One day the only water in Karachi will be at Sea View—but you won’t be able to drink it.

For people with some civic sense, that scenario has started to loom apocalyptically close this summer. As the water crisis started to hit the rich, a chorus of protests erupted. Much of the griping leads men at dinner tables to issue forth authoritative theses premised on the shimmery mirage of metrics: Karachi needs 1,000mgd but gets only 600mgd and 400mgd is stolen etc., etc. When faced with the threat of rationing, we instinctively give in to the temptation to measure. The hope is that calculus will somehow birth answers.

For those who wish to go down that rabbit hole, three sources form essential reading to get a sense of the statistics: An exhaustive book on Karachi’s water was published by Prof. Noman Ahmed of NED University in 2008. A year later, the late Perween Rahman of the Orangi Pilot Project prepared a damning report on the dirty business of tankers. This study’s math, even though it provides only a part of the picture, has been quoted by many subsequent reports and it was so explosive that there is a working hypothesis that it led to her murder. Around the same time, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, whose strength lies in surveys, prepared a Karachi water master plan for 2025. While drawing on their wisdom, it is imperative to also hear out experts who acknowledge the numbers but caution that measuring Karachi’s water use and needs is beyond our ken for several reasons, the foremost being that we amazingly still don’t know how many people live in Karachi. Data reporting is fraught by politics.

“There are lies and then there are numbers—as in the case of Karachi,” says Dr Daanish Mustafa, a reader at King’s College London, who works on water. “They are a fig leaf for various water constituencies to cover their objectionable privates.” He says he would stay away from the numbers, as does Karachi historian, architect and town planner Arif Hasan, who applies this reasoning: “The use of water can’t be quantified like this. This is keeping everything constant when everything is not constant.” The use of water is not static in a city like Karachi where we don’t even have a proper meter system. We can’t accurately measure how much water is coming, going and being stolen across the city. We forget that its factories use a lot of water, and textiles the most, especially denim. It takes 2,900 gallons of water to make a pair of denim jeans in Pakistan. “The problem is industrial use [of water],” says Arif Hasan. “These figures are basically of the formal sector. But the formal sector is supported by an informal sector [which isn’t documented].” Take the Banarsi silk weavers. They use water for their process, the silk looms, washing, dyeing. Or the recycling industry and tanneries. “How can we quantify them? The cattle colonies? How much water does a stall-fed bhens drink?” For him, the studies on water are based on assumptions, evidenced by the fact that they all arrive at different totals.

Academic and non-profit studies are supplemented by news stories which have added to the wealth of material on the topic. For our point of departure, however, in this vast and complicated business, The Express Tribune chooses to take up the more immediate politics of hydrants in a wholly incomplete attempt to look at just one piece of the puzzle in the water crisis that is upon us. We believe that understanding the system of hydrants and water tankers, and not just chasing numbers, brings us closer to tackling the problem.

​The debate over stealing from mains or drawing groundwater

This year, once again, the shortage is being popularly blamed on hydrants, which is just a latinate word for ‘tap’. The big hydrants are t-shaped pipe stands. Tankers park under them to fill up from a gushing spout. But a hydrant can even be a small motor attached to a well. These faucets have been the focus of water distribution politics since the 1980s and these days the authorities are destroying what they say are illegal hydrants or taps stealing from main city water lines. Some men who own these hydrants swear, however, that they are drawing water from the ground and not the city supply. They claim they are selling groundwater from wells or pumped up from bores (propeller-fitted pipes to suck up subsoil water).

Sikander Saeed is one such ‘illegal’ hydrant owner whose brush with the law prompted him to start lobbying for them in a battle that often involves long waits in the antechamber of the commissioner’s office. He is an educated man, coming from a family that went into business supplying cosmetics to the British. (His father sold the 1939 Gebrüder Klein Patra perfume). Sikander branched out into Gadani shipbreaking and it was based on this knowledge of amateur engineering that he sought official permission in 2000 to open a well-hydrant in Landhi to supply its factories water. Sikander’s well is dug near a main Karachi Water & Sewage Board line that crosses the 8000 Korangi Industrial Area Road (whose naming fell to the creative instincts of engineers). He says the well had enough water to supply a small fleet of medium-sized tankers each day, but this claim is difficult to independently verify. The surface of the water glimmers darkly and just peering over its edge conjures the fear of queer and sudden deaths.

