In order to address the reasons for Karachi’s flooding, its complexities must first be understood.
 Published September 6, 2020
The record-breaking rains of August 27 resulted in a near-collapse of the city’s infrastructure and exposed the lack of foresight, planning and governance that the metropolis has long suffered. But in order to address the issues, their complexities must first be understood

This monsoon season, Karachi flooded as never before. Streets were turned into rivers, cars and homes were washed away, landslides occurred in a number of places damaging vehicles and property, and over a hundred persons drowned or were electrocuted. The people of Karachi understand well that the causes of the problems of the city that they love so much are political and institutional and so are their solutions. However, the province and Islamabad, the antagonists in the Karachi situation, have yet to accept and express this.

Photo by Shakil Adil/White Star
Photo by Shakil Adil/White Star


It is generally believed that the reason for the flooding is encroachments by the residents of katchi abadis on the natural drainage system of the city and that the solution lies in removing these encroachments and the solid waste that has accumulated in the nullahs. However, the situation is far more complex than that, and has aggravated over a long period of time. This article tries to explain this complexity and the steps that have been taken in the past to address it and what, in technical terms, needs to be done now in a very changed situation.

As most Karachiites know, Karachi’s stormwater drains into two seasonal rivers, the Lyari and the Malir. Both rise in the foothills of the Kirthar range and run parallel to each other with a distance of between 14-20 kms in between. Forty-three stormwater drains (or nullahs), according to the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) documentation, and 64 according to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), carry the water of their huge catchment areas to them and over 600 smaller drains feed into these 64 nullahs. In addition, real estate has been built over thousands of even smaller nullahs.

Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star


Before independence, Karachi’s population was only 450,000. The city had a sewage system consisting mostly of underground earthenware pipes and it was treated through biological treatment at Gutter Baghicha located in the trans-Lyari area of the city between the Haroonabad drain and the Orangi nullah. The treated Effluent was used for growing vegetables, flowers for religious ceremonies and fruit trees. Gutter Baghicha, which covered an area of just over 1,000 acres (404.7 hectares), has been reduced to 480 acres (according to the NGO Shehri) due to illegal yet officially sanctioned settlements.

With partition and the arrival of about 800,000 migrants from India and the rest of Pakistan between 1947 and 1951, the city was forced to expand and both formal and informal sector developments took place far away from Gutter Baghicha. The Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan of 1958 created two satellite towns, Landhi-Korangi and New Karachi, at a distance of about 20 kilometres each from the then city. Sewage treatment plants were planned for these settlements and treated sewage was to be disposed; in the case of Landhi-Korangi, to the Korangi Creek and in the case of North Karachi, to Khawaja Ajmer Nagri nullah. However, these plants were never constructed and so untreated sewage is still disposed at these locations.

Because of an absence of a sustainable social housing policy, informal settlements developed along the nullahs, and these discharge their sewage into them as well. After the mid-’60s formal sector developments, in the absence of an alternative, also used the nullahs for disposal. So one can safely say that, post the mid-’60s Karachi’s sewage system has been officially planned to dispose into the nullahs and, as a result, sludge from sewage began to clog the nullahs and their tributaries.



In 1978-79, there were very heavy rains in Karachi and much of the housing along the nullahs was washed away. After that, informal settlement residents started to informally purchase solid waste from the municipal authorities to compact it along the nullah edges to secure them from erosion and flooding and to acquire land to extend their homes into the nullahs. It would not be out of place here to mention that the stormwater drains developed by the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) also carry sewage to the Clifton beach and, in the process, pollute the sea. With the passage of time, solid waste generated by the city increased from 6,500 tons to 14,000-15,000 tons between 2001 and 2020 and, in the absence of proper management and control, became increasingly difficult to manage. This had severe repercussions for the overall drainage system in Karachi.


Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star


Although Karachi is spatially a large city of 3,780 sq kms (with a built up area of approximately 500 sq kms), it has only two landfill sites, both next to each other and in District West. Consequently, solid waste has to be carried for over 40 kms from the eastern edge of the city so as to reach the landfill sites. Because of this distance, and the time and costs entailed, solid waste from most of Karachi does not reach the landfill sites, and is dumped at numerous informal dumping sites along the Korangi Creek and various other open areas and nullahs that join it. Proposals for additional landfill sites have been made since 1975 and, in a 2001 report, one landfill site for each district was suggested, but never implemented.

