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Story Publication logo March 29, 2024

Demolished and Displaced: How Karachi’s Anti-Encroachment Razing Has Created a Climate Refugee Crisis



Pakistan’s poor urban planning and drainage system causes a cycle of infrastructural destruction...

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Recent record-breaking floods in Pakistan led to anti-encroachment drives of settlements across Karachi’s natural drains, displacing individuals. This included individuals from several communities, who then had to relocate. However, Hindu and Christian families have fewer options than Muslim families. Due to residential segregation in the city, they may need to move further than other communities.

Rubble is seen on either sides of the Gujjar Nullah in Karachi. Image by Aadil Ayub. Pakistan, 2022.

Aadil Ayub was present when part of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was demolished in August 2021. The church was located in a predominantly Christian katchi abadi (squatter settlement), Sadiq Nagar Tayyabad on the Gujjar Nullah stream.

Now, a mere facade remains of what used to be an integral part of the residents' social and religious lives. 

The church was among several buildings in the informal settlements around the Gujjar Nullah that were demolished. This was part of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation's (KMC’s) plan to ostensibly improve natural drainage in the city when it rains. The project was built on the premise that the informal settlements are the cause of improper drainage, given that they encroach on natural drains such as Gujjar Nullah. 

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The Gujjar Nullah is a small stream in Karachi that merges with the Lyari River, which flows into the Arabian Sea. The nullah is 26.6 kilometers (16.5 miles) from the sea. At the moment, it is one of the few natural drains in the city. 

The razed church was the last church standing in the area, depriving 4,000 Christians of their place of worship. Three Philadelphia Pentecostal Churches of the Protestant community in the area had previously been demolished.

Along with the local community, Ayub, affiliated with Karachi Bachao Tehreek, a movement that advocates for those affected by the demolition, raised a significant amount of money to rebuild what was razed. 

“The roof is still structurally unsound,” Ayub said, noting that if it rains again, things will return to square one. Parts of the church would require further repairs and rebuilding. 

“The church was cut in half,” Ayub said. He saw Master Zohaib Javed of St. Joseph's Catholic Church stand before the building, holding the lease document. It was initially planned that 22% of the church would be razed because it was in the way of the road that was intended to be built. In the end, 40% was actually demolished. 

The demolitions are not particularly targeted toward the Christian community, said Ayub: “There is a structural inequality rather than an overt ethnic and religious bias.” He noted that other religious and spiritual centers, including mosques and mausoleums significant to Muslims, have also been demolished. 

In fact, he noted that the Christians in Gujjar Nullah are very well organized, maintaining a good relationship with the Urban Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that seeks to highlight problems of the general public, and with Caritas Pakistan, a Christian welfare and development confederation. This has allowed them to organize protests focused on injustices in the Sadiq Nagar Tayyabad settlement.

However, Ayub acknowledged that not only are there more mosques than churches in the country, but also that it is easier to solicit support systems and rebuild the mosques.

Ayub’s insights reflect how the flooding in Pakistan causes a disproportionate impact on its religious minorities, primarily Hindus and Christians. The country has a legacy of religious and caste discrimination, leading to residential segregation. This residential segregation limits housing options for religious minority communities. Some of them reside in areas that suffer from poor urban planning and lack flood resilience, causing cyclical damage to their infrastructure every time it floods. Others have resorted to living in informal settlements across natural drains, becoming victims of official demolitions and unfair displacement. 

Why Are the Houses Being Demolished?

Demolitions of property near the nullahs provide a short-term solution to Pakistan’s ever-increasing drainage problem. 

In 2021, the country received record-breaking rainfall, which was more than three times its usual, destroying up to 1.7 million homes. With predictions of increased rainfall, a strong drainage system becomes a necessity. However, according to Naeem Jamsheed Ali, a civil engineer from Lahore, Pakistan still lacks an effective stormwater drainage system. 

“In cities, the stormwater drainage system is supposed to be a separate system to dispose of the rain,” Ali said. “We just have one sewage system,” he added, explaining that natural drains bear the burden of draining floodwaters from the cities. 

Sewage lines require day-to-day maintenance, which is rarely done, Ali said. When it rains the drainage system clogs up, flooding cities and slums. 

When the nation experienced record-breaking rainfall in August 2020, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued a judgment directing the Sindh Government and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to clear the stormwater drains. A large-scale anti-encroachment operation of Gujjar Nullah and Orangi Nullah, a neighboring stream, began in February 2020

The widening of the nullahs and construction of roads was a response to a survey conducted by the Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw University (NED) and commissioned by KMC. The urban engineering and planning department performed a Global Navigation Satellite System survey aimed at studying the width and depth of the Orangi drain through drones and aerial mapping. 

The panoptic nature of the survey implies that residents were not contacted. “Although NED claims that they did on-ground interviews, there is no evidence of that,” Ayub said. 

Not only were the houses along the nullah razed, but houses at a 30-foot distance from either side of the nullah were also demolished.

“They’re also building 30-foot roads, in the context of flood vulnerability. Widening the nullah is understandable, but to establish or construct a road is a whole different planning domain,” said Muhammed Toheed, associate director of Karachi Urban Lab, explaining that communities that live farther away from the nullah are threatened by the demolitions because of the road plan. 

