Builders had quietly covered it with a footpath
Last week in Karachi’s Clifton, the administration started some serious dismantling on Chaudhry Khaliq-uz-Zaman Road in front of newly constructed commercial and residential buildings. What they found, much to their surprise, was a hidden storm water drain that had been covered up by the builders laying footpaths in front of their buildings. The footpath has been ripped out and tons of sludge have been removed and is now lying on the main road. This is a road where Delhi Colony’s vegetable, fruit and fish markets are just a short walk away and fruit is sold on thellas all along its length. The work started as an emergency because of the flooding in the recent rains. Delhi Colony and the main road heading towards Gizri were inundated. Even the top slab and walls of the new underpass started leaking. Residents of Punjab Colony were helping themselves by pumping out rainwater from Chandia Village street, which was also flowing towards the belly of the underpass leading to traffic blocks. We suffer this every year during the monsoon rains. Usually we blame corruption but this is also a lack of professional competence and institutional memory. If town planner and architect Arif Hassan can publish old city plans, maps and schemes in his books and on his website, why can’t our city government do the same? Why can they not keep a library of official records and maps, city contours, natural waterways, topography and natural flow patterns which they would consult before planning or allowing any kind of building? Frankly, there is no excuse because technology is so advanced that by just moving a cursor on Google Earth, you can get the digits of surface height from sea level. Our problem is that we are living in a dry region where rain is not common and we have adapted accordingly. Once a year, though, we have a monsoon season and the rest of the year is normally dry. As a result we depend on our sewage lines to drain rain water instantly. In some parts of the city, we used to have rain drains or natural waterways but we wrongly use them for household sewage which is why when it rains they are choked. Historically, many parts of Karachi city were tidal plains of the sea, which have been reclaimed or turned into land and then apartments and houses were built on them. Think of DHA. The surface or ground levels in some areas are below sea level. As our population went up, new buildings, a bigger traffic load and more commercial activities have taken the city to a critical limit. Now even if there are normal rains, we are unable to drain the city. The Global North or cities in more developed countries have passed through this phase. Their cities also grew congested but their local governments did something. They made new laws and enforced them to stop new construction in existing city areas. Settlers were directed to new areas, which were master planned, keeping in view the lessons learnt from the old city areas. Commercial zones were moved outwards with appropriate traffic routes and parking spaces. All resource intakes (water use) and waste disposal (garbage and sewage) were properly metered for billing. Residents who were fed-up of inner city problems got a chance to live with peace of mind on the suburbs. The population slowly moved out of the city. City managers got the space to check and redesign problematic infrastructure and improve it. But in our case it seems that our city managers have their heads stuck in the sand. Take the example of Bangkok. Long ago, it handed over its city vision and planning to AIT University. The whole city’s problems of infrastructure, transport, water, municipal services etc. were investigated and researched by academia and solutions were proposed and model tested. The proposals were executed by the authorities under the supervision of the university. The city’s storm water drainage model is an outstanding example. The Royal Water Treatment system of Bangkok must be shown to our city managers so they see how rain water is collected from all lateral streams. The water levels are automatically sensed and data collected. The collected storm water is then conveyed through main trunk channel towards the sea. The city surface is below sea level. They first pass that water through sludge combers, the cleared water is then pumped through four pumps of 100 cubic meters each to an elevated concrete canal, which then throws that water from a height into the sea. The pumping system is supported by an alternate grid station and standby generators. This intervention has helped them clear the city during rains within hours.