Meanwhile, a solid waste recycling industry, mostly in the informal sector, developed in Karachi over the years. This recycling industry, which is growing rapidly, acquires recyclable material from two streams. One is known as the clean stream, whereby housewives and markets sell bottles, newspapers, metal objects and cans to kabaarris, who then sell them to the recyclers. The other stream is known as the dirty stream, wherein young boys, mainly of Afghan origin, are organised by contractors to pick all recyclable material from kachra kundis or neighbourhood dumps. They carry it on bicycles to abandoned parks, empty plots or spaces under bridges, where it is sorted out into different categories and sold to the recyclers by weight.

Bones are crushed into powder and mixed with chicken feed; rags are turned into fluff by rag-pulling machines and used for upholstery; small pieces of paper are recycled into board; and plastic items are granulated and the granules are sent to the Punjab for being turned into utensils and toys. The contractors organising this activity pay the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) staff to not pick up the garbage so that the picking can be made easier. The organic waste that is left behind has, over the years, been dumped in the nullahs or has been burned. Burning has been reduced considerably due to public protests.

The homes along the nullahs also throw their waste into them. It is estimated by various reports that no more than 30 to 40 percent of waste reaches the landfill sites. By the mid-’90s, most of the nullahs of the city were full of compacted solid waste, and today children play cricket and football on them. A 2001 study by the Karachi Urban Resource Center estimated that, directly or indirectly, the recycling industry employed over 40,000 families. The number today is nearer 100,000 families.

In the absence of the implementation of Karachi’s development plans and the pressure for space for commercial activity, the local government constructed many bazaars over the nullahs such as the Urdu Bazaar and the Tyre Market. Meanwhile, the Government of Sindh, for its own use, has constructed car parking facilities, offices and a MPA hostel on the nullahs, and even part of the registry of the Supreme Court of Pakistan is constructed on a nullah, and so is part of the women’s college on Burnes Road and a bank building.

Meanwhile, in the posh areas, the VIPs had extended their homes on to the natural drainage systems and some of these were removed in 2004 by orders of the then Mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal.

Pressure for homes due to an absence of affordable housing for the poor has constantly increased in Karachi, especially in the ’90s and 2000s. As a result, solid waste has been used for reclaiming land from the sea for both low income and elite residential purposes. Such reclamation is, strictly speaking, illegal in both cases. Informal developers informally arrange for KMC trucks to deposit their solid waste on the mangrove marshes and hire KMC tractors to spread and compact it. This land is sold while the reclamation is taking place and even before it is physically visible.

Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star
Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star


It is estimated that, for parts of Macchar Colony, Sultanabad, Shireen Jinnah Colony and Keamari alone, 17 sq km of land has been reclaimed from the sea, and over 1,000 households live on it. A major part of Phase 8 of Karachi’s most elite settlement, DHA, has been reclaimed from the sea through the use of municipal solid waste.

Another major problem facing the drainage issue is that the outlets to the sea have been blocked or considerably reduced, as a result of which stormwater disposal is hindered. The Mehmoodabad nullah disposes into the Gizri Creek estuary, where DHA has developed plots for its Phase 7 scheme. A 60 ft nullah, constructed by DHA, now carries sewage and rainwater to the creek. Since this outlet is insufficient, it slows down the disposal to an extent that, at high tide during rainfall, there is a backwash into the nullah. As a result, large tracks of Mehmoodabad, Chanesar Goth and PECHS Block 6 extension are inundated, and remain as such for long periods of time.

Similarly, the Mai Kolachi Bypass and the Karachi Port Trust Officers Housing Society also block the exit of Pitcher nullah into the China Creek backwaters, because of which large areas of Saddar get flooded. A similar situation exists at the point where the Kalri nullah enters the China Creek backwaters.

There are also design and technical issues that create flooding. For instance, all stormwater from buildings and real estate projects drains on to the roads on which they are located. During rains, this water either disposes into the existing sewage system (which is also on the roads) or, when rains are heavy, it turns the roads into fast-flowing rivers which mix with the sewage and create, apart from physical distress, enormous health hazards.

But there are a number of other obstacles too to the journey of stormwater from the north to the sea. A major obstacle is encountered at the Northern Bypass where, because of its height above the Lyari floodplains and the absence of sufficient culverts, water accumulates, flooding large low-lying areas on both sides of the bypass. In addition, road construction in most of the low-income settlements is 3-4 ft above the level of the settlements, and there is no system of draining these settlements in case of heavy rains. As a result, they become islands of stagnant water till it is pumped out or absorbed by the land.

There are also design and technical issues that create flooding. For instance, all stormwater from buildings and real estate projects drains on to the roads on which they are located. During rains, this water either disposes into the existing sewage system (which is also on the roads) or, when rains are heavy, it turns the roads into fast-flowing rivers which mix with the sewage and create, apart from physical distress, enormous health hazards.