Stealing 101: how to sneak water from a main KWSB line

Read story »

In 2013, Sikander found himself at the wrong end of minister Owais Muzaffar’s stick and his hydrant, generator and motor were broken. He was arrested on charges of stealing water from the main line, the impotent fury of which spills forth in an anguished tale told in his storage shack by the well. To prove he was only supplying brackish groundwater, he produces a glass of water from the well. “Drink it,” he insists. A mineral water bottle is furnished for comparison. If he were stealing, he argues, the well would have drinkable sweet water from the KW&SB pipe and not the earthy subsoil water. If the KW&SB investigated, it would just have to test for total dissolved salts (TDS). Stolen sweet water has low TDS levels and brackish groundwater levels are high.

The story of Sikander’s well slashes open to expose the guts of the running battle between the water board and hydrants. Sikander’s claims are pitted against formidable evidence that there is no groundwater in Karachi to begin with, at least not enough for him to do roaring business. This is why the water board accuses hydrants of stealing from its mains. “Subsoil water in Karachi is at least 800 feet down and even that is very brackish,” says the water board’s managing director, Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi. “It is so brackish that you can’t even put a drop on your tongue. So practically, 99.9% of the time, there is no water down [there] to be used without filtration.” He distances the water board from having anything to do with legitimate subsoil hydrants. “But we know that there is no water down there. It’s all in our own lines. That’s why we closed them.” NED’s Prof. Noman Ahmed agrees with this assessment based on the fact that extensive sand mining on Karachi’s outskirts has depleted the soil’s capacity to hold water for longer times.


  • Hydrants are stealing water
  • 196 illegal hydrants closed
  • 21 official hydrants running


  • You gave us permission to run hydrants
  • Hydrants are groundwater and not stealing from KWSB lines
  • To check theft test chemical levels
  • Groundwater = high levels of dissolved salts (khaara paani)
  • Line water = lower levels of dissolved salts (meetha pani)


  • There is a mix of hydrants
  • Some are groundwater
  • Some are stealing water
  • Theft is usually in connivance with KWSB staff
  • Illegal hydrants can be reopened with bribes

Studies prove this. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency and KW&SB both surveyed Karachi’s groundwater tables. They concluded over 25 years that there just isn’t enough of it to cater to the city’s population. For example, when KW&SB looked at the levels at the basins of Malir, Gadap, Lyari and Hub in 2004, it reached the conclusion that since it didn’t rain enough, the ground reserves were not being recharged. It would not make sense to dig new wells either. “If you dig, you either get saline water or sewage, depending on where you are digging,” adds independent environment expert Farhan Anwar. Of course, you will hear about small examples of wells or bores in homes that yield some sweet water. According to Prof. Noman Ahmed, “Locations close to Gadap and adjoining areas can get it at 200ft on an average.” But these examples aren’t vast enough to signify that groundwater can be a way to serve the whole city. This is why Rashid Siddiqui, who runs the tanker cell at the water board, and just demolished nearly 200 illegal hydrants, rubbishes claims that they were innocent. “There may be a little groundwater in say one or two springs,” he says. “But did Allah bless just these people with sweet water? Aise konse walliullah log hain ye? Are they God’s chosen ones that he blessed them extra special?” The Hub dam has dried up, the Dumlottee Wells have dried up, so how come these wells across the city are being ‘recharged’ when it hasn’t rained?

