Karachi’s rubbish a deadly firetrap
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.
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.