Karachi after the storm

Unlike most cities of its size, the people of Karachi do not feel they have any stake in the running of the city


Kamal Siddiqi September 06, 2020

As Karachi limps back to normalcy and one side blames the other for the devastation caused, ordinary people can only wonder what the future holds for them. With unusually heavier rains than what is expected at this time of the year, the city has drowned on more than one occasion. But we are still not sure what went wrong and why.

The arrival of Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday and his announcement of a multi-billion rupee package may have been welcomed by all, but the question that most people of the city ask is — how will we be able to survive the next spell of rains?

Billions of rupees have been lost due to the urban flooding that was caused last week as the city’s stormwater drains choked and the sewerage system collapsed. Cars and containers were swept away. Many valuable lives were lost.

The Mayor of Karachi said he did not have the powers or the funds to deal with the situation. The Sindh government said it was trying its best but obviously given the deluge, this was not good enough. The federal government for its part came in for the aftermath. Clearing up with the help of the NDMA. But that did little to help.

Aside from ascertaining who is to blame for this mess, the more important question is — what to do next? Will the ambitious package offered by the Prime Minister be enough to save the city in the coming months or years? What happens when houses and shops get flooded again — who do we turn to for help?

Make no mistake — there is a lot of anger amongst the people of Karachi over what transpired last week and the week before that. The anger is not on the rain itself but the fact that the city authorities — the city government, the cantonment boards and the provincial government — were so unprepared to deal with the situation. This despite the fact that the forecast of heavy rains was made several days in advance.

How do we move ahead? The first priority for Karachi would be to take back control of the city’s stormwater drains. Those need to be cleared up as they are choked and blocked. Others are also encroached upon. The government should spare no one. On some drains even apartment blocks have been built. These need to be broken and cleared as soon as possible.

The next step would be to clear and fix the city’s sewerage system. Its collapse in different parts of the city led to choked pipes and overflowing sewage. A proper sewerage system has not been in place in the city for decades. At present it is a nightmare.

After this, more attention has to be given to the city’s solid waste management. At present while the cantonment boards have their own arrangements, the city government has given this responsibility to a Chinese company that collects garbage from different parts of the city. But there are no proper dumping sites where this refuse can be transported to. The one or two that are operational are overflowing and filled to capacity. Refuse is dumped at will.

But the work for a mega city like Karachi does not stop there. The city needs proper equipment to maintain a system that is built. This is a continuous process. It requires a long-term commitment.

People should be part of the process. There must be a public awareness campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags which are a major source of hindrance to the free flow of rainwater and sewage. They must hold the state accountable for the work being done.

Nothing can be achieved if there are no checks and balances on the quality of work being done. In the recent rains, entire roads and public works disappeared because of the quality of their construction. No one has been held accountable for this.

All this requires good governance. When and how that happens remains to be seen. Empowering the local government could be a solution provided that funds and power are adequately allocated to them. Till now this has not happened. Unlike most cities of its size, the people of Karachi do not feel they have any stake in the running of the city. This needs to change.

 

Published in The Express Tribune, September 7th, 2020.

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