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Monthly Archives: August 2015

Waterways choked, Karachi on brink of floods with each rain

Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi faces the threat of floods each time it rains, due to rampant construction, pollution and encroachments blocking its natural ravines and storm-water drains

Akhtar_Colony_drain

In July this year, Pakistan’s teeming port city Karachi braced itself for disaster after the meteorological department forecast 50-60 mm of rain in a day. With the knowledge that even 20 mm could bring the city of 23 million people to a standstill, officials prepared themselves for a never-seen-before deluge.

“It was the first warning of its kind. The 2013 urban flooding taught us that we must be prepared this time,” said Ajay Kumar, assistant director operations, Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), in Sindh.

Fortunately, the rains of the 2015 monsoon were less than expected and did not result in casualties and destruction of property and infrastructure as in 2013 when scores were killed in flash floods that paralysed one of the world’s most populated cities.

The crisis was averted this time but it could return with the next heavy rain, fear residents.

In 2013, Kumar recalled, storm-water drains (nallahs) in the country’s commercial capital had overflown following torrential rain, inundating areas like Saadi Town, Gadap Town and Amroha.

While rains are a blessing in other, better-planned cities like the capital Islamabad, in Karachi the story is different. The nuisance value overshadows the joy, owing to overflowing gutters and clogged natural ravines.

“An estimated 60% of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements, with no access to sewers. People dump sewage into ravines that were for clean water, not for waste,” explained Roland de Souza, executive member of the group Shehri – Citizens For A Better Environment. “So when it rains in Karachi, it overflows.”

“It did not rain as much but at least the warning helped expedite the cleaning of the nallahs by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC),” added Kumar.

But that’s not really helpful, said architect and urban planner Arif Hasan. While it is a good idea to clean the drains, “it will not really help (check) the flooding if the drain water does not have a passage to go into the sea. Whenever the tide is high, the problem will return.”

Major road and housing projects have been built in Karachi, causing enormous damage to the environment. Mismanaged construction, pollution and encroachments have blocked Karachi’s water passages.

What will happen to a city of Karachi’s size and its choked up drainage system if there are torrential rains? The question remains unanswered.

In Karachi, human greed is destroying life, says ecologist Rafiul Haq. “We have built buildings on water bodies, started using strong detergents excessively and non-biodegradable plastic bags. All this clogs our drains.”

The vein-like network of Karachi’s natural ravines and manmade nallahs as well as the sewerage drains are a confused mess. At the time of Pakistan’s formation in 1947, Karachi had some 400,000 residents but the population exploded in following decades. Inefficient administration, uncontrolled reclamation of land for construction and pollution have resulted in the destruction of natural drainage.

Today, under the pressure of a population of 23 million plus, and a population density of 24,000 people per square kilometre, according to the World Population Review, both the water supply and drainage system of Karachi are less than satisfactory.

Rampant construction

“Rainwater in Karachi used to clear away within 10 minutes once upon a time. But then man came along, over-built, and confused the system,” said de Souza. He cites the example of Gora Qabristan, a graveyard for the Christian community, built on the city’s jugular Sharah-e-Faisal road. Over the last 68 years, the road has been raised by four feet. As a result, the cemetery becomes a pit full of water for days during the rainy season.

“A storm drainage map system is what we need. The building control authorities should check the drainage before approving any construction. A flood in a city is not a natural but a manmade disaster,” de Souza said.

Hasan explained, “There are three main outfalls of drainage to the sea from Karachi.” One of them, the Gizri Creek, has the upscale Phase 7 Defence Housing Authority (DHA), home to the city’s rich and powerful, built on it. “All that we are left with is approximately an 80 feet nallah. When there is high tide, or rain, the water cannot get out. The result is that it gets choked.”

Similarly, the major Mai Kolachi bypass has been built over a drain. “It should have been elevated to avoid problems” and to the west, the Karachi Port Trust colony was built over marshland, Hasan said.

Then there is the Kalri Nallah, near Machhar (mosquito) Colony, the largest of Karachi’s unregulated neighbourhoods, where hundreds of trucks of garbage are dumped every day.

There are several other instances. An 80 feet wide, 4,000 feet long nallah between Akhtar Colony and Defence View Phase 2 has piles of silt, overflowing sewage, mounds of garbage and an entire colony of slum dwellers lining both sides.

Blame game

Commissioner Karachi Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui, who is also KMC administrator, recently called for the speedy clean-up of the drains. Asked how swiftly this would be done, Syed Muhammad Shakaib, director of planning and development at the Karachi Commissioner Office, admitted that there are serious bottlenecks when it comes to implementation. “Can you tell me names of more nallahs that need cleaning? We can start working on them right away.”

According to experts, the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) should take responsibility. But the blame game continues here too. “Cleaning the freshwater ravines or storm-water drains is not our responsibility. We are just concerned with sewage water. The laws are all there but if people don’t follow them what can we do?” said Nazeer Mateen, KWSB spokesperson.

Mateen admitted that water contamination is not uncommon in Karachi, with some residents stealing water by making holes in pipes and attaching makeshift waterlines to them. “Those sometimes get mixed up with sewage lines KWSB has laid. If we find out, we fix it. What else can we do?”

As the chaos intensifies in the sprawling city, residents remember the old days. “I myself have caught fish from the Lyari river and eaten it,” said a nostalgic Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical advisor, marine fisheries, WWF-Pakistan. “No one even feels for the loss of natural water bodies. Their absence has affected biodiversity and life itself in Karachi. It has been eaten up by commercialism.”

