Planning Karachi – for disaster or its management?

Urban planning is key to disaster preparedness. Karachi has had many plans prepared but rarely have those been implemented effectively

Planning Karachi – for disaster or its management?


he coastal belt of Sindh, including Karachi, was put under high-alert during June 2023 under the impending threat of cyclone Biparjoy. In the end, the cyclone drifted towards the Indian state of Gujrat and caused a lot less damage in Sindh than the worst-case projections. Mercifully Karachi was safe. At one point, it was apprehended that the cyclone could generate high tidal waves next to the city and cause torrential rain and related impacts. Cyclones are not the only natural disaster threats Karachi faces. Tsunamis are another major possibility. According to historic accounts, a massive tsunami had struck Karachi in 1945, leading to many casualties. Considering that the city has grown many fold since then, the possible impacts of a similar event can be much more disastrous.

Karachi’s sea front includes some of its most affluent neighbourhoods as well as some low-income communities. Whether we are prepared to safeguard the lives, properties and assets of the vast population is an important question. Besides, the possibilities of other natural and man-made disasters continue to raise new challenges for civic agencies and the municipal administration. Earthquake, rain and urban flooding, heat waves, droughts, urban fires and pandemics constitute the new range of potential challenges for which the city needs to prepare itself. In most cases, the response to a calamity has been limited to rescue and some relief. The planned approaches leading to proper rehabilitation and re-development of affected locations have been dismal. For instance, when the jhuggis (abodes built with temporary material) and shacks catch fire on river-edge locations, the only response is firefighting and distribution of essential supplies among the affected people. After a few days, the affected communities are left to fend for themselves.

Let us look at the record of urban planning related to disaster preparedness. Many plans have been prepared for managing Karachi since independence. In 1952, the Greater Karachi Plan was prepared by a Swedish firm. However, the absence of authentic data, anomalous changes in the demographic patterns of the city (especially high immigration of refugees) and shift of capital to Islamabad in the following years did not allow the plan to achieve its targets. The Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan of 1958 aimed at providing alternative locations for the resettlement of refugees. It was also an attempt to de-concentrate settlement pattern away from the south of Karachi. Absence of a land-use strategy, limited arterial links to the external areas, the time lag between the settlement and development/ operation of industries led to the ineffectiveness of the plan. Karachi Development Plan 1973-85 was based on several fact-finding studies, researches and surveys. It provided commendable sets of data and proposals for guiding the city development. However, a lack of political will, ad hoc over-riding decisions and actions related to planning and development as well as the absence of the capacity of the development authority to enforce the planning decisions were some of the reasons that led to the failure of the KDP 1973-85 to achieve its outlined objectives.

Fate of the Karachi Development Plan 1986-2000 was no different. It was never notified as a formal plan for the city. The Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 was prepared in 2006. This, too, was not notified for many years. It was only after the Supreme Court intervention that the plan was notified, a few months before the completion of its time frame.

Among other prescriptions, these plans had useful guidelines for disaster preparedness, approaches to evolve an urban development pattern that was safe for its residents and a range of institutional responses in case a disaster strikes. Not implementing these plans has been a gross disservice to the city and its residents. The government is now embarking upon a new planning initiative namely the Greater Karachi Region Plan 2047. It is hoped that past experience will constitute a learning ground and the new plan will be prepared carefully and diligently implemented.

Manmade disasters can be no less lethal. Karachi has experienced many episodes of buildings, structures, abodes and common assets catching fire at a rising frequency. During the past few years, several major buildings caught fire along primary arteries such as Shahrah-i-Faisal. Fire fighters had to struggle to reach to upper stories and fire mitigation arrangements within the buildings were grossly ineffective. One person was killed and many injured when a multi-storeyed corporate office building caught fire in April this year. Billions of rupees worth of assets were burnt during these unfortunate incidents.

Katchi abadis, major markets, sweat shops, dense settlements and commercial areas are also vulnerable to increasing fire hazards. Unsafe methods of extending internal and external wiring, leaking gas from any domestic appliance and short circuit in an electricity switch or distribution board all raise the risks. In commercial buildings, warehouses and factory structures, one finds that periodic assessment of fixtures and electrical/ gas supply systems are seldom undertaken. Since the owners and managers are only interested in spending minimum to optimise the returns, workers are asked to continue without addressing faults such as leakages, sparks in wiring or malfunctioning of worn-out conduits.

Many premises – established in commercial or residential areas – do not even bother to acquire power connections commensurate with actual load. Similarly, layouts and placement of work stations do not guarantee safe evacuation. Lack of exits to the exteriors raises the risk of a stampede and trap situations. Lack of ventilation and inappropriate orientation render such structures suffocating and dingy. Garment factories, mechanical, embroidery outlets, stitching shops of various scales and profiles abound. These enterprises operate in non-purpose built accommodation in dense commercial and residential areas. A casual approach to installing wiring and electric appliances without proper safety measures, raises the fire risks. It is the responsibility of concerned regulatory bodies to carry out regular checks and ensure compliance with corrective advices on non-conformities.

The disasters drastically impact the urban poor. Often their lives change for the worse. Production assets are lost. In cases where a bread earner of a family is a victim, the entire household descends into abject poverty. Destructions caused due to rains and urban floods, fires, pandemic and evictions have had enormous consequences on the everyday life of urban poor. A focused assessment needs to be done to establish the disaster impacts experienced by the urban poor and strategic options of relief and rehabilitation that can be prepared for their assistance.

Published in The News by Dr Noman Ahmed 02 July 2023