In-Depth On The Cover

Tapping into trouble

Updated 18 Aug, 2016 02:40pm
People collect water from a tank in Orangi Town, Sector 11, through a leak in its wall | Naushad Alam
People collect water from a tank in Orangi Town, Sector 11, through a leak in its wall | Naushad Alam

Imagine a city that requires 1,000 million gallons of water every day and then imagine a system that, even in the best case scenario, can carry only half of that water to the city. It is inevitable that dishonest officials, unscrupulous elements, profiteers and even crime rackets see this shortage as a window of opportunity to make a quick buck. Quite naturally, those vested in its failure would like to keep the system as inadequate and inefficient as it always has been. This is Karachi and a summary of its water woes for you.

Reservoirs of problems

Almost all of Karachi’s water supply comes from two main sources – Keenjhar Lake, about 120 kilometres to the northeast of the city and Hub Dam, which is 60 kilometres toward the northwest. The original design capacity of both sources stood at 583 million gallons daily (MGD) and 100 MGD respectively, but these have decreased considerably due to poor upkeep of water transporting machinery, theft and, in the case of Hub Dam, paucity of rainfall.

Since February 2014, Hub Dam has been providing only 24 per cent of the water it is meant to replenish Karachi with, say sources in the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) which oversees the transportation and distribution of water in the metropolis. Similarly, the quantity of water coming from Keenjhar Lake, falls well short of what it should be. Meters installed at a pumping station right outside Karachi show that the city has been getting only 400 MGD to 415 MGD of water from the lake for the last six months, claims Mohsin Raza, the general secretary of the People’s Labour Union, an association of the KWSB employees.

Hub Dam was constructed in 1982 and since then its water storage has decreased in a big way. Over the last two years, rains have been few and far between in the catchment area of the dam, spread over 3,410 square miles, and the water stored here is just five feet above what in technical terms is called “dead level”. If the reservoir could store water to its maximum capacity, its water level would be 63 feet above the dead level. The latter depth has not been achieved in recent years.

A canal in Gharo carrying water from Keenjhar Lake to Dhabeji pumping station | Moosa Kaleem
A canal in Gharo carrying water from Keenjhar Lake to Dhabeji pumping station | Moosa Kaleem

The major source of potable water for Karachi, therefore, remains Keenjhar Lake. Spread over 60 square kilometres, the lake has a storage capacity of 0.524 million acre-feet (MAF) of water out of which 0.393 MAF can be transported out of the lake through canals. Keenjhar is an artificial lake which was built in the 1950s after two natural lakes in Thatta district of Sindh, Sunehri Lake and Kalri Lake, were joined and then linked to the Indus river to serve as a reservoir and supply water to domestic, commercial and industrial consumers in Karachi as well as to irrigate 352,000 acres of land in Thatta. A canal originating from Kotri Barrage at the Indus, Keenjhar-Baghar (KB) Feeder (Upper), carries 9,100 cubic feet per second (cusec) of river water to the lake and another canal, KB Feeder (Lower), takes the water from the lake to the fields in Thatta district.

Through a third system of canals, water from the lake travels 120 kilometres to reach Karachi. It covers 46 kilometres of this distance in a series of open canals — the first one of which is a 29-kilometre long Keenjhar-Gujjo (KG) canal which originates from a point called Chilya at the southern end of the lake.

“This canal was constructed in 1978. Earlier, water to Karachi was supplied through KB Feeder (Lower) canal,” says Muhammad Iqbal Paleejo, an executive engineer at KWSB’s canal maintenance division.

The bed and the banks of the KG canal were reinforced with concrete in 1993 and, in 1997, the canal authorities acquired an additional 250 feet of land along each of its sides to further protect it from soil erosion and facilitate its maintenance and desilting. Travelling along the canal, however, one finds a number of fish farms on both sides, all getting water from the canal. At other places, farmers can be seen using water from the canal to irrigate their fields.

Misbahuddin Farid, KWSB’s former managing director, claims that water pilferage for agricultural usage from the KG canal is quite high. Citing estimates from 2013, he puts it at about five per cent of the total water flowing through the KWSB system that carries water from Keenjhar Lake to Karachi. Farmers have installed diesel engines to draw water from the canals, says Farid. At some point in the recent past, water pilferage became so huge that the paramilitary Rangers had to be deployed to spot the theft, arrest the culprits and confiscate illegally installed diesel engines, Farid tells the Herald.

