People & Society

Why Karachi is unable to tackle its water and sewerage problems

Updated 26 Mar, 2018 06:46pm
Construction being carried out on the Lyari riverbed near Federal B Area in Karachi | photos by Tahir Jamal, White Star
Construction being carried out on the Lyari riverbed near Federal B Area in Karachi | photos by Tahir Jamal, White Star

Karachi’s Mayor Wasim Akhtar was all complaints at a Sindh Water Commission hearing on February 16 this year. He explained how his six-month-old initiative to clean Neher-e-Khayyam, a water channel in Clifton area, had run into snags and wanted the commission’s head, former Supreme Court judge Amir Hani Muslim, to intervene on his behalf.

Neher-e-Khayyam is a 100-foot wide and 2.5-kilometre long channel in the central part of Clifton. Its original function was to drain rainwater from residential areas into Chinna Creek, which meets the Arabian Sea around Karachi’s port area. The channel is also meant to absorb tidal seawater so that it does not overflow onto the streets.

Neher-e-Khayyam, instead, has become a dump for domestic sewage and its banks have been populated by private enterprises running plant nurseries. The hearing, presided over by Muslim, took up many issues including complains by some residents of the area about the sewage and its attendant stench.

Senior officials of local government departments as well as those representing the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), the District Municipal Corporation South (DMC South) and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) were all in attendance, nervous that the commission could hold them responsible for the poor state of the water channel.

Akhtar informed Muslim that he wanted to lay sewerage pipes along both sides of Neher-e-Khayyam so that no sewage could flow through it but, he complained, the Sindh government stopped him from doing so, arguing that the channel did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Akhtar-headed KMC. According to the provincial government, Neher-e-Khayyam lies within the territorial boundaries of DMC South. This denial of his jurisdiction, he said, allowed DMC South to re-establish nurseries earlier removed by the KMC.

He also mentioned another argument advanced by the Sindh local government department to oppose the pipeline: it could reduce the width of the channel, decreasing its capacity to handle inflows of rainwater and sea tides.

After hearing the mayor’s plaints, Muslim ruled that his plan could be stopped only if other civic agencies guarantee that no sewage would flow into Neher-e-Khayyam. “If you object to the KMC project, then no sewage should enter the channel,” he said.

It was akin to telling Shylock he could have Antonio’s pound of flesh but could not shed a drop of blood. The sewage has nowhere else to go.

Muslim then addressed the mayor: “Wasim bhai, just see how they will agree to the project now.”

The Sindh High Court (SHC) formed what later came to be called the Water Commission, following an order of the Supreme Court. The objective of the commission, set up on December 29, 2016, was to examine the provision of clean drinking water to people in Sindh and to ascertain sanitary conditions in the province. Justice Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro, an SHC judge, was appointed as its head, and it submitted its report on January 26, 2017.

On March 16 last year, the Supreme Court asked the commission to also ensure compliance with its recommendations but Justice Kalhoro said his usual judicial duties would not allow him to do so. The apex court later nominated Muslim who took over the task in January this year.

The commission’s report states that Karachi produces more than 450 million gallons a day (MGD) of sewage. This includes liquid waste produced by households, businesses, hospitals and industrial units. Passing through different drainage channels that empty out in the Lyari and Malir rivers as well as into various drains, all this refuse ends up in the sea.

On paper, this sewage must be treated by one of the three plants in the city but, as the commission reports, these plants “are all lying nonfunctional”.

Two of them – one in Shershah area near Lyari and the other at Mehmoodabad to the south of Shahrah-e-Faisal – were constructed as far back as 1964 and have been nonfunctional since 2013 and 2009 respectively. The third plant – in western Karachi’s Mauripur area – was built in 1998. It, too, has been nonfunctional since 2013.

Instead of trying to rehabilitate its treatment plants immediately ... KWSB is trying to hide behind excuse of paucity of resources.

In the absence of functioning treatment plants, sewage – which often contains highly hazardous industrial effluents – goes into the sea utterly untreated. This has not just polluted the seashore and the beaches but has also endangered a large number of marine species in the Arabian Sea.

The commission’s report strongly criticises KWSB for its failure to address the problem. “As per statement of KWSB even with these three treatment plants, when they were working with full capacity, KWSB was able to treat only 151 MGD out of more than 450 MGD due to non-availability of required conveyance system to carry sewage up to the sewarage plants,” the report reads.

Over the years, KWSB has devised various plans to overcome the deficiencies highlighted by the commission. These plans include making the existing treatment plants functional again and setting up new ones. Two major schemes have been envisaged to achieve that — the Greater Karachi Sewage Treatment Project (known as S-III) and combined effluent treatment plants for industrial areas. The first scheme aims to create an integrated system of collection, treatment and disposal of domestic waste and the second one aims to create a similarly integrated mechanism for industrial waste.