Government agencies have undertaken the rehabilitation and/or the building of a large number of roads. The tender documents require the construction of drains along the sides of the roads. These are invariably built and are usually of an excellent standard. However, more often than not, they do not have a disposal and usually end where the road construction or rehabilitation ends, leaving the stormwater to find its own destination.

Meanwhile, in the last decade and a half, another issue has surfaced. In the hilly formations north of the city, massive real estate development is taking place. Much of this development has demolished the geological formations that contained natural drainage channels, hillocks and water collection depressions. As a result, when it rains, areas immediately south of this region (such as Saadi Town) are completely submerged by floodwaters from the hills.

Areas which have not been levelled out and are next to the ones that have been levelled, collapse in the rains and, if there is housing on them, there is major loss of life and property. With more developments taking place in the Kirthar foothills, the likelihood of flooding and landslides will also increase.


Photo by Tahir Imran
Photo by Tahir Imran


To overcome some of these problems, the Government of Sindh (KWSB and the local government) in the late ’80s launched the Karachi Urban Development Programme. The programme consisted of rehabilitating the old sewage treatment plant and the construction of new ones, along with the building of trunk sewers along the main roads so as to take the sewage to the treatment plants. A large Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan was taken for this purpose.

The Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) was consulted regarding the implementation of the Orangi Town part of the project. It noticed that the trunks did not pick up the existing sewage system in which local government and the people of Orangi had invested billions of rupees. To connect the existing system, which flowed into the nullahs, would require digging up hundreds of kilometres of existing infrastructure and building new infrastructure to connect to the ADB trunks. Apart from being a waste of government and people’s investment, the communities would never agree to put up with this inconvenience and the psychological impact, of seeing their work and investment destroyed, would have been devastating.

When OPP saw the entire plan for the city, it observed that what was proposed for Orangi was proposed for the entire city. Connecting the existing sewage system to the trunks would require many more ADB loans, increasing Pakistan’s foreign debt.

The capacity of Karachi’s sewage treatment plants is 151 million gallons per day. However, since the sewage does not reach the plants, no more than 25 million gallons-a-day can be treated and, since the plants are so grossly under-utilised, severe maintenance problems surface. Meanwhile, sewage continues to flow happily into the drainage system.

These problems were recognised by the OPP-PTI as early as 1988. The OPP-PTI proposed that the reality of sewage flowing into the natural drainage system be accepted, and that trunk sewers be laid in the bed of the nullahs or on either side of them. However, we did not have enough knowledge then regarding the number of nullahs, the relationship of the existing sewage systems to them and the terrain through which different nullahs flowed and, as such, this concept could not be properly framed.

The present flooding has also exposed the poor quality of infrastructure built for Karachi. Roads collapsed, embankments were breached, sewage systems failed and, due to flooding, electricity had to be switched off for more than half of the city. It is yet to be ascertained if this was because of faulty design or whether design standards were inadequate to deal with the extent of flooding.

The knowledge regarding these issues was developed by the seminal work done by architect Perveen Rehman, then director OPP-RTI. She identified and documented 43 nullahs and, on the basis of this knowledge, OPP worked out the details of a sewage system consisting of trunks on either of side of the nullahs and being connected near the disposal points with each other, and pumped from there to the treatment plants (See map below for OPP-RTI proposal).


This proposal was accepted and, with modifications, it formed the basis for the Greater Karachi Sewage Plan (also known as S-3) — part of which is now under construction. At a meeting where this decision was taken, the ADB consultant for the design of the ODA UK-financed trunks expressed grave concern and pointed out that Her Majesty’s government had invested 1 million pounds in the preparation of the designs.

This ignoring of ground realities and existing infrastructure has been a characteristic of foreign-funded infrastructure projects in Karachi, resulting in excessive costs, as in the case of the ADB-funded Korangi Waste Water Management Project. This was a 100 million US dollar project, of which 80 million US dollars was a loan. After OPP redesigned the project to integrate the existing system and reworked the rates, the cost of the project was reduced to 26 million US dollars, which led the then Governor of Sindh, Moinuddin Haider, to cancel the loan (for existing infrastructure at Korangi Project see map above).

In addition, all foreign-funded projects have a fairly high percentage of costs allocated for “capacity building.” Yet, over the last 40 years, no capacity to deal with the evolving situation has developed. This is because capacity building is done through foreign trips to look at “good practices” and through workshops and seminars. No permanent institution for research, monitoring and training has been established — a basic requirement for any capacity building and the establishment of a continuous culture of learning.

