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Pakistan

Karachi’s unsolvable water problems; private sector steps up

  • Delivery of a 1,000-gallon water tanker costs anywhere from PKR 1,500 to PKR 2,500.
  • The plants which are set up to be self-sustainable based on daily water sales cater to an average of 10,000 households each and help save time and money since women and children either had to travel long distances or stand in queues to buy unsafe water from unreliable sources.

Ideally, Karachi needs roughly 1.2 billion gallons daily to supply water for more than 22 million residents. Instead, the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board (KWSB) is only able to provide around 500-600 million gallons per day. There are many reasons for this shortage.

Water theft is rampant, accounting for a lot of the scarcity issues, and according to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), almost half of the water is lost or stolen before it reaches consumers. A lot of this water eventually reaches the people through the water tanker mafia at inflated rates. Delivery of a 1,000-gallon water tanker costs anywhere from PKR 1,500 to PKR 2,500.

This is a steep price, especially for larger, poorer families, some of which spend a third of their income on the stolen water. Equally at fault is inadequate infrastructure. A majority of the city’s water lines are decades old and deteriorating after operating with minimal maintenance. Elsewhere, water infrastructure is absent altogether, especially in the informal settlements, which make up approximately a third of the city and almost half the population.

But the residents of Karachi face an even bigger threat. Those that do manage to get water, are at severe risk of contracting waterborne diseases because of contamination. Back in 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan formed a Judicial Commission on Water and Sanitation.

The commission submitted several reports indicating that more than half of Karachi’s water is unfiltered. According to recent media reports, waterborne disease and skin infections are on the rise mainly due to prevailing unhygienic conditions and supply of contaminated water to many parts of the city. Many of these cases involve children, often showing signs of multidrug resistant (MDR) typhoid. Yet again, the most at risk are people from unplanned areas where hygiene and cleanliness is a challenge and most of the residents barely make the minimum wage.

Where the government appears to be struggling to come up with a solution private sector players and corporations are stepping up to try and make a difference. The city’s sole electricity provider, K-Electric is one such entity, which under its various CSR initiatives such as Project Sarbulandi, has set up as many as eight water filtration plants in areas such as Korangi, Orangi, Landhi, Surjani and Sultanabad. With a combined capacity of around 192,000 gallons per day, these ultra-filtration plants provide clean and safe drinking water to the area residents.

It does appear strange perhaps that a power utility is setting up water plants. According to a spokesperson for the power utility, who spoke to this scribe, “KE believes that dual investments in Karachi’s infrastructure and communities is vital for long-term growth. A company is only as strong as the communities it serves.

As such, KE strives to go beyond power provision, to empowering communities that will enable the people to benefit in various ways, ranging from clean-up drives, infrastructure development, family meals to medical camps. Water filtration plants are just one representation of broader efforts under Project Sarbulandi to engage and grow with the wider community.”

These plants have also received appreciation from government representatives. Member of Provincial Assembly, Waseem Qureshi has also gone on the record to appreciate these efforts, “Karachi’s communities as a whole can only evolve when public and private stakeholders work together for their betterment. Water filtration plants will help to offset the water supply shortages commonly faced by communities in Karachi.”

The plants which are set up to be self-sustainable based on daily water sales cater to an average of 10,000 households each and help save time and money since women and children either had to travel long distances or stand in queues to buy unsafe water from unreliable sources. According to Akhtari begum, an area resident of Gharo, where one such plant is located, “Previously we had to get water from tanker and other suppliers who charged anything they wanted. And the water was not always clean, but we had no choice.”

Others complain about the quality of the water they get through water lines or from a number of illegal hydrants in the city, “Despite straining the water, we still found particles floating in it. At other times the water had a bad smell or tasted salty, or was cloudy,” said Riaz, a resident of Sultanabad.

Now, with these plants up and running, not only are these people no longer hostage to the tanker mafia, but the availability of filtered and uncontaminated water has also also lead to prevention of water-borne diseases and helped reduce medical expenses.

The plants work on a principle of using membranes to filter the water, which need to be changed every few months. Each of these filtration plants is run by a committee which includes area elders. This committee oversees water sales, plant operations as well as maintenance and provide water at extremely affordable rates to the area residents. A jerry can costs around 10 to 15 rupees.

Experience has shown that when communities are given the responsibility of running and maintaining something that directly affects their families, the results are often better, as opposed to a purely commercial setup.

But one company alone cannot solve Karachi’s water problems. We need more socially responsible corporations to step in as well as public-private partnerships if we wish to prove wrong several studies such as the one by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), which predicts that the country will have depleted its available water supply by 2025 and that by 2040, Pakistan’s water stress is expected to be the most severe in the region.