To be fair, it would take a technical investigation to see if Sikander Saeed is telling the truth about running a groundwater hydrant. The problem is that he was granted permission by the authorities to run his business. To buttress his point, he brings out the fat files, the illegible photocopies of bye-laws, gazette notifications and permission letters. “I showed [them] all the legal documents,” he says, maintaining that it is impossible to steal without the water board’s men finding out. “If I dig, don’t you think the police spies would tip them off?” he says. “The [water board] men are always on the prowl to check illegal connections.”

Legal Leaks Plugged With Land Law

Read story »

The operation against illegal hydrants is coloured by allegations of the water board staff’s complicity and mistakes. The KW&SB admits that it has, at times, wrongly demolished some hydrants that had permission to operate. Still, the MD throws down the gauntlet: “Not a single one [of the illegal hydrants we demolished] has taken us to court, meaning that there was something fishy going on,” says Zaidi. His rule is simple: he will allow anyone a groundwater connection but it has to be at least 500 meters away from a main line so no theft takes place. “But nobody wants the subsoil [water connection]. Why? Because there is no water down [there],” he says. They all want subsoil connections close to the main lines. In response to this, well-owners say that it makes no sense to locate a hydrant so far away from the road (incidentally where the main lines are located) because tankers can’t drive into the congested alleys to access them. “What truck will go into [the neighbourhood] 1,600 feet (500m)? Kon hoshiar jaega? ” asks Sikander Saeed, whose hydrant was destroyed.

For every hydrant taken down, though, there are thousands that have yet to be caught because of the ingenuity with which they have hacked the system. No one is more familiar with this than Asif Qadri, a superintending engineer for the water trunk mains, who has been demolishing illegal hydrants on orders issued by the Supreme Court in 2011. A more apt job description for him would be ‘water detective’. In one industrial area, he was tipped off about a factory stealing water. He found the hydrant but couldn’t tell how it was stealing from the main, which was not close by. “Turns out, the man had drilled a hole into the bottom of the main,” he explains. It was embedded underground in a U-shaped configuration which is why Qadri couldn’t trace it from the surface. “It was only when I shut off the main’s valve and then released the water with force that it spouted out of the hydrant, helping me make the connection.” That was the smoking gun.

KW&SB’s Frankenstein and the birth of a tanker Hydra

When the KW&SB was formed in 1983, many neighbourhoods were not connected to its system so it used tankers to send them water. This stop-gap measure created a culture of using hydrants and tankers that morphed into a Frankensteinian business once people figured out it was a cash cow. The KW&SB realises its mistake. In a draft report prepared on the meeting chaired by the district and sessions judge of Malir and West, January 10, 2015, its officers admitted that the tanker service was a “troubleshooting tool” but has “grossly taken a toll on the underlying piped water system and supply”. When the towns took over the official 18 hydrants in 2001, a long legal battle emerged over who would get contracts to run them. The new tenders were hamstrung by old payments. The latest chapter in this war was a decree from the Supreme Court that illegal hydrants need to be closed.

“What one can say with some assurance is that there is a tug of war going on between KW&SB and water tanker operators at various levels,” says Dr Noman Ahmed. “It is true that several water tankers were drawing water from KW&SB mains in various locations in the city. But this activity had been on for a very long time.” A previous MD, Misbahuddin Farid, tried to stem the theft. “There have been allegations of connivance between water-related officials and tanker operators,” adds Prof. Noman. “One needs to unveil the terms and conditions of this illegal cooperation to understand the dynamics of this problem that we face today.” It should not be the case that men like Sikandar Saeed challenge the destruction of their hydrant if they can furnish permission letters. Their lobby, the Karachi Water Tanker Owners Welfare Association, has been busy meeting the commissioner among other authorities to present their case. Their general secretary, Huzoor Ahmed, makes the spectacular allegation that not a single illegal hydrant was closed. It was the ones with permission that were broken. “They broke the subsoil ones and presented a report [to the Supreme Court] that they have done the job,” he says. “Actually they were not illegal. All these hydrants were running... under the orders of MD water board.” The only problem is that Huzoor Ahmed kills his credibility by lying about the Crush Plant hydrant at Manghopir, telling The Express Tribune it was illegal but refusing to come to the spot to talk about it. His sidekick, Imran, says that it was an illegal hydrant that was siphoning KIII water out of the main line. “KW&SB kahan permission deti he ? Officers must be illegally involved,” said Imran. As it turns out, this was one of the KW&SB’s official spots. Upset hydrant-owner Sikander Saeed is however, a little more circumspect, and admits that yes, as far as he knows, at least 40 of the 196 illegal hydrants closed were stealing water.

