Rainwater management in Karachi

Karachi is a megacity and needs strategic rainwater management planning based on collective wisdom

Dr Muhammad Babar Chohan August 18, 2020
The writer is a civil servant holding a PhD in Economic Planning from Massey University, New Zealand.

Karachi has recently witnessed heavy rainfall resulting in flooded roads, power outages, and floating vehicles and many people losing their lives. Apart from social and psychological impacts, the economic losses from rainwater mismanagement are huge. The NDMA’s “National Monsoon Contingency Plan 2020,” notes that Pakistan is already facing an imminent food security threat owing to the recent locust attacks, and monsoon rains can aggravate the situation. Heavy floods in Dadu, Jhal Magsi, etc also reflect lack of appropriate knowledge systems to effectively cope with rainfall. A ‘knowledge system’ means a set of institutional practices that evaluate, utilise and disseminate knowledge for decision-making. It is pivotal to understand urban stormwater management as requiring well-informed policy arrangements.

Karachi is vulnerable to intense short duration cloudbursts. Its potential to act as an engine of economic growth is being undermined by inadequate flood management policy arrangements. Against this backdrop, the provincial minister for local government argued that the Sindh government is following a “comprehensive strategy” to deal with rainwater drainage. However, images of floating vehicles on Karachi’s flooded roads compel people to take his statement with a grain of salt.

In the future, the cyclical nature of climate change may increase the intensity and frequency of rain in Karachi. The city needs to transform its stormwater drainage and interdependent systems by evolving local knowledge systems to guide the city’s infrastructure decisions and urban rainwater management policy. For this, policy and systems adopted by the world’s leading cities need to be analysed. In “Developing Knowledge Systems for Urban Resilience to Cloudburst Rain Events,” Rosenzweig, et al. discuss the evolution of knowledge systems to address transformation of rainwater drainage and its interdependent systems with Phoenix, Copenhagen and New York City as case studies.

Practitioners in the provincial, local and federal governments and citizens can play a significant role in the evolution of local knowledge systems in Karachi. The study suggests that knowledge systems can vary as per the local urban dynamics of a city. However, there are three rudimentary categories of local knowledge that can support rainwater resilience in a big city: the knowledge of future climatic conditions and weather; of vulnerability of economic, urban, spatial, social and ecological infrastructure; and of best rainwater management strategies. The first two are dependent on Karachi’s local data and knowledge from rainwater-impacted communities. As for the third category, knowledge systems developed by Phoenix, Copenhagen and New York can be helpful in devising a robust rainwater management strategy for Karachi.

Acknowledging that it may be financially untenable to upgrade subterranean sewer systems, Rosenzweig, et al underline the importance of Green Infrastructure (GI) capable of infiltrating and reusing stormwater. In Karachi, an integrated approach using GI and gray infrastructure requires using modern technologies during intense short cloudbursts. Historically, Phoenix has developed new knowledge systems in line with their local rainwater challenges. These are: ‘Socioeconomic strategy’ deals with issues like insurance, warning, emergency response, etc; ‘GI and ecosystem conservation strategy’ focuses on development of rainwater infrastructure like water parks, rain gardens, etc; ‘Gray infrastructure strategy’ is about development of cloudburst plazas, tunnels, sewers, etc.

The development of a knowledge system for Karachi must rely on the first two categories of local knowledge. Any top-down dictatorial approach must be discouraged. Urban dialogue and local knowledge can address the core issues of rainwater mismanagement. The evolution of knowledge systems is a systematic phenomenon requiring short- and long-term planning by incorporating stakeholders’ feedback. Merely cleaning blocked drainage won’t develop knowledge systems. Karachi is a megacity and needs strategic rainwater management planning based on collective wisdom.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2020.

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