At various stages of planning and execution, the two schemes are running way behind their original deadlines and have gone much above their original budget estimates. Jointly funded by the federal government and Sindh, they have been dragging on for a decade.

When S-III was first planned in 2008, its cost was estimated to be eight billion rupees and it was to be completed within the next three years but funds from both the federal and provincial administrations did not materialise on time. When a contract was finally awarded in September 2014, the project’s estimated cost had escalated to 36 billion rupees, much to the dismay of the federal government.

Even now the flow of funds remains meagre. “Over the last three years or so, the Sindh government has released four billion rupees [for the project] while the federal government has released only two billion rupees,” says Imtiaz Magsi, project director for S-III.

The project includes the reconstruction of three existing treatment plants (located at various sites on the Lyari river). They will have a combined capacity of treating 305 MGD of waste. An additional plant (to be set up in Korangi on the Malir river) will be treating 180 MGD of sewage.

Karachi’s domestic waste disposal problem will be largely addressed once all the various components of S-III become operational. When that will be is anyone’s guess. So far, according to Magsi, only 20 per cent of the construction work for the project has been completed.

The combined effluent treatment plants were originally planned in 2007. Five of them are to be set up, with a total capacity to treat 94 MGD of industrial sewage, in SITE, Trans-Lyari, Federal B Area/North Karachi, Landhi/Korangi and the Super Highway areas of the city. The latest cost estimate of the project has been put at 11.8 billion rupees — one third of which will be borne by the federal government and the rest by the Sindh government. No progress has been made on it beyond paperwork.

Its final approval by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC), a high-level committee of the federal cabinet, happened only a few months ago — on November 24, 2017. The minutes of the meeting that accorded the approval now await the endorsement of the Sindh government, says project director Zaheer Abbas Zaidi. Once this endorsement materialises, work on the project can start immediately (at least in theory). And if all goes as per plans thereafter, all the plants will become functional within the next 36 months.

Construction work near SITE in North Karachi
Construction work near SITE in North Karachi

The Water Commission has viewed the reasons for delays in the two projects at best as a KWSB attempt to shift responsibility towards federal and provincial governments. “Instead of trying to rehabilitate its treatment plants immediately … KWSB is trying to hide behind excuse of paucity of resources,” the commission’s report states.

Karachi’s total demand for potable water is around 1,100 MGD, says the Water Commission report, but KWSB is providing only 650 MGD of water to citizens. This figure, too, is contested as it includes a large amount of water that is lost due to old and rusting pipelines, pilferage (mostly by industrial and commercial consumers) and the operations of illegal hydrants that dip into supply lines to sell water privately.

One of the most important (and much delayed) KWSB projects to overcome water shortages is the Greater Karachi Bulk Water Supply Scheme, K-IV. It is meant to bring 650 MGD of water from Keenjhar Lake to the city.

ECNEC approved its first phase – expected to add 260 MGD of water to the existing supply – in July 2014 and work on it began in June 2016. It includes the construction of a 97-kilometre long and 100-foot wide canal, 12-kilometre long conduits (covered passages or tunnels) and 10-kilometre long pipelines. Its cost was originally estimated at 25.5 billion rupees but has reached 29 billion rupees over the last 20 months or so.

This amount does not include an additional five billion rupees being spent on land acquisition for the project. “The Sindh government has provided 11,936 acres [of state land for the project without charging KWSB any money] besides providing five billion rupees for the acquisition of 1,054 acres from private owners,” says the K-IV project director Saleem Siddiqui. The process of land acquisition alone has taken more than three years, he says.

This could well be because the land acquired is many times more than the project’s current needs. The land is wide enough to build ten canals, each 100 feet wide. Siddiqui says it will be helpful in the coming years and decades. “We can build nine more canals if and when needed in the future,” he says.

The completion date for the first phase of the project is September 2018 but it seems unlikely to be met — only 30 per cent of the work has been done so far. The project director skirts the question when asked if the remaining 70 per cent of work can be completed in the next six months.

The second phase of the K-IV project will add another 260 MGD of water to the city’s supply network and a third phase an additional 130 MGD. They are to be completed in four and three years respectively, after work on them starts sometime in the future.

While there is a lot that KWSB is responsible for, its functioning is also hampered by unpaid water bills worth billions of rupees. Bulk water consumers, such as departments of the federal and Sindh governments, industrial units, cattle colonies and poultry farms, owe 36.6 billion rupees to KWSB in unpaid water bills. Domestic consumers have not paid another 22 billion rupees. No entity can be viable with such massive gaps in its revenues.

The Supreme Court passed an order a few months ago asking all government departments and agencies to clear their KWSB dues and not default on them in the future. KWSB, too, has sent reminders to the defaulting departments. Most of them have not responded. “Those who have, say that they do not have enough funds to clear the dues,” reveals KWSB’s deputy managing director Muhammad Akhtar Ghori.

“If these outstanding dues are received, KWSB can initiate several mega development projects entirely with its own resources,” he says.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This article was published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.