A breakdown of KW&SB's expenditure. Since these are revised figures, this is the closest we can get the actual figures. The revision is carried out towards the end of the fiscal year. The category called 'Establishment' is mainly composed of the salaries and benefits to the 13,000 or so employees of the board. Source: KW&SB

As Qadri continues with the crackdown, the lines for the city’s estimated 10,000 tankers will grow longer at the 21 official hydrants. Some of the tankers are even going as far as Sakran, Balochistan to fetch water. And the longer the lines grow, the more expensive the water becomes. Some people in DHA are paying up to Rs6,000. In Landhi, two tanker drivers play ludo as they wait for their turn at the official Landhi 1 and 2 hydrants—the only ones ostensibly left open in the neighbourhood. “We used to empty a tanker in DHA for Rs2,500,” explains Amir Khan, who has been driving one for six years. Now they have doubled the price by adding twice their daily wage because they are waiting for a day to fill their tanker. Driver Amir’s bleeding-heart analysis is tinged by profit motive, but there may be truth in his assessment: “This is the work of the Sindh government: making something cheap expensive,” he says. “These defence wallahs, if you ask for Rs10,000 they can give it. Where does the poor man go if his salary is Rs10,000?”

The water board is trying to ensure that the poor are not left high and dry just because they can’t afford the tankers. It has been given funding from the Sindh government to run a tanker service and build tanks in certain neighbourhoods where there is a shortage. This short-term solution is mostly being applied to the north and district West of Karachi that are suffering, in particular because their supply from the Hub dam is not coming through, says the MD. Incidentally, the highest cluster of FIRs for illegal hydrants has been registered in areas where the KW&SB doesn't provide a proper service. Some parts of the city's west are not connected to the network of distribution pipes connected to bulk mains. This is why people were tapping into the bulk main lines. The areas affected most were Manghopir, Qasba, Orangi, Metroville, Gulshan-e-Zia, Faqeer Colony, Gulshan-e-Ghazi, Gulshan-e-Toheed, Ittehad Town, Saeedabad, Baldia and Moach Goth. Engineer Asif Qadri explains that the majority of FIRs were against small-time hydrants but there were 18 big fish who were stealing from the bulk lines to supply SITE factories. When asked why FIRs were registered against people who were not supported by KW&SB in the first place, he says that they preferred to have them only get water from the two official hydrants.

'Mama Tension' and the map of mains

Read story »

For the most part, Qadri will find out when someone is stealing from the system. But this doesn’t mean he can go after them. He is openly grateful to the Rangers for providing the muscle for this operation. “I didn’t think it was possible when the court said we had to do it,” he says, adding that water wasn’t the Rangers’ business but they got involved because they suspected earnings from illegal hydrants was supporting crime. This gave him the backing he needed to take many networks on. The only people he can’t touch are the factories. That’s when he will get calls from the highest of the high in the land to back off. But it is easy to prove factories are stealing. One specific industrial area is only allowed about 1 million gallons a day but it needs 40. Where are these factories getting their water from if not theft? But what is worse is that they are so desperate for water they are buying drinking water tankers since groundwater wells and hydrants have been cut off. And so, many hydrants have reopened despite the operation because money talks louder than the law. One water board engineer scoffed at the list of names in the FIRs, saying many of them had gone back into business. Qadri adds that the police are involved. “We registered an FIR and two minutes later the accused was calling me on the phone,” he says. “Because the SHO had tipped him off.”

