The ‘wa­ter mafias’ that suck Karachi dry


The mo­ment they saw the city wa­ter tanker stop in their neigh­bor­hood, Mo­hammed and Nayla rushed to­ward it. That day, the wa­ter was free — a rare event in Karachi, where or­ga­nized gangs siphon it off to sell to thirsty res­i­dents.

In Sadiqabad and other Karachi slums, wa­ter barely flows through the pipe meant to sup­ply the shacks packed along the rut­ted earth lanes.

The short­age doesn’t just an­noy the mil­lions of res­i­dents in Pak­istan’s largest city — this sum­mer it ex­ac­er­bated the ef­fects of a heat wave which killed more than 1,200 peo­ple.

Over re­cent decades Karachi has ex­panded in an un­con­trolled, un­planned way, boom­ing from 500,000 to 20 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants in the space of 60 years and sprawl­ing over an area 33 times the size of cen­tral Paris.

The coastal city pumps around 2.2 bil­lion liters of wa­ter a day from the In­dus and Hub rivers, which have seen their flow re­duced by in­suf­fi­cient rains in re­cent years.

But it is not enough to meet de­mand in a me­trop­o­lis where the vi­tal textile in­dus­try gob­bles up huge amounts.

Mo­ham­mad Akeel Sid­diq works in one such fac­tory, earn­ing 10,000 ru­pees (US$100) a month with which he sup­ports his wife Nayla and their five chil­dren.

From time to time the Karachi Wa­ter and Sew­er­age Board (KWSB) fills the reser­voir in their neigh­bor­hood and res­i­dents flock to it.

But the rest of the time they turn to the semi-clan­des­tine mafias that con­trol the lu­cra­tive trade in wa­ter dis­trib­uted by tankers.

The fam­ily pays up to US$15 a month for wa­ter — which is not even al­ways safe to drink.

“The wa­ter is pol­luted and dirty so we only use it for wash­ing and cook­ing,” Nayla told AFP.

“The chil­dren some­times get di­ar­rhea when they drink that wa­ter.”

As a re­sult the fam­ily are some­times forced to use money they should spend on food to buy clean drink­ing wa­ter.

Dig, Pump, Bill

The wa­ter mafias dig tun­nels to tap into the mains sup­ply, steal­ing mil­lions of gal­lons a day, said Iftikhar Ahmed Khan of KWSB.

“These illegal hy­drants are es­tab­lished by armed peo­ple, so it is very dif­fi­cult for KWSB staff to just dis­man­tle them,” he told AFP.

In re­cent months gov­ern­ment forces on a ma­jor anti- crime crack­down in the city have shut­tered 200 illegal wa­ter con­nec­tions, forc­ing many tankers to re­fill from KWSB and pay fees of US$1-2 per 3,700 liters.

The wa­ter is then resold for at least 10 times that price a few kilo­me­ters away in slums, posh neigh­bor­hoods and in­dus­trial ar­eas.

“There is an enor­mous amount of de­mand ... (but) there is no reg­u­la­tory check of the price the tankers are charg­ing to the cus­tomer,” said No­man Ahmed, an ex­pert on the wa­ter cri­sis at NED univer­sity in Karachi.

On the ground the gangs con­tinue to steal from the net­work while oth­ers pump di­rectly from the ground­wa­ter ta­ble to re­sell what is un­drink­able sa­line wa­ter.

Wa­ter, Wa­ter Ev­ery­where

Karachi’s textile fac­to­ries — the lifeblood of the Pak­istani econ­omy — use hun­dreds of mil­lions of liters of wa­ter a day pro­duc­ing fab­rics, T-shirts and jeans, many of which are ex­ported to the West.

One in­dus­tri­al­ist speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity ad­mit­ted pay­ing bribes to en­sure the wa­ter kept flow­ing to his fac­tory, but said even then he was some­times forced to turn to the tanker gangs.

Many rich peo­ple are in­vest­ing in pow­er­ful suc­tion pumps to draw what wa­ter there is from the mains — thereby de­priv­ing their neigh­bors of their sup­ply.

Karachi is on the Ara­bian Sea, but de­sali­na­tion costs are pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive — and, with the wa­ter ta­ble fall­ing and the pop­u­la­tion con­tin­u­ing to boom, it seems the city’s wa­ter woes are only just be­gin­ning.

“The gov­ern­ment says there are wa­ter short­ages,” said Ab­dul Sa­mad, res­i­dent of the poor Metro­ville area.

“But we see neigh­bor­hood where’s that from?” tankers in our ev­ery day — wa­ter com­ing


(Top) In this pho­to­graph taken on Aug. 22, res­i­dents fill con­tain­ers with wa­ter pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment in a slum area of Karachi, Pak­istan. (Above) In this pho­to­graph taken on Aug. 20, a boy walks past a closed illegal hy­drant in Karachi.

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