Karachi’s rub­bish a deadly fire­trap

New Straits Times - - World -

Neigh­bours forced their way into Mo­ham­mad Umair’s home, bat­tling smoke and flames in a des­per­ate bid to res­cue his young fam­ily.

He and his wife sur­vived, but their chil­dren did not. The fire be­gan in a heap of garbage, which blocked the nar­row al­ley out­side the five-storey build­ing and quickly spread in­side, en­gulf­ing the fam­ily as they slept that night.

The tragic case has an­gered cit­i­zens here, al­ready frus­trated by a fail­ing waste man­age­ment sys­tem.

Umair, a 31-year-old cloth mer­chant, breaks down as he ex­plains that two of his chil­dren died be­fore they even reached the hos­pi­tal.

“The third one, Ab­dul Aziz, died while the doc­tors were try­ing to save his life,” Umair adds, re­call­ing the doc­tors work­ing fran­ti­cally, but fu­tilely, around the tiny body of his in­fant son.

Po­lice have yet to find out what caused the rub­bish to catch fire.

Umair’s wife, Shameen, blames the city and its cit­i­zens for her chil­dren’s deaths.

“Those who dump trash and do not ful­fil their du­ties to clean up are re­spon­si­ble,” she said flatly, eyes dry as she stands with her hus­band among the cin­ders of their for­mer home.

“Who else?”

Shameen is per­haps the most tragic fig­ure to point fin­gers at waste man­age­ment au­thor­i­ties ac­cused of cor­rup­tion and in­ep­ti­tude, but she is not the first or the only one.

The cap­i­tal, a megac­ity of tow­er­ing blocks and sprawl­ing il­le­gal set­tle­ments on the Ara­bian Sea, saw its growth ex­plode in re­cent decades af­ter waves of mi­gra­tion, largely refugees flee­ing the war in Afghanistan and Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas. Its pop­u­la­tion of at least 20 to 25 mil­lion pro­duced roughly 12,000 tonnes of trash daily.

Po­lit­i­cal bick­er­ing and fin­ger­point­ing make so­lu­tions hard to grasp.

“This city has been turned into a huge rub­bish bin,” Karachi’s for­mer mayor Mustafa Ka­mal roared at a pub­lic rally re­cently.

Ka­mal, who served as mayor un­til 2010, blamed sheer cor­rup­tion and the gross in­com­pe­tence of his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, cit­ing kick­backs on waste dis­posal con­tracts, and even the diesel used to run the garbage trucks.

But cur­rent Mayor Waseem Akhtar, elected last year, com­plains he has no money and no power, his au­thor­ity taken away by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, which in turn has now brought in Chi­nese con­trac­tors to man­age garbage dis­posal in at least two of the city’s five dis­tricts.

Many be­lieve the real fix can only come if au­thor­i­ties and cit­i­zens ad­dress the root of the prob­lem: ram­pant con­sump­tion and waste by mil­lions of res­i­dents in a city where there is no re­cy­cling, no at­tempt to curb the use of plas­tic and no one will­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for clean­ing up.


Mo­ham­mad Umair and his wife, Shameen, in­side a bed­room of their burnt apart­ment in Karachi re­cently.

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