It is a nasty business not just because it is dangerous but because it reveals the ugly side to human nature. The rich steal water as do the poor. Another dirty secret is the water that goes to the five-star hotels and clubs, says another engineer with the water board. “You can’t close them down.” They get water at the cost of the rest of the city. Only one-third of the city pays its bills and yet everyone thinks that they have a right to the supply. And when the government tries to act, there is severe backlash from residents. “I just can’t take the women cursing me,” says Qadri. In Shershah they organised an ijtimai bad-dua or collective cursing session against him. “I asked the maulvi saheb, Qari Usman, to at least add a line so that they cursed people who were deliberately making them suffer,” he says. He wanted the water-starved people to understand he was cutting off their supply because it was illegal. Blame the men who steal it, he wanted to say. At the end of the day they are the ones who are throwing the whole system off kilter.

Not just the hydrants but hidden theft, weak pipes

It is understandable that the people of Karachi are frustrated with the water shortage even though the illegal hydrants were shut down. Return to what seems like a logical conclusion: if the hydrants stealing water are shut, there should be more water in the pipes. “Assuming that the hydrants were installed on water mains, the demolition should have added more water to the distribution system. This did not happen,” says Prof. Noman. “Therefore one can conclude that there are multiple formats of water thefts, often invisible, from random puncturing of the mains to installing mechanical devices to steal and store water in less visible locations.” Dr Daanish Mustafa adds that virtually everybody has a suction pump in their home to draw more water than they should from the main lines. “Everybody at the head of the system sucks water away from the tail of the system,” he says. “So people with bigger pumps get it, people with smaller pumps don't... Somehow the citizens of Karachi have decided that it is the natural order of things for them to do this to their fellow citizens.”

Farhan Anwar says the theft starts from the canal that diverts water Karachi’s way from the Indus at Kotri Barrage and continues down the line. “No data is available but the common perception is that this water is used for farming or irrigation and other commercial activities,” he says. Then once the water reaches the city limits and is distributed within the city there are a number of ways it is stolen. All of this stolen water, that the water board cannot seem to track, mean a loss of revenue. This means then that it can’t pay for the electricity to run its pumping stations. K-Electric says that KW&SB owes it Rs36 billion. Combine this with load shedding, power cuts and breakdowns and all the attendant problems that emerge during the summer. This is also a time when people use more water and evaporation is higher. A director at the largest textile company in Pakistan said that in general their consumption of water goes up 20% during the summer because they need more water to cool the machines. “So when the hydrants were demolished, even the industries protested, especially SITE,” he says.

Any attempt to control, curtail, rationalize or realign the tanker-based supply system is inevitably going to cause major disruptions, in the absence of any intervention to address the dysfunctional parts of the entire supply system—of which there are many

-Dr Daanish Mustafa Geographer and water expert, King’s College London

To make matters worse, there is a further loss of water to leaks which the KW&SB says is about 35% from the system. “The more you pump, the more you leak,” adds Arif Hasan. But it is not just the pipes that are rotted. Roads and traffic contribute to bursts as well. Sikander Saeed points out how the 8000 KIA Road pipeline near his well would keep flooding because the 33-inch main line four feet deep would burst. “The line is made of cement but it ran under a speedbreaker and all the heavy traffic, the heavy containers and tankers and trailers would pass over it,” he says, explaining why cracks kept developing. After several complaints and lobbying, the cement water line was replaced with a steel one and slightly rerouted away from the speedbreaker but the problem persists.

Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi, the reluctant MD

Indeed, the water board is perennially plugging leaks. At the MD’s office they are following up on a broken pump. Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi is a well-worn bureaucrat who has occupied posts as diverse as the Chaghi deputy commissioner when Pakistan did its nuclear testing. (“I didn’t go see the location,” he says. “If you go, you see. And there is a 0.001 possibility you might tell someone.”) He has been working as the secretary to the Ombudsman but has been given the additional charge of the water board chief. It has been three days into the job but he is already working the phones. Engineers briskly walk in and out with files, problems to be solved, orders to be taken. Zaidi brooks no small talk and gets straight to the point. The phone beeps like an ICU monitor. He picks it up, says what he needs to say in a handful of sentences and puts the phone down with a crack.