However, he acknowledges that there is no permanent solution to the problem. Farmers resume their water pumping operations as soon as law-enforcement agencies leave their areas.

“It is impossible to permanently deploy Rangers or other law enforcement agencies in these areas to stop water pilferage,” he says.

Other officials at KWSB claim water pilferage from KG canal is negligible at 5 MGD, which is less than one per cent of the total water that flows through the canal. According to these officials, they are in contact with both the farmers and the district administration in Thatta to stop the illegal use of water. While many farmers have voluntarily agreed to remove their diesel engines that draw water from the canal, says executive engineer Paleejo, district authorities remain rather unresponsive. “We have requested the district administration in Thatta on many occasions but no action has so far been taken,” he says.

At Gujjo, the KG canal branches out into the Greater Karachi (GK) canal and the Karachi–II (K-II) canal. For the first 17 kilometres of their journey, the two channels are open canals but at Gharo they go underground. Three underground conduits – GK, K-II and K-III – carry water for another 11 kilometres before it reaches Dhabeji Pumping Station. From this pumping station, water is transported over a distance of 4.5 kilometres through 10 pipelines –varying in diameter from 66 inches to 72 inches – to a high place called Four-Bay. From here, three big pipelines carry water for another 60 kilometres to a place called Pipri, right on the eastern outskirts of Karachi.

Before the construction of the existing water transportation system started in 1956, Karachi was supplied 30 MGD of water from Gharo through the Haleji Conduit since 1943. Another source of water to Karachi in those days were 16 Dumlottee wells, built in the 1880s, which would carry water from the Malir River to the city. Out of these wells, 12 still exist but only three are functional though they no longer use water from the Malir River. Instead, a system has been devised to connect them to the water supply system originating from Keenjhar Lake.

'Zero point', where the distribution of water in Karachi begins | Moosa Kaleem
'Zero point', where the distribution of water in Karachi begins | Moosa Kaleem

Over the decades, Karachi’s water supply system has expanded considerably. In 1984, it was providing 280 MGD of water to the city; another 100 MGD were added to the system through two projects – K-II and K-III – which were completed in 1998 and 2006 respectively. Through a bulk water supply project, the city got another 40 MGD of water in 2000.

All these statistics paint a picture of steady progress in developing water supply schemes for Karachi. What they successfully hide are large-scale inefficiencies, poor maintenance and massive water theft, which mar these schemes at every stage. According to official estimates of the river’s water distribution formula, Karachi can get as much as 648 MGD of water from Keenjhar Lake, but the canals and pipelines that transport the water can only carry 583 MGD. Most pumping stations are run on outdated equipment — Dhabeji pumping station, for instance, was set up in 1959 and most of its machines have long passed their expiry dates.

During a visit to Dhabeji pumping station in June 2014, the Herald found that the facility lacked adequate standby pumps. When an original pump requires maintenance, it has to be immediately replaced by a standby one, but backup pumps were not available for each of the the four pump houses at Dhabeji.

Azhar Iqbal Qazi, a resident engineer at Dhabeji station, tells the Herald that nine out of 33 pumps are not functional. Other KWSB officials also concede that the water supply system suffers from severe inefficiencies. At least 10 per cent of water that arrives at Dhabeji pumping station cannot be transported to the city due to out-of-order machinery, says a senior KWSB official, who asked not to be named.

Other parts of the system also suffer from similar negligence. The canal that brings water from Hub Dam to Karachi loses 30 per cent of water along the way because of poor maintenance, says Zafar Ali Palijo, a superintendent engineer at KWSB.

A non-functional screen that is meant to filter floating objects before water is pumped through the situation | Moosa Kaleem
A non-functional screen that is meant to filter floating objects before water is pumped through the situation | Moosa Kaleem

The devil in distribution

Out of 583 MGD of water which make it to Karachi from Keenjhar Lake, at least on paper, 33 MGD are diverted to Pakistan Steel Mills and Port Qasim for industrial use. From what remains, 200 MGD are supplied to the northern and eastern parts of the city, 180 MGD to Gulshan-e-Iqbal and its adjoining areas, 140 MGD reach the Low Surface Reservoir near Civic Centre and the remaining 30 MGD to Karsaz. Six bulk consumers, including the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and industrial areas alone get more than 20 per cent of this water supply, which is 125 MGD. Since Hub Dam is providing just 24 MGD of water to the city these days, Karachi’s District West and parts of District Central are getting 70 MGD of Keenjhar water which was originally meant for other areas of the city, says a KWSB official.

