Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo April 8, 2024

Drowning Homes: Unveiling Injustice in Pakistan’s Urban Landscape



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

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

Graphic by Sarah Shamim and Mishaal Hasan Shirazi.

In this podcast, hosts Mishaal Hasan Shirazi and Sarah Shamim delve into the repercussions of flooding in Pakistan and its disproportionate effect on Pakistan’s Hindu and Christian communities. Featuring insights from expert guests, this podcast unpacks the complexities of these environmental issues, the country’s poor urban planning, and the government’s unsatisfactory response.

Episode transcript:

Rafay Alam: It rained for three nights in the summer of 2020 in Karachi, and the infrastructure of Karachi was incapable of handling that, and the city collapsed for two weeks.

Mishaal Hasan Shirazi: Said Lahore-based environmental lawyer Rafay Alam. I am Mishaal Hasan Shirazi.

Sarah Shamim: I am Sarah Shamim.

MHS: This is what we learned while investigating how the increased flooding and poor urban development in Pakistan can disproportionately affect its Hindu and Christian communities.

In response to the flooding, the government—along with the disaster management authority—initiated an anti-encroachment drive, involving the demolition of low-income settlements situated along the city's natural stormwater drains.

RA: The knee-jerk reaction was to point at certain stormwater drains that are used to carry effluent out to the sea and to say these are choked, and because they are choked, Karachi is flooded. 

And so demolitions started at a place called Gujjar Nullah, getting rid of communities who lived on the bank of the nullah, to extensively dredge the nullah to make it have more capacity for urban flooding.

SS: Advocating for the families, whose houses were demolished along these nullahs, is an organization called Karachi Bajao Tehreek. Aadil Ayub, an activist associated with Karachi Bachao Tehreek, recounted visiting Sadiq Nagar Tayyabad, a predominantly Christian settlement in Gujjar Nullah. 

Aadil Ayub: A video on Twitter went viral. The view was such that it was completely dark, but you could make out outlines of slum houses, and someone on the loudspeaker was heard saying, 'The government has ordered everyone to vacate their homes by 7am tomorrow. People whose houses were built on the banks of the drain had to vacate their homes by 7am because their homes were getting demolished.

I took my first visit to Sadiq Nagar Gujjar Nullah (natural drainage in Karachi), where I was interviewing people. There was one guy who came out, his name was Masih, and he didn't have a leg. He told me he used to be a People’s Party Worker (the ruling political party in Karachi), and now the same party has forsaken him and his family. He lost his leg in a workshop accident.

I just went there [Gujjar Nullah] expecting to volunteer, but the way things escalated [was very fast] because the very next week the guy [Masih] lost his home to the demolitions.

RA: Those demolitions are a part of climate injustice because that is not really a solution to the problem per se. 

Karachi didn't flood because Gujjar Nullah was congested, although the congestion contributed to it. It flooded because other parts of Karachi have grown, specifically, the DHA (Defence Housing Authority) of Karachi, have grown on reclaimed land, and quite often they have not taken into account how sewage will flow. So, in DHA, there are sewers that go nowhere, which will block up and flood in any sort of rainfall.

And also, the urban development of Karachi has been so intense over the last 30-40 years that it has, in many instances, encroached into the natural waterways that Karachi had, which would take rainwater out towards the ocean. Now, these blockages are what caused the flooding in 2020.

MHS: One would think DHA or Defence Housing Authority is very well-developed. Comprising eight phases and complete with high-rise buildings, it's one of Karachi’s most elite, posh, and gentrified residential neighborhoods. 

Naeem Jamsheed, a civil engineer from Lahore explains the infrastructure gaps in our cities. 

Naeem Jamsheed: The issue is we don't have a proper drainage system in our cities. The stormwater drainage should be separate to dispose of the stormwater. We have only one sewerage line, and the stormwater is also released into the sewerage lines.

That's why whenever the rainy season comes, the stormwater level rises, and floods occur especially in Karachi and these areas because they do not maintain their sewerage lines very effectively, which need constant maintenance on a day-to-day basis. And when heavy rainfall comes, the sewage lines flood up, and cities drown in it, let alone the slum areas.

In small areas, we can have some kind of protection from the highway by making embankments. The influential people in those areas try to save their land. There is protection, but they breach that protection.

Mohini Prakash: The Vadera (Influential) in my area breaches the protection by breaking the riverbed so his land is protected from flooding.

How much rainwater can the ground even absorb? He just protects his land by breaking the riverbed, not caring about us or those poorer than us. As long as his land is safe, every act is justified.

I have never even seen the Vadera, nor do I know him, but I have heard he has a lot of power, and this is why we are scared of him.

SS: You just heard Mohini, who is from Sindh’s Umerkot, Pakistan’s only city without a Muslim majority. Rich with cultural heritage, Umerkot has experienced fluctuating levels of rainfall over the past two decades. We converted the amount of rain from 2000-2021 into sound to give you a sense of this fluctuation. The higher the sound, the more the rain.

[Data sonification created using TwoTone.]

MHS: Muhammed Toheed, associate director of Karachi Urban Lab, a research organization focusing on Karachi’s urban planning, explained how residential segregation based on religion makes it harder for Hindus and Christians to relocate after their homes get demolished. 

Muhammad Toheed: If someone's house is demolished, it is very sad for them and it is a human rights violation. However, it is still easier for Muslim families to rent a house afterward compared to Hindu families. If Hindu families are displaced from their current community, they would always opt to live in an area with a Hindu majority. The case is similar with Christians too.

We followed these families to Pahar Ganj (a neighborhood in West Karachi). They went to a neighborhood where they had extended family members who could provide them with support in terms of social and financial aspects.

The biggest takeaway we got was that they can no longer afford to send their children to school as now they have an added layer of expense in the form of rent, and they cannot afford both costs.  This geography of the city shows that there are only specific pockets left for minorities in Pakistan where they can be rehabilitated.

SS: A drainage canal project called the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) was built in Umerkot in 1997. 

RA: The LBOD was a World Bank-funded project, which the locals said, 'Don't do it, water doesn't flow this way, it's a bad idea.' They weren't listened to and they were ignored. The World Bank gave money for its construction. It was badly constructed and hasn't worked; it is a failure of infrastructure. 

And it is a lesson to everyone that the voices of Indigenous people must be heard. There must be some sort of public participation when the government does these kinds of infrastructure developments.

MHS: Going back to Karachi, Toheed mentioned the problems faced by the Indigenous people.

MT: The government only looks through the lens of illegal or legal settlements. This is a big problem because in Karachi, a lot of people, despite being flood-affected, fall into a gray area and are not counted. When you say 65% of people are living in informal settlements across the city, among these, many settlements are not even recognized by the government. When they are not legally recognized or regularized, their water provisions, sewage, sanitation, and hygiene are not looked after, and the responsibility falls on the residents. They are referred to as encroachers and illegal, so the government doesn't consider them. 

So when the government makes policies, they only look at the settlements that are legal in their eyes, and that's why when the policies are applied to the ground, they fail because the communities are not asked how they want to live or what they prefer. Previously five big plans have failed due to this reason.

RA: Injustice, quite often in a country like Pakistan, occurs on the scale of affluence. The richer you are, the less prone you are to injustice, and the poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are and the more prone you are to injustice. So marginalized communities like religious minorities are much more exposed to injustices and to other aspects of living in a city in Pakistan.

Injustices in a city in Pakistan are often felt in the form of a lack of access to land or to other urban resources like electricity, water, or sanitation. And so, on the scale of affluence, as you go down, you'll find people more and more exposed to environmental hazards.

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues