Chaos ensued as people chased after water tankers selling water at exorbitant prices; there were long queues at public water taps; and protests in the slums.
The burst pipeline exposed the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, according to a recent study by the state-run Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) and the World Bank. “Erratic weather patterns” caused by climate change would make that infrastructure vulnerable in the future, it said.
“Our [technical] assets are quite vulnerable and what we need to do is to protect them from all potential debacles,” Misbah Farid, managing director of KWSB, told IRIN.
KWSB, which supplies water to Karachi’s 20 million people, claims to be the first public sector utility in Asia to have assessed the impact of climate change and how it could affect - and is already affecting - its “operational assets”.
“The recent years of extreme weather necessitated [this study] so that we could at least prepare and ultimately face the challenges in the coming years,” Ayoob Shaikh, the chief engineer who led the study for KWSB, told IRIN.
“Erratic weather patterns, wasteful usage of water and fast depletion of surface water resources could play havoc in the not-too-far future,” said Shaik.
Feeling the pinch
One of the main challenges, KWSB said, was to protect water and sewage pumping and treatment facilities from extreme and unpredictable weather.
Shaikh highlighted the drought-like situation in 2000 when the city - considered the country’s most advanced and its financial hub - was not able to draw a single drop of water from Hub Dam, the second largest source of water for the city after the River Indus.
“A sizeable part of the population” was affected that year, said Shaik. However, last year, Hub Dam was full and excessive rain flooded many of KWSB’s water pumping facilities.
|Erratic weather patterns, wasteful usage of water and fast depletion of surface water resources could play havoc in the not-too-far future.|
The River Indus accounts for more than 86 percent of the city’s water supply - 670 million gallons per day (mgd). Demand, according to KWSB, is 1,080 mgd.
Already faced with a deficit of over 400 mgd, the decreasing water flow in the River Indus - calculated to be up to 70 percent less in 2050 compared to current levels - will pose a serious threat to the accessibility of surface water.
According to KWSB, glaciers in the Himalayas, the source of the Indus, will melt at faster rates in the future, depleting frozen water reserves and contributing to a sharp fall in water flows in the longer-term.
“We would start feeling the pinch by the year 2025 but in the year 2050 there would be [a] 60-70 percent shortage of surface water,” Shaikh warned.
Many Pakistanis say they are already feeling the pinch now. The water deficit is forcing KWSB to unofficially ration water, shutting down supplies for a week or 10 days in areas where revenue recovery through fixed water charges is poor.
"For us, taking [a] bath is a luxury,” said Hamid Ali, a fruit vendor from Keamari District. “We avail of that on Friday if all goes well; the rest of the time we keep stinking with the bad smell of sweat." There are similar problems even in the capital, Islamabad.
A recent World Bank report found that in 2006, inadequate sanitation cost Pakistan $5.7 billion in health care, extra water, lost productivity and welfare - nearly 4 percent of GDP that year.
Inability to adapt
The study’s findings have alarmed water utility officials who are running facilities inherited from colonial times with very limited resources.
Shaikh said KWSB has set up a “climate change cell” to find solutions to the water crisis, for example by raising pumping facilities so that floods do not submerge them. But funding is likely to be an issue. In August, managing director Farid was forced to disconnect water to Pakistan’s second busiest port, Port Qasim, in order to pay employees their salaries ahead of the Eid holiday.
Photo: Ashraf Khan/IRIN
|Catering to the water needs in downtown Karachi - the old-fashioned way|
There is an immense need to create public awareness around water conservation and the gravity of the issue, he added, “but the water board needs to put its own house in order first.”
Solutions and obstacles
A proposal to build a mega dam known as Kalabagh Dam - seen by some as a possible solution to the impending shortages - was shelved by the present government amid intense political wrangling between provinces. The leadership of Sindh Province, for example, accuses neighbouring Punjab of drawing off more than its fair share of water from the River Indus.
“Kalabagh Dam could be a good source of water but only when the rules of business are followed strictly,” said Abdul Ghani Abassi, a former official of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), the authority responsible for inter-province water distribution. “That is why [the dam] is not acceptable for the people of Sindh.”
Some academics have suggested treating and recycling sewage water, but this too has run into obstacles due to a lack of funding, according to Masoom Yazdani, a microbiologist at Quide Azam University. KWSB dumps 400 mgd of sewage into the Arabian Sea per day, 70 mgd of which is treated.
Pakistan is one of 17 countries facing severe water shortages by 2025, according to the World Bank. “Water availability on a per capita basis has been declining at an alarming rate, from about 5,000 cubic metres per capita in 1951 to about 1,100 currently, which is just above the internationally recognized scarcity rate, and is projected to be less than 700 by 2025,” says an undated World Bank report.