Even though this water distribution formula clearly favours industrial and elite consumers more than those living in the poorer neighbourhoods, it’s still not the major hurdle in supplying water to every household in Karachi. The main problem afflicting the distribution system are large-scale leakages and theft. On its official website, the KWSB puts the rate of leakage and pilferage at 35 per cent. Qutubuddin Shaikh, the managing director of the KWSB, says this loss is to the tune of 20-25 per cent. Raza of the labour union, on the other hand, claims water lost to leakage and pilferage stands at 40 per cent of the city’s total water supply.

“There is no proper criterion to gauge the actual percentage of leakages in pipelines. My guess is that 10 per cent to 15 per cent of water loss occurs due to bad pipelines,” says a senior-ranking KWSB official. The rest is water theft which, going by Sheikh’s estimate, is at least 10 per cent, However, if one were to rely on the figures mentioned on KWSB’s website, pilferage could be as high as 20 per cent.

Now consider this: If the total amount of water leaving Keenjhar Lake for Karachi is 583 MGD, at least one per cent of it is used enroute to Karachi for agriculture and fish farming, another 10 per cent is lost due to non-functional pumps and, finally, using the minimum figure for leakage and pilferage, the latter take away another 25 per cent from the supply. These statistics paint a dismal picture, in which a staggering 36 per cent of Karachi’s water is either lost or stolen before it reaches the city. This means that 210 MGD out of the 583 MGD of water that is supposed to reach Karachi every day never makes it to residents. In a city that needs 1,000 MGD of water, it is not surprising that protests and even riots over water shortages are so common.

Many ways to steal water

An angry mob blocks main Orangi Road near German School in Karachi’s Orangi Town as the summer sizzles in the city. Young men set fire to tyres and wooden pieces secured from garbage. They throw bricks and stones at vehicles passing by but the source of their anger is not the road or the people using it. Their unruliness and violence stems from their frustration with living without water for weeks. The pipelines leading to their neighbourhoods have run dry and the alternative water supply system through water tankers carrying water from government-sanctioned hydrants, has been inoperative for some inexplicable reason.

While the boys on Orangi Road are getting no response from KWSB to their protests, some nearby areas never run out of water. Less than three kilometres away from the site of their protest, in the relatively sparsely populated neighbourhood of Khairabad, a water tanker emerges from a street after every 10 minutes and heads either to SITE industrial area or to some better-off residential area in Orangi Town. The tankers are using an illegal hydrant set up without KWSB’s permission, which utilises official pipelines to steal water.

Newspapers and television channels carry reports about the presence of such illegal hydrants on a daily basis and every now and then the authorities take action by disconnecting the hydrant and confiscating the machinery. Sometimes, they arrest people held responsible for overseeing the llegal operations at these water points. However, the pilferage continues due to ineffective criminal prosecution, corruption among KWSB officials as well as police and most importantly, the routine problems that plague the supply system, which frequently result in water shortages and thus create a demand for illegal water supply. As long as there are people ready to pay the asking price of water, there will be opportunists who will continue to illegelly tap into the supply system with the help of crooked officials and make a hefty profit. There are around 125 illegally established hydrants operating in the city, says Farid — a staggering contrast to the number of legally sanctioned hydrants, which only amount to 20.

The business of illegal hydrants is thriving the most in District South, particularly in DHA and Clifton. The ones set up in Landhi and Korangi send 70 per cent of their supply to DHA and Clifton, Farid says. “There are two reasons for water shortage in DHA and Clifton. Firstly, these areas are at the tail end of KWSB’s supply system and secondly, new vertical housing projects that have emerged in the past decade as well as development of new phases in DHA have increased water demand manifold.”

However, Farid claims that illegal hydrants are not the major source of pilferage. Water stolen through these points is less than two per cent of total water supplied to the city, he says.

