Saturday, April 17, 2010

VIEW: Karachi’s Bete-Noire

PUBLISHED in The POST / Aug 22, 2007

By: Afrah Jamal

‘Don’t go back yet! I saw water on the roads’, cautioned a well meaning Arab friend as I prepared to return from Al AIN UAE.

Admitting that the continuing presence of water on Karachi roads leftover from a 2 day old rain is as natural to us as its absence is to them would have bewildered him further. No matter how stifling the weather gets, when people gaze at rain clouds with dismay, you know that you have arrived in Karachi. Always a high risk area for cyclones and tsunamis, this City used to get a glimpse of the Monsoon now and then but the changing weather patterns account for the increasing frequency of rains.

The danger of cyclones is age old and the fear of rain may be recent but it is not irrational as heavy rains were such a rarity that people could quote the year when it last occurred. The regular albeit unwelcome appearance of Venetian roads has of course changed their perception of ‘no rain’ in Karachi. If rainfall in other parts of the country means perhaps crawling through sluggish traffic then Karachi rain guarantees wading through choked-up thoroughfares.


Some residents with means, who get marooned in their homes, have hit on a novel (but practical) method of travel and sail out in their private boats to the car while optimists appease worried friends by inviting them to see the new Venice of South Asia. Thus, Karachi tries to make the best of this faux calamity which afflicts every citizen irrespective of status or location.

Now that the metropolitan has become a regular stop for torrential Monsoon rains, an improvement in this city’s rain response time is offset by the lack of foresight in other departments. Few can forget the inundated underpass of Clifton in 2006, pictures of which were emailed far and wide with ‘photo shopped’ dolphins put in to make a stronger statement. Or the day vehicles become submersibles leaving owners stranded at their offices for the night.

This year, before the city could pat itself on the back for catering to the foreseen, the unforeseen emerged, sending Karachi careening towards disaster yet again. Most of us had already braced ourselves for a rough monsoon, given the beautifully dug up state of the city. However, not many could have predicted that flying billboards will become part of the rain related problems; monumental traffic jams, heavily flooded roads and electrical breakdowns yes but killer billboards and an entire electrical meltdown no.

Two months ago, one encounter with stormy rain brought Karachi to its knees, with the cyclone barely touching the fringes of this coastal city. Compared to the torrential downpour of last year that completely submerged our gardens and streets, the first spell of 2007 in June lacked the devastating intensity witnessed last year but the aftermath was destructive just the same. That a thunderstorm and not a level 5 hurricane could rip up trees, poles and billboards and yet leave our flower pots intact is decidedly odd. I distinctly recall the sudden vicious storms in Islamabad back in the 90’s that would hurl the heaviest of flowerpots with considerable force. Reconciling the property damage of Karachi’s small thunderstorm and 17.7mm rain is therefore difficult.

On the flip side, the authorities set to work in record time, and later removed billboards that could become potential threats but with the breakdown of civic amenities, people could not appreciate the close call they had with the cyclone, busy as they were lamenting their brush with rural life in the heart of urban surroundings. One would think prospective disaster zones would be the old city roads, low lying areas and crumbling infrastructure but instead, residential areas of defence and main roads resembled the infamous ‘katchi abadis’ after just one rainy spell . It is ironic and alarming at the same time that mere rains and not hurricanes have the capacity to completely disrupt the social network of the commercial hub of Pakistan.

This summer, till 9 Aug 2007, the monsoons had been made to order barring the brief thunderstorm, and the intermittent rain gave adequate time for excess water to evaporate. This made it easier for the city to redeem itself from last years botched rain preventive measure. Surprisingly, after the steady rain of August, some of the main thoroughfares did not get inundated, but their water ended up in the service lanes instead. If authorities claimed to be working round the clock, they were being truthful as workers could be seen dealing with clogged areas but the subsequent deterioration still points to laxity in round the clock vigilance.

One rainy day later, even if the road seems passable, the rivulets of water across shops in popular shopping areas make them inaccessible possibly because some neglected drain stands nearby. And they remain so till some shop whips up a small little makeshift brick road. The flooded streets in old shopping areas, on the other hand, render them completely no-go zones especially after receiving 191 mm within 2 days.

Drizzle or downpour, travelers need to leave much earlier for their destinations. Driving slowly on a submerged highway is wise to prevent the carburetor flooding and gum boots are generally recommended though it has been observed that our people (myself included) would rather wade in flimsy shoes than wear proper foot wear.

No matter how much the city claims to be prepared, it is never enough when the time comes and this lack of round the clock preparedness is obviously an issue behind the unexpected and monumental problems that crop up. It is a widely held belief that regular rains would ultimately improve the response time. Until that happens, the city needs to base its future course of action on the premise that rains are a permanent fixture,

Karachi is big and definitely not clean; and lately it is in the process of redevelopment. The size and state together with faulty management in the past gives the scale of impending disaster and explains the recurrence of chaos. With accurate forecasts we cannot pretend to be caught off guard, however warnings from MET alone should not determine the commencement of work; in an ideal world, periodic assessment of vulnerabilities and perpetual maintenance could minimize the level of damage with time.

The truth is that a city of this size needs to allocate more time for preparedness. If prior planning was for a miserly amount of yearly rain, the further development and correctional measures need to take the increased regularity of rains, population explosion and abundance of plastic bags into consideration. Mora than half a century later only revised policies and not superficial strategies can avert the mounting crisis. The rectification of broken down infrastructure taking precedence over construction of the tallest building in the world would be a good place to start.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.hotpaknews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Karachi-rain-images-1.jpg

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