Kasur child pornography: Knowing the difference between resistance and consent

Published: August 10, 2015

One official has called it “the largest child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history.” PHOTO: REUTERS

I don’t curse. But this is a rare occasion where I would love to abuse the perpetrators of the Kasur children’s sexual abuse atrocity in the vilest possible terms. However, here’s the thing about cursing – If I curse, I would end up using words that revile their mothers, sisters, and use the same pile of filth in words that they actually went and committed by use of force, intoxication and blackmailing.

So I would only be furthering the same thought process, where sex is connected with a position of power.  People who curse using sexual terminology are played into feeling a sense of control, and it allows one to vent unrestrictedly. In a twisted and mutated way, so does rape or molesting a child. So no, cursing will not help. We have to come up with something better. Understanding how child sexual abuse is happening in a society where the Youtube blocks have clearly not mitigated paedophilia, leave alone pornography, some things needs to be understood.

This particular incident is so painful and sensitive that we have re-evaluated each word we are using. Scandal, for example, is a wrong word to use here, because it can be used for rumour or gossip. This incident is no rumour it happens to be a real wound that will remain etched in the Pakistani nation’s collective memory. One must also not compare the criminals with animals, because such brutality is rare among animals.

All I can do is pray earnestly that may they be punished without an iota of compassion shown to them, may they be made a bad example of, and may they burn in the lowest depths of hell.

Yet, just condemning them to hell is not enough. Some 500 abused children, 15 accused (the youngest of them is allegedly just 14-years-old), seven FIRs, and a judicial probe order later, have we learnt anything about the monstrosity that child sexual abuse is? This had been going on for years! Black mailing, cover ups, a silent town. The details will keep emerging as the story unfolds, and we may never know what the exact truth is.

These children were in big numbers, and numbers jolt us awake, albeit temporarily. But what about what happens around us?

Have we seen the number of street children in Karachi alone, and do we realise that each one of them is sexually molested within days of being initiated onto the open roads?

Which one of us has not come across stories of children being molested sexually?

The accused, for whom we all are praying for eternal damnation, are from among us. Sexual abuse at a tender age rewires the brain in mysterious ways. Every child who has undergone this trauma suffers from neurobiological, as well as long-term psychological effects. Each case will be different, as will how the child, even when a grown adult, processes it.

But the scar will remain. For some, the long-term impacts may be milder but debilitating– like deep-rooted psychiatric disorders, depression, anxiety, failed relationships, inherently low self-esteem, use of sex as a means of feeling better about themselves, and irresponsible decisions when it comes to sexual activity. For others, it might be an aversion to sex and prudish behaviour for a long time. In a worst case scenario, he/she who was once the victim, is now the perpetrator.

Pakistan, fortunately, still has a social system where very few will agree with post-modernist and other theories, where childhood is not considered the age of innocence. An example is what was said in the California Childhood Sensuality Circle, by its main figure Valida Davila, in 1981:

“We believe children should begin sex at birth”.

A legal minor, or a child, is a child, not yet in a position where he or she can make an informed decision about entering into such activity. While the law of Pakistan agrees with this, and whether the child resisted or not, considers it statutory rape when a minor is sexually molested, not everyone in society agrees.

I came across a recent case, and this is factual, where a 12-year-old girl was raped by a man in his 40s. The two had been interacting and chatting as they lived in the same neighbourhood. Even after the rape was proven and the man confessed, people of the neighbourhood and the girl’s own relatives were heard saying

“It was not really rape as she is a very tez (conniving) girl and was having an affair with him; she never resisted”.

The child was a curious 12-year-old with raging hormones, not a consenting adult.

The difference must be understood in the backdrop of the Kasur incident, because now that the entire community knows which children were sexually abused and filmed, those films will be run and rerun to see where there were signs of resistance, and where the child seemed to consent. Sadly, but surely, the incident will haunt those 500 young lives and their families in a judgmental society.

Child sexual abuse perpetrators, as psychologists confirm, often befriend the child and develop a comfort level where they do not have to use physical force. Yet, because it is a child in question, it is an unfair equation and abuse of the highest order.

But what is perhaps most worrisome, that there is a market out there, and an avid watcher of these films, who may not be an active paedophile himself, but enjoys the sickening, cheap thrills of watching a helpless child being forced into the act.

This is an unsafe, bad, bad world. In your community, watch out for any suspicious activity, and report it, whether it is your child or someone else’s. Protect your child at all costs, especially when at a formative, unripe age where the child cannot distinguish between right and wrong. Do not trust anyone with your child. And if you happen to know someone who was a victim, stop judging that person. Most importantly, seek help, both psychological and legal.

May the Kasur incident be the last of its kind. And may we have learnt some lessons to protect our children.

Dear Karachiites, before you plant trees, think

Published: August 9, 2015

Homeless man rest under trees on a hot summer day in Allahabad. PHOTO: AFP

The heat wave that killed more than 1,300 people in Karachi seems like a long time ago. Concerned citizens, in the heat of the moment, promised to plant trees, but very little has been said regarding when and how this can be done.

As time is passing and cool monsoon winds are blowing away painful memories of the heat wave, the promises seem to be dissipating. Where memories are short lived, long-term efforts to mitigate a recurrence of the same catastrophe seem nowhere in sight.

That is the problem with climate change – the cause and effect, both take place over extended periods of time. In a world of instant gratifications, both individuals and governments seem to have no patience to invest in something that will not show results instantaneously.

Trees are an integral part of the environment, a part sorely missing in mega cities such as Karachi. Trees have a cooling effect as they transpire water from the ground, through the roots and out from their leaves. In addition, trees provide shade. For those who experience Karachi heat on the streets and have