Other insiders point out that illegal hydrants are not the only sources of water pilferage. The legal ones are also used for stealing water or supplying it to the wrong consumers. Sources in the KWSB explain that contractors are allowed to set up legal hydrants after they go through an official process and pay an official fee. These hydrants, theoretically, are set up in order to cater to the needs of domestic consumers in those areas where supply through pipeline is either not possible or is facing some technical difficulty. The contractors are not supposed to charge consumers the market rate for water. In reality, these legal hydrants function in a far more shady way.

Most contractors conspire with KWSB officials and increase the capacity of their hydrants beyond what is sanctioned, thus withdrawing more water from the supply lines than they are allowed to, according to sources privy to information on how the hydrant system works. These contractors also sell water to commercial and industrial users – who according to the KWSB rules cannot get water from such hydrants – for prices much higher than the fixed rate set by KWSB for domestic consumers. Nobody can really quantify the extent of water pilferage through these legal hydrants.

Another important source of water theft comes from high-rise buildings, which have disproportionately small water connections compared to their needs. According to Farid, builders of big apartment buildings, which have dotted the skyline of Gulshan-e-Iqbal and Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighbourhoods over the past 15 years, have exploited their unsuspecting customers as far as water supply is concerned.

“These builders got approval for small size water connections in order to save money. After all the apartments were sold, residents found out their building’s water connection could never meet their requirements,” Farid says.

To fill the gap, residents first try to get water through tankers. When that proves both costly and inadequate, they simply increase the size of their connection without approval from KWSB, mainly under protection from some political party or criminal gang, Farid explains.

Water barons

Any conversation about the origins of illegal hydrants in Karachi starts with two names — Taj Muhammad Kohistani and Ajab Khan. The two are believed to have set up the first illegal hydrants in Karachi as far back as 1995. Kohistani set up his hydrant in Nauras Chowrangi area near SITE by drilling through KWSB supply lines. Khan operated his first illegal hydrant in Nazimabad No 2.

Muhammad Gillani was a major player in the illegal hydrant business but he has abandoned it after suffering from many personal tragedies, which he believed happened because of his illigal activities. He tells the Herald that Kohistani and Khan were actually working for industrialists operating in SITE, who required water supply in bulk but were not receiving it through the official system. According to Gillani, the early illegal hydrants used the cover of underground boring.

Residents collect water from Bewa water pump in Orangi Town, Sector 11. There is not enough water in the storage tank here to distribute to the area
Residents collect water from Bewa water pump in Orangi Town, Sector 11. There is not enough water in the storage tank here to distribute to the area

Besides running these hydrants to provide water to both domestic and industrial consumers, their operators would use the cover of underground boring (drilling) right next to a KWSB pipeline to make it look like they were fetching water from the ground and not from KWSB’s system. By the early 2000s, only a dozen illegal hydrants operated in Karachi, says Gillani, almost all of them thriving under the guise of underground boring.

This changed dramatically in 2002 when the KWSB supplied more water to its system and at the same time underground boring started extracting brackish water, Gillani tells the Herald. Since this brackish water had higher than 500 milligrams of total dissolved solids per litre, industries stopped buying it because it could damage their products.

This gave birth to another class of Water Mafia.” Now the operators would just drill their way to the KWSB’s main pipeline and connect smaller pipes to it to carry water to their industrial clients,” Gillani says, as he explains how illegal operators supplying to factories in District West usually function.

“They buy a house near KWSB’s main pipeline, drill into the ground to reach the pipeline and connect it to their own network of pipes, which then supply water to factories.”

To avoid drawing attention, most of the drilling and construction is done when roads are being dug and built in the area, adds Gillani.

Water supply in this system is controlled through valves and the volume of water being supplied is calculated by meters installed at the factories.

Sometimes, reverse osmosis plants are set up to show to the authorities that factory owners are extracting brackish water from the wells, cleaning it and using it for their operations, he adds.

Gillani claims that 80 per cent of over 3,000 industrial units in SITE get water from this hybrid system of legal supply from wells and illegal supply from KWSB pipelines. Besides having to invest heavily on setting up their own private pipelines, the operators of the illegal system pay handsomely to KWSB’s valve men and to local police in order to keep their operations under wraps. “They still earn more than those supplying water through tankers,” says Gillani.

