Sustainability is the current “buzzword” that has swept global conscience. This is understandable as in recent times apocalyptic tales seem to be taking over the imagination of masses and doomsday conspiracies are making way into the mainstream. My visit to Karachi this summer left me aghast with many of the abrupt changes that have taken place. Although the city was never really renowned for its town and urban planning but recent developments are a pending disaster.
In light of this I have decided to write series of articles that would address issues pertaining to sustainability in Karachi. These articles will aim to provide solutions to chronic problems such as water and power shortage, pollution and population control, transport and economy and other facets of sustainability.
The absence of a proper governing structure for a metropolis and presence of a skeletal municipal cooperation has been taken into account. Therefore steps and in some cases baby steps towards sustainability will be rolled out that are within the grasp of any individual willing to take the initiative.
In 1998 the Meteorology department in Karachi pointed out that the city might be engulfed in a civil war by the year 2010 due to water shortage. By the year 2002, a further scare surfaced that Karachi is losing 30% of its water because of supply pipes out living their effective life. For a metropolis in an arid zone this is utterly unacceptable. At present, majority of Karachi’s population is affected by the scarcity of water and are living under a cloud of anxiety.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember it was a sunny afternoon in the early 90’s when as a teenager living on the outer stretches of University road, I witnessed a bearded man of heavy built using a pickaxe to strike a hole in a wide concrete pipeline. The area was near “Safoora Goath” and was at the time was thinly populated. This activity was being carried out at a point that was shrouded by Keekar (Prosopis Juliflora) shrubs. I was able to view it from my balcony; the elevation gave me the perfect vantage point. While Keekar itself poses several ecological problems but that is a topic for another day. My initial thoughts were that the man might be a KDA inspector or a technician trying to inspect the line. After several attempts he finally succeeded in creating a hole as wide as a football. Water came out gushing and a puddle started forming. At this point I noticed the man brought forward his tanker truck, pushed a rubber hose inside the mains pipe and turned on an external pump. It took him about 25 minutes to fill up his monster vessel before he drove off in the sunset. A growing pool of water was left behind. I was shocked by this act but did not know whom to report. I had just witnessed the emergence of tanker mafia in Karachi. That hole was patched a week later i.e. after several tankers had binged on the “new” commodity.
Water is a precious resource and no one can do without it. 2010 came and passed. There was no civil war in Karachi, mainly because people had tapped into underground aquifers. In areas like Shah Faisal and Model colony, water could be pumped by digging boreholes only 70 feet deep. Recent reports however suggest that the water levels are receding and now deeper boreholes are required to access the juice of life.
In the present situation, we have to stop relying on purely adhoc solutions and look at the long term. We cannot just delay the apocalypse, we have to cancel it. Karachi has to take several steps towards water conservation from fixing the seeping pipelines to curbing the tanker mafia. But in a city where water supply is a billion dollar industry, to stem the flow people need to be empowered through awareness and education.
Due to scarcity, water usage per captia in Karachi is already in check. People are generally conservative in their water usage as they have to pay a hefty premium on its overuse. However steps can be taken on an individual level to further reduce its usage. For example, spray taps (tap aerators) can be used which enhance the washing effect of water but reduce its consumption. The amount of water that is wasted while performing ablution could also be reduced and mosques should lead the way in incorporating this apparatus in their ablution areas. This measure alone will save millions of gallons of both fresh and brackish water.
A prominent Hadith also cements the concept of water conservation. It is narrated that one is not to waste a single drop of water even if one is to perform ablution near a flowing river.
It is now well established that more plant attracts more rainfall while increasing green areas require water, bringing us to a chicken and egg scenario. A possible problem out of this is Karachi’s precipitation, which is not the highest but experts have highlighted its great potential for rainwater harvesting. Data issued by Meteorological department suggests that although Karachi’s monsoon variability is getting high (due to climate change), but the overall trend is an increase in rainfall. Harvesting that rainwater by open top tanks on roofs and rock catchment areas is a small step towards not only increasing our water resource but also beautifying the city in the process.
The wider solution perhaps is desalination of sea water. I recently witnessed a portable water desalination unit used by the military that produced 9 US gallons (30 litres) of water in an hour on a 110 Watt power input. The unit costs 5600 USD but could be run easily run with a solar PV panel. PCSIR, NED and Hamdard University have produced similar units using solar thermal technology (which are cheaper) as research projects. Some of these projected have been commissioned, but the lack of funding and concerted efforts have confined many of them to newspaper archives. It should be noted that modern desalination units that run on renewable energy have minimal maintenance costs.
Thus if the industrialists and Industrial units in Karachi – which themselves use fresh water intensively- pool in the money to raise capital for desalination units, the citizens could get access to pure water at almost a fraction of cost they currently pay. In addition, it could kick start an industry (desalination plant production) that would not only provide much needed employment but also bring revenue by exporting expertise and products abroad.
I once heard Gil Grosvenor, Chairman of National Geographic, mentioning that availability of fresh water will become an index by which prosperity of a nation will be measured. It did not make sense at the time but it certainly does now. Let’s start our journey to prosperity by stocking up the basic element of life, water. Let’s start appreciating that we don’t spend hours in acquiring it and let’s make sure that we keep it that way in the future too.