During the mapping of the stormwater drains, OPP-RTI had constant interaction with the local communities living along the nullahs. It was only them who knew the points of maximum flooding, the behaviour pattern of the floods and of the various smaller drains that have disappeared. So far, how they can be made part of the planning and rehabilitation process has not been considered by the government agencies.

OPP also studied how the Japanese, after the devastation of the Second World War, had dealt with a similar situation. They had secured the edges of the nullahs to prevent erosion. In appropriate places, they had covered the nullahs and used their roofs as public space and created sports grounds, children’s play areas and community spaces for older people. Unfortunately, OPP could not carry out these proposals.


Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Photo by Fahim Siddiqui/White Star


The present flooding has also exposed the poor quality of infrastructure built for Karachi. Roads collapsed, embankments were breached, sewage systems failed and, due to flooding, electricity had to be switched off for more than half of the city. It is yet to be ascertained if this was because of faulty design or whether design standards were inadequate to deal with the extent of flooding. If the latter, then engineers will have to work to establish appropriate standards. In the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, it was also proposed that dams be constructed in the foothills of the Kirthar range, to store large quantums of water. However, only one dam, the Thaddo Dam, has been constructed. Will the construction of additional dams reduce the pressure of water entering Karachi? This too needs to be ascertained.

Politicians, bureaucrats, developers and even a number of engineers have stressed that the removal of encroachments from, and the cleaning of, the nullahs is the first step towards easing the situation in Karachi. However, from what has been discussed above, the most important step that needs to be taken is to remove the encroachments at the outfalls, so that water can enter the sea. Also, it has to be understood that, if the housing along the nullahs is removed, the water will erode the edges of the nullah and cause a major disaster by flooding out the housing at the edge, as it did in 1978 and 1979, and we will be left with a huge housing and relocation problem.

It is essential that, even before attempting such an exercise, a proper documentation of the potential affectees is drawn up, with Nadra’s assistance, and encroachment removal is across the board, with the source criteria being applied for both rich and poor, unlike in the past. It is also relevant to note here that there is sufficient federal and provincial government land within the city to easily house over 80,000 families at almost no cost to the state. Proposals for this have also been floated off and on in the press.

Many of the problems that have been identified above cannot be dealt with together. A criteria for prioritising them will have to be developed. All of them are really a part of a larger planning process for Karachi. Such a planning process requires research, on the basis of which politicians can take informed decisions; the development of plans (with the participation of communities) by an empowered and well-staffed planning institution, and their implementation in a transparent and accountable manner. And finally, there will have to be a monitoring, operation and maintenance process, especially at the neighbourhood level.

The prime minister has also asked for the preparation of a Karachi Transformation Plan. It is hoped that, apart from basic rehabilitation, the plan will propose an effective local body reform, without which, in the opinion of the author, no transformation can take place.

Much of this work will be have to done at the grassroots level and will entail the empowering of the Union Councils and the involvement of citizens in the formulation of the Union Council’s annual development programme. Karachi packages, as developed in the past, and projects unrelated to a larger plan, will not help in the creation of an appropriate planning process, nor will time- and cash-bound projects funded by international financial institutions such as ADB and the World Bank. History taught us these lessons long ago, but we have failed to learn from them.

What is being suggested above cannot be carried out by provincial bureaucrats or by short-term sophisticated consultants and the companies to whom contracts for delivering services have been handed out to by the Government of Sindh. Nor can a national disaster management authority develop long-term plans for disaster prevention without an implementation arrangement with the line departments and local governments. To deal with the Karachi situation, an effective local government organisation is required, which ends the fragmentation of Karachi into different planning jurisdictions, with all its departments under central control. So far, the Sindh government has been averse to this, because it wishes to control the city through a highly centralised form of governance, because it does not gain the required number of seats to promote decentralisation.

However, the prime minister has proposed autonomous city governments for the major cities of Pakistan. For this, a political consensus among the different parties would be required and, given the sentiments and the enormous resources that Karachi possesses, this would be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

The prime minister has also asked for the preparation of a Karachi Transformation Plan. It is hoped that, apart from basic rehabilitation, the plan will propose an effective local body reform, without which, in the opinion of the author, no transformation can take place. A very important ingredient for what has been suggested are human resources. For that it is necessary that a research and training institute be established, whose training would be for politicians at all levels and for staff involved in project preparation, implementation and monitoring.

An association with community leaders and activists would have to be an important part of the training. Can this be made possible over a period of time? If yes, there is hope for a better Karachi. If not, we will simply continue to muddle through.

Header image: A view of Shahrahe Jahangir road | Tahir Jamal/White Star

The writer is an architect and town planner. He can be reached at arifhasan37@gmail.com or www.arifhasan.org

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 6th, 2020

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