innovations that predated Roman inventions by 2,000 years. However, around 1700 BCE most of its cities were abandoned and later disappeared, lost to history until the 1920s when their ruins were uncovered during British colonial rule.

Until recently the most prominent theories credited this downfall to pastoral nomads invading from the northwest. However, scholars such as Steven Solomon now argue that invasion was merely the death knell, and that the ultimate culprit for the civilisation’s demise was its fragile hydrological environment. The unpredictable timing and intensity of the monsoons, in combination with variable snowmelt from the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush caused flooding, drought and salinisation. This undermined prosperity, causing an irrevocable decline and, finally, migration.

Pakistan is confronted by similar afflictions today. According to the World Bank, climate change is rapidly thinning Himalayan glaciers and, coupled with intense monsoonal rainfall, this will exacerbate already serious flooding over the next 50 years. Towards the end of the 21st century these glaciers are expected to have almost melted, dramatically reducing flows into the Indus River Basin, Pakistan’s primary water source.

Over this period Pakistan will become increasingly urbanised. How its cities will fare—Karachi especially as the largest city—is particularly significant. Pakistan’s urban population is expected to reach 178 million people by 2050, up from 75 million in 2016, with Karachi alone doubling its current population to 32 million people.

Profound consequences

This rapid urbanisation will have profound consequences for the availability of potable water in Karachi. The first among many impacts will be a per capita reduction in the supply of water. According to a report by the Stimson Center, by 2050 per capita availability will decrease by an additional 60 per cent to 545 m³, well below the UN water scarcity threshold of 1000 m³.

The situation is in fact even bleaker as these statistics assume an equal distribution of the available water between all of Pakistan’s people. This is far from the reality. Irrigation to sustain Pakistan’s agriculture-dependent economy draws over 90 per cent of the country’s available water resources, leaving only a small amount for drinking, sanitation and industry. The minimum daily requirement of 60 litres per person is not met for much of the population and is as low as 10 litres in poor urban areas.

As Pakistan’s cities and population grow, this situation is liable to worsen, especially in Karachi where the water supply, sourced from Keenjhar Lake and Hub Dam, which are fed by the Indus River, is already woefully insufficient. From 2005 to 2015, the daily demand for water increased from 2.8 to 4.3 gigalitres. However, current supply is only 2.2 gigalitres, resulting in only 50 per cent of the city’s needs being met while one-third of this amount is either stolen or lost due to poor infrastructure.

In the face of this shortfall and projected demand growth to 5.2 gigalitres per day by 2020, there are few signs of timely supply increase. There are plans to develop a new water pipeline from Keenjhar Lake that will provide an additional 2.3 gigalitres daily once construction is complete in 2022–23. However, in the intervening years, with a static water supply and growing population, Karachi’s people will be required to make an already inadequate supply go further.

The eminent scholar, Thomas Homer-Dixon, has warned that this per capita reduction in the availability of water will induce two further processes, termed ‘resource capture’ and ‘ecological marginalisation’. Resource capture operates when scarcity encourages ‘powerful groups in society to shift resource distribution in their favour’, thereby decreasing resource availability for less powerful groups. Ecological marginalisation explains how these vulnerable groups respond to unequal resource distribution, by migrating to other less resource-abundant areas which are then exhausted.

Resource capture

A stark example of ‘resource capture’ is in Lyari, an informal settlement of over one million people in Karachi’s west. This community is mandated to receive 3.8 million litres of water daily. In actuality, it receives only 115,000 litres due to illegal supply diversions, enabled by corruption, to higher-income areas.

There is a tremendous discrepancy in water quota fulfilment across the city, with some areas, such as Orangi with a population of over 1.5 million, receiving just 30 per cent of its promised supply. The Defence Housing Authority, a residential housing district for current and former military personnel and their families with a population of approximately 700,000, however, receives 133 per cent of its quota.

Compounding this, powerful groups in Karachi have taken considerable control of the water supply by establishing a ‘water mafia’, which operates between 150 and 200 illegal pumping stations that siphon supplies to sell at exorbitant prices to areas where water is scarce.

Karachi’s water crisis is a reflection of the city’s prevailing social, political and economic conditions that enable those in power to take advantage at the expense of vulnerable peoples

The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board estimates that this illegal pilfering accounts for 20 per cent of the city’s daily water supply. This rent-seeking racket, benignly known as the ‘water truck lobby’, is operated by a coalition of criminal gangs, corrupt public servants, local politicians and the Rangers, a paramilitary force operated by the Ministry of the Interior that assists the police to enforce law and order. Through this illegal water trade, these groups generate revenue and coerce local communities.

But Karachi’s water crisis is about more than water. It is a reflection of the city’s prevailing social, political and economic conditions that enable those in power to take advantage at the expense of vulnerable peoples.

Failure to remedy this will result in increased supply from the new Keenjhar Lake pipeline being squandered unless the city’s dilapidated and leaking infrastructure is improved and the water mafia dislodged from its influential position. Failure to implement demand-side responses will only replicate India’s experiences, where supply increases to address New Delhi’s water scarcity crisis through massive hydro-engineering projects failed to meet demand due to construction delays, distribution mismanagement and corruption.

In response to curtailed water access, migration to less resource abundant and more ecologically vulnerable areas is expected. Consequently, the ‘carrying capacity’ of these areas is soon exhausted and endemic poverty develops.

Despite Karachi’s own water crisis, rural water scarcity has made the city a desirable destination for many migrants. Millions are migrating to Karachi seeking education and employment opportunities. However, because of housing shortages, new migrants must join squatter settlements that house half of the city’s population. These are the same areas that endure grossly inadequate water supply exacerbated by unfavourable distribution and extortion by the water mafia.

The constant population influx to these areas increases the demand for water and, because this is not met with supply increases, underwrites demand for water supplied by the predatory water-truck lobby. As such, Karachi is the ecologically marginal area to which people are fleeing.

Dire situation

The already dire water supply situation in Pakistan, and the inexorable population growth and rapid urbanisation that will soon compound the crisis, led renowned South Asia scholar Anatol Lieven to assert that ‘water shortages present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society’.

To overcome this situation in Karachi, measures to address the shortfall in supply and the inequitable distribution of water need to be instituted, along with rolling back the coercive power of the water mafia. Millions of dollars in revenue can then be collected and invested in the city’s failing water infrastructure.

In rural areas, improved services and opportunities will be key to alleviating the demand for water induced by increased migration to Karachi.

In combination, these measures could provide breathing space for Karachi’s municipal services to improve in time to meet the impending future challenges they must overcome. For should they fail, the city’s current and future residents will be without adequate, affordable and dependable access to water.

Featured image
Rapid urbanisation will have profound consequences for the availability of potable water in Karachi. Photo: Flickr, Vicki Francis/UK Department for International Development.

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