When Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s senior director of municipal services Dr Shaukat Zaman leaves his house, he looks impeccable. But by the evening his plain dress shirt and shining black boots are covered in dust and speckled in sewerage.
As the official overseeing the cleaning of storm water drains before the monsoons start, Zaman can’t avoid getting down and dirty. He has to literally stay on the edge of the sewers to get the job done, and is relying on divine intervention.
“I have my fingers crossed,” he told The Express Tribune as he supervised work on the Manzoor Colony Nullah. “If the downpour is normal then we will be fine. But if it is a bit too much then God help us!”
‘The mother of all drains’
The storm water drains are not meant to carry sewage. But they have turned into conduits and the increase in the slums built on the banks of these drains has made matters worse.
Cleaning them is not easy. At some places, the drains are covered with sludge that is two feet thick. From plastic bags to furniture, everything seems to have been dumped there. Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) officials call Manzoor Colony Nullah the ‘mother of all drains.’
“It carries sewage from Mehmoodabad, Manzoor Colony and even from PECHS,” Zaman said. “The load is immense.” Almost all of the 13 big and over 250 small storm water drains have been encroached upon. All the drains meet the Lyari and Malir rivers, which take the waste water to the sea.
The 13.5 kilometre long Gujjar Nullah starts from North Karachi and snakes through congested areas before meeting Lyari River at Liaquatabad. “At some places it’s 70 feet wide and at some just five feet. There is nothing we can do about this,” said Zaman.
The encroachments which started off as slums have turned into katchi abadis with proper land leases, becoming a politically contentious issue, officials say.
Anti Encroachment director Abdul Malik bemoans the lack of police support. “We try to remove them and we have succeeded. But constant support of law enforcement agencies is very important.”
Houses and shops built on banks of the nullahs that have been categorised as katchi abadis pose a challenge, he said. “Meetings have been held on the issue, and even the Sindh Governor has taken it up. Let’s see what happens.” The government has acted against illegal construction in the past.
Thousands of slum dwellers had occupied both sides of Lyari River. Children used to drown every year. Based on a relocation scheme, they were resettled to Taiser Town, Baldia and Hawkes Bay, but the government has not released a single rupee for maintaining the resettled areas.
Town Planner Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui says it is not just the poor who are encroachers. “The entire Gulshan-e-Faisal locality in Bath Island is over a drain. Municipal authorities have allowed many of these encroachments.”
Breakdown of the sewerage system
Poverty coupled with an increase in population and intercity migration might have forced people to set up residences alongside drains but the problem also reflects the breakdown of Karachi’s sewerage system.
On paper, sewage is carried from a house to the lane from where a collection channel takes it to the sewerage treatment plant. In reality most of the toilet waste just finds its way into the storm water drains. Hundreds of thousands of people live in the cantonment board areas. A senior Karachi Water and Sewerage Board official said that all sewerage from these areas is dumped into the drains.
“They don’t have any system to take their sewerage anywhere else,” he said. This problem, he says, needs billions of rupees to fix.
“The only solution is to build new conduits for taking sewage to the Lyari or Malir rivers.” But Shaukat Zaman doesn’t have the time or billions of rupees. His men are working double shifts to unclog drains.
“Take a look at the encroachments. There is Urdu Bazaar, government buildings and the parking plot of Fyzee Rahamin auditorium all built on the Soldier Bazaar Nullah. How do we remove them?” It’s a question many have provided answers to, but there’s no one to implement them.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2012.
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