According to Toheed, the clearing of nullahs is understandable, but the construction of roads within the pretext of these projects increases the vulnerability of communities. The construction of roads in Orangi Nullah resulted in complete demolitions of 2,656 structures and partial breakdowns of 1,703 structures. 

According to Ayub, the lie that is being propagated in the media is that KMC will only be encroaching on illegal settlements, but in reality, the legal status of the homes was completely beside the point. 

“Anything that was in the way, whether leased or not, was gone. When the bulldozers would come, they didn’t really care whether 5 percent, 10 percent—they’d usually destroy the whole house,” Ayub said

Misplaced Blame

This large-scale anti-encroachment operation that left several families homeless placed the blame for the floods on the families and communities for illegally encroaching on stormwater drains. 

However, the spatially large Karachi only has two formal landfill sites, which means most solid waste ends up in informal landfill sites around the city. The nullahs have functioned as sites of informal waste disposal due to a lack of municipal solid waste management. Hence, solid waste piles up and clogs the drains. 

Additionally, due to the mismanagement of demolitions, the rubble from the demolished buildings has also clogged the nullahs, increasing the flood risk. 

The Gray Area of Legal Status 

A large loophole in government policy-making is the dichotomy between legal residents and illegal residents, according to Toheed. Due to this, several residents, whether or not they are affected by the flood, enter a gray area regarding legal status. 

Toheed explained that since a large number of people living in informal settlements have never been recognized or regulated by the government, the people are left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with issues of water, sanitation, and development. 

“At the end of the day, policy is for the whole city. This is why top-down plans fail when they reach the ground,” Toheed said.

The Climate Refugee Crisis

Trajectories of movement after displacement from Kausar Niazi Colony, Pakistan
Trajectories of movement after displacement from Kausar Niazi Colony (KNC). Image courtesy of Muhammad Toheed.

Toheed and his team traced the trajectory of 45 families affected by the demolition in Kausar Niazi Colony. This revealed something significant about how residential segregation disproportionately impacts Hindu and Christian communities. 

Toheed explained that around 10 of the 45 displaced families rented cheap accommodations right behind the colony and did not have to move far. Around 25 families moved distances ranging from 15 to 17 kilometers (9 miles to 10.5 miles) into areas such as Lyari, Paharh Ganj in North Nazimabad, and Surjani Town, a low-cost neighborhood in Gadap Town. 

“Why did those 25 families go to those particular areas? Why not elsewhere?” Toheed and his team wondered. 

The 25 families belonged to Hindu or Christian communities. Toheed explained that they had limited options and “could not rent a house simply anywhere in Karachi.” 

“Even if they rent it out, living is different because different religious communities dislike when a minority community comes and lives with them,” Toheed said, expanding on the residential segregation based on religious identity in the area. “It is very sad when any homes are demolished—a clear human rights violation. However, for displaced Muslim families, renting out property is relatively easier.” 

On the other hand, displaced Hindu and Christian families have to rely on areas where they find community members in abundance to find financial and social support, which might be further away from the place of displacement. 

Due to this, many low-income Hindu and Christian families had to pull their children out of school. Not only was there an added expense of rent, they had moved away from their children’s schools. 

Toheed said the families had to strike the delicate balance of finding places that included enough residents from their communities and cheaper rents. Proximity to their original residence and enrollment in schools were compromised. 

An Uphill Battle 

Toheed emphasized the importance of including local communities in policy-making decisions. He brought up how the master plan for Karachi in 2047 is currently being drafted, and nobody is aware of what the plan contains. 

Urban development plans need to account for the climate crisis and scale the vulnerability and risks for communities most susceptible to harm due to climate-related issues. 

Ayub scrolled through pictures and videos on his desktop computer. The shaky videos recorded in panic showed residents gathering around the nullah after a child fell in while running. Ayub narrated how the residents and his team were unable to help the child, leading to his death. 

The nullahs are now widened without any barriers around them, leaving narrow walking space. This has led to children and even adults falling into the nullahs, sustaining injuries or even losing their lives. Ayub said the safety and security of the nullah residents has not been a priority during the anti-encroachment operations. 

The demolitions have also damaged the sewage lines, causing sewage water to mix with the water supply of areas like Liaquatabad, exacerbating the country’s water crisis. 

The displaced communities were promised financial compensation and resettlement in Tasser Town, according to Ayub. He added that the government disregarded this promise and complete payment and accommodations were not provided. 

As a result, displaced families rallied outside the Karachi Press Club to demand resettlement and rehabilitation in July 2023. This was organized by Karachi Bachao Tehreek and was named the Ghar Bahaali Rally (Home Recovery Rally). The Press Club saw discontent with climate injustice a week later at the Climate March 2023. 

Individuals and civil society groups have gathered to protest against improper sanitation, sewage issues, and development projects under the overarching theme of water. The struggle against climate injustice continues as already marginalized communities affected by demolitions fight legal battles. 

"Injustice, quite often, in countries like Pakistan occurs on the basis of affluence,” said environmental lawyer Rafay Alam, adding that marginalized communities, including religious minorities, are much more exposed to injustices and to other aspects of living in a Pakistan city. 

“The richer you are the less prone you are to injustice, and the poorer you are the more vulnerable and prone you are to injustice," he said.


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