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.
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.
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.
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.”