“Two pumps are broken,” he says. “Locally we are trying to repair one. One has been sent to Lasbela. It’s a huge thing to fix it. Manufacturing ended 50 years ago, parts are not available. If one malfunctions, repairing it is a huge task.” The propellers that push the water through broke. “They are so old, wo jharne lage. They are bigger than this table,” he says waving his hand across the expanse of his desk that can seat a small dinner party. Imagine if even one of the nine propellers is broken, they won’t pump water to the city.

It is a nightmare job. When asked about it, Zaidi likes to quote Che Guevara, who roughly translated, once said that his job was to fight for the land, not run it. Zaidi liberally borrows from the freedom fighter and applies these words to himself: “This is not my job.” Being the MD of the water board is possibly one of the worst postings a bureaucrat can get (if you are honest), which is small wonder that Zaidi laments the exit of Qutbuddin Shaikh, the man he replaced upon retirement, as he feels qualified engineers should be running the show and be left in their seats long enough to see their policies through. “One step is to put a good officer in my place,” Zaidi says. “Someone who they guarantee will be here for a few years. Shaikh Qutub was a good person but he retired.” A strong MD would naturally be a prerequisite to manage the utility but interference also weakens the system. “We get separate orders from the Commissioner,” says one senior staffer who did not want to be named because of the pressure they are under. “We get another order from the governor. We have a meeting with the MPAs and they will sing their own song. The corps commander. Where do we go?” In a draft report prepared for court, one KW&SB engineer made a quiet little note, saying that Aslam Sanjrani, a top-ranking bureaucrat, intervened to prevent an FIR being registered against him for running an illegal hydrant off the Haleji conduit.

​Bad budgets and bribes

Karachi can certainly expect the water crisis to get worse each year unless someone fixes the water board. “It is a miracle they get water to you given the budgets within which they work,” says Arif Hasan, who is familiar with the inner workings of the KW&SB as he once sat on the board. While the whole city is cursing the KW&SB, Hasan is one of the few people who argues that it is not fair to entirely blame its staff given that so many extenuating factors have contributed to the situation.

Zero Meter, Thousand Tanker

Read story »

When asked if he thinks that the hydrants were just closed to create an artificial shortage to jack up tanker prices, he says: “The government is making people suffer so that its officials and politicians can make money… this is correct and it is not so correct,” he cautions. “It is not as simple as this.” For him, we are all suffering today because the water board has not become a financially self-reliant institution. “The original planning was absolutely correct,” he says. “No matter how much you swear at them now… every area had a bulk meter.”Indeed, they are still there and up to 20 years ago, the meter used to register how much water each area was to receive. Some experts and water board officials have argued that meters can’t work when there isn’t enough pressure in the lines, but the director at the major textile company says they have Kent meters acquired from Denso Hall market area which work when water comes. “They have a small turbine inside that measures water by each revolution,” he explains. There shouldn’t be any reason why they can’t be installed on bulk supply lines, he says, estimating that they would cost at the most Rs400,000.

A list of the top ten defaulters according to total arrears.
Source: KW&SB

But today, the KW&SB budgets are in the red because it isn’t able to earn for the water service it supplies. “How do you want a broke institution to work?” asks Arif Hasan. They do not get enough for repairs and maintenance, which is why Zaidi is struggling to fix the propeller for a pump as old as Partition. Their backup diesel generators don’t work, so when the power goes out (either because of faulty cables or an unpaid bill) the water rushes back into the rising main and it takes hours to get the system back up and running again.