Farid endorses the existence of part of this illicit water supply. Besides using tankers to meet their water needs, factories also receive water through privately laid pipes, which are connected to the KWSB’s main pipelines. “The industrial demand for water is huge and KWSB cannot meet it. Because it is a public utility, it gives priority to household consumers,” he says. Farid does not say it in so many words but the fact remains that the industries are certainly exploiting weaknesses in the supply system as well as relying on illegal practices to jump ahead of domestic consumers.

Those operating illegal hydrants and private pipelines get pleny of help from KWSB officials but their main facilitator is the police. Without their patronage, setting up a hydrant and laying underground pipes is simply impossible, maintains Farid.

“As a cover-up, these factories are also connected through pipes to wells dug near SITE industrial area. Whenever there is an official inspection to check where the water is coming from, valves connected to the pipes taking water from the KWSB system are closed down. Instead, water from bore wells starts getting pumped into the factories,” explains Gillani.

People collect water from a tank in Orangi Town, Sector 11, through a leak in its wall. - Photo by Naushad Alam
People collect water from a tank in Orangi Town, Sector 11, through a leak in its wall. - Photo by Naushad Alam

According to him, one major reason why stealing water is so common is that the law to prevent it is very weak. Section 14 of the KWSB Act 1996 prescribes only six months in prison and a 10,000-rupees fine for anyone found guilty of damaging the KWSB water supply line. This is also a bail-able offence; suspects are mostly released on personal security as soon as they are presented before a judge, Farid says.

This, according to him, provides enough incentive to keep committing the same crime over and over again. He cites examples of numerous raids that he himself carried out against illegal hydrants, leading to the arrests of dozens of people. However, he admits these raids could never check water pilferage due to weak prosecution and lenient punishments.

“I have suggested amending the law to increase the sentence to a minimum of 14 years for damaging a KWSB supply pipe and for making illegal connections in it,” says Farid. He regrets that provincial legislators are not paying due attention to amending the law.

How clean is my water?

As the first measure to ensure that there are no unwarranted substances in water supplied to Karachi, KWSB has set up two metallic screens at several points in the water supply system. These screens are meant to keep out shrubs, dry leaves, dead wood and other floating materials. In June this year, however, the Herald found that these screens had been removed from at least two pump houses at Dhabeji station for being “out of order”, according to a KWSB employee.

Some undesired substances will make their way through these screens, in any case. For instance, cases of people drowning in the canals that carry water to Karachi are quite common.

“At least one case of drowning is reported every month,” says Zafar Ali Paleejo.

Sometimes, it takes days before the body is retrieved. As these bodies decompose, the toxins they release get dissolved in the water. There is no system available to remove such toxins, say KWSB officials.

The only water cleaning tools available with the KWSB are five filtration plants which, on paper, are meant to filter as much as 440 MGD of water but KWSB employees say these plants, due to their technical inadequacies, are ineffective. “Water filtration is a mere eyewash,” says labour union’s Raza. Officials at KWSB, however, claim they chlorinate water where filtration does not work.

Planning for the present

“We have chalked out a plan to strengthen Dhabeji pumping station at an estimated cost of 800 million rupees to 900 million rupees. We expect to start working on it soon and complete it within one year,” says Sheikh. According to other KWSB officials, another project, called K-IV, has been devised to fill the gap between the city’s demand and supply of water. The project has a design capacity of supplying an additional 650 MGD of water to Karachi, according to daily Dawn.

On July 10, 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved K-IV, to be built at a cost of 25.6 billion rupees in the next four years. A week later, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec), the highest committee of the federal cabinet which approves large development projects, agreed that the federal government and the Sindh government would each bear half of the project’s cost, say media reports.

However, according to the Dawn, the Sindh government has now raised an objection to the method of financing, saying that any cost overruns that may occur during the consturction period should also be shared equally with the centre. The federal government, on the other hand, believes that such overruns, estimated to be two billion rupees in the next four years, should be borne by the provincial government alone, a report in Dawn on July 23, 2014, reads. The wrangling between the centre and the Sindh government over a relatively small portion of financing required for the project may continue for a while, which is certain to delay construction work for K-IV. It has already taken more than a year for Ecnec to approve it, says Sheikh.

This was originally published in Herald's August 2014 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.