This financial hollowing out over decades led to cheap alternatives. “When there aren’t enough funds, [an institution] becomes desperate. There is helplessness and that leads to corruption,” Arif Hasan says. It started when people said they would give the KW&SB staff money to get their work done. “People started try to replace things with jugardh and this became institutionalised over time.” KW&SB was also trying to cater to a city growing at breakneck speed. So instead of increasing the water supply and adding pumping stations, which is how it is done in the rest of the world, its existing network of pipes were just extended. “The pipes ran till Surjani Town, then they added on and added on and stretched to Khuda ki Basti,” says Hasan. “A politician comes and promises [people water]. Well, he isn’t getting them more water from Dhabeji or the Indus; he is just extending these lines.” That wrecks the system. This is why it takes ten million rupees to bribe the KW&SB to reopen your illegal hydrant.

Political choices and pressures

Read story »

No one knows better how much the bribery and corruption have spread in the system than the deputy managing director of the water board’s finances. Mairajuddin sits in his office with the air-conditioning blasting away, collar open at the neck and calculator at his wrist. He has been secretly trimming fat from the water board’s spending budget. Each year the budget is based on how much they assume they will earn and have to spend. But as the year passes it becomes clearer that their revenue isn’t going to be what they expected (because people don’t pay their bills) and the utility’s expenses will grow. So the budget is revised downwards. The problem is that bureaucrats still overproject and inflate the numbers when planning the next budget. For his part, though, Mairajuddin has been deflating it. “Last year I cut one billion quietly and they found out later and made a noise,” he says, adding that he knows the psychology of managing money at KW&SB: “If they have money they will spend it.” He is also aware that corrupt staffers always skim off a certain percentage from the top of any spending. So he reduced how much they could take. “It has to be a realistic budget,” he says.

The charts above aim to highlight how KW&SB's reliance on revenue generated from water and sewerage billing diminished after the Sindh government decided to restore the power subsidy to KW&SB. Source: KW&SB

But these small fixes by one bureacrat sitting in an office can hardly turn the water board’s finances around when only 30% of the city pays its bills. Whatever money that does come its way has to be prioritised and paying 13,000 salaries is high on the agenda. The rest of the budget is spent on fighting fires. Repairs and maintenance will always get a larger share than new development. The money is spent on fixing leaky pipes but not new ones. “It is easy to fund what is working rather than new stuff,” explains Mairajuddin. This is not an institution that is in any position to prepare for the future.

This is why no money can usually be spent on laying new networks in the water-starved neighbourhoods of Karachi. The crisis has prompted the Sindh government to start work on the KIV which is supposed to bring more water from the Indus River but this will take at least three years and the project has been stuck for a few years over financing. Firefighting is the KW&SB’s default operating mode which is why it allows the quick fixes of hydrants and tankers. “The KW&SB has completely abrogated its responsibility to supply water itself,” says non-profit Shehri-CBE, which was tasked by the Sindh High Court in 2010 to assess if hydrants were even needed. “It has approached this perennial problem by supplying water through by opening and tendering 21 hydrants. These private hydrant operators now rule the water distribution network and KW&SB has been reduced in its role as bulk supplier.”

One theory is that the hydrants were shut just so that higher bribes could be extracted to reopen them. “If they kept eating the egg… they were after the chicken,” quips Huzoor Ahmed of the tanker association, who says the KW&SB staff help with the digging and theft for illegal connections. He goes as far as to say that officers will bill on their own for connections to factories that are fed illegally from sources along the Malir naddi. “Water board ke paas pani he, imaan nahi he,” he adds.

Private panic

No one is more panicked about the water crisis than Karachi’s industry, especially textile factories.

They have been eyeing the future with trepidation and have been trying to assess the direction supply is headed. “Nobody really knows today what the shortage will be like,” says the director of a one of Karachi’s largest textile mills that exports globally to major brands. “Some people say it will be three times, some four times.” Many industrialists are not waiting for the government to take the initiative and are investing in their own recycling plants. They know that when push comes to shove, the government may be forced to divert precious water away from factories and into homes if rioting becomes more wide scale. But this would be a Catch-22, says the director. “If industry shuts down, people will be jobless,” he says. But if people are on the streets, then water will be taken away from industry.

The KW&SB's proposed operational expenses are almost three times the revised figure of last year, but that's primarily because of the Rs5 billion subsidy from the Sindh government to help the board pay its electricity bill. Source: KW&SB

Textiles, especially denim, use an extraordinary amount of water. A small to medium unit that makes 50,000 to 100,000 meters of cloth a day needs between 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of water daily. (1,000 gallons is 3,800 large mineral water bottles). The only long-term solution is to recycle for which many factories are buying land or contemplating it. You can set up a recycling plant on two acres of land, the director says. Ideally, an industrial area would have community recycling plants in which several factories invested. But this is far from practical as fighting would break out over who would have more right to the recycled water depending on how much they invested and whether their infrastructure or drains would support it. Individually, though, factories can each aim to recycle 60% of the water they release and drain 40% of it. This would cost the same as buying tankers. Recycling all your water is extremely expensive and only one company is doing this in Sindh at least. “Many people have gone to see this recycling plant,” adds the director. They have zero waste because they extract all their water and the sludge that is left over is so concentrated that they make bricks from it which can be used for low-cost housing.

But recycling water is not something that textile factories will have to do just because the shortage will grow in the future. They need to meet the standards of their international buyers such as Ikea which make it mandatory for them to recycle or they stand to lose their contracts. It is this push from the outside to meet these standards combined with government incentives and the looming shortages that will force factories to recycle more. Right now there is a 15% import duty on recycling plant machinery that needs to go down and the government could consider special borrowing rates as well to sweeten the deal.

How the system and our thinking needs to change

The tragedy is that Karachi is a city that lies at the mouth of one of the greatest rivers of the world. “Any scarcity of water [given Karachi’s location] is inevitably artificial, i.e. mediated by human technology and institutions,” says Dr Daanish Mustafa, referring to the shortage. “I am somewhat indifferent to the question of whether it is artificial or natural.” It is the system that has to be fixed. “Having a city depend upon tankers for water is utter nonsense and speaks to the abject state failure here,” he goes on to say. “But any attempt to control, curtail, rationalize or realign the tanker-based supply system is inevitably going to cause major disruptions, in the absence of any intervention to address the dysfunctional parts of the entire supply system—of which there are many.”

Water crisis! What water crisis? A crisis in human intelligence maybe?

Read story »

This is why Arif Hasan advises that a big review of KW&SB is in order. We must understand its problems, especially those related to operations and maintenance for which you need money and expertise. There needs to a system why which people pay their bills and a 10-year plan needs to be worked out. All the experts stress that a long term plan is needed because Karachi will simply not get any more water from Hub and would need more water from the Indus River to feed the city. There needs to be an equitable supply of water to all—not through tankers whose price is not driven by supply and demand but rather by oligopolistic and monopolistic pricing, as Dr Daanish Mustafa puts it. “I have never seen such a naked use of power to appropriate water from the powerless and send it on to the powerful as I have in Karachi,” he says. “And there is nothing that the state is doing to protect the weak against the strong, in fact quite the opposite.”

There will come a time when you may have 20,000 rupees to pay for a tanker but there won’t be any water to pay for  

Data & mapping: Khurram Siddiqui
Art: Aamir Khan
Development: Irfan Ansari, Sawant Shah
Coordination: Ali Haider
With thanks to: Isfandiyar Shaheen and Aisha Arif of Dawood Hercules Corporation for interpreting the KW&SB budget. Ali Ousat and Faisal Hussain, bureau chief of ExpressNews in Karachi, for assistance in reporting.

How do people have absolutely disgusting imported water-hogging plants in their gardens in Defence and then devote 90% of their domestic water use to them and then millions have to pay 10 to 50 times more per unit of (saline) water just to drink in the same city?

-Dr Daanish Mustafa Geographer and water expert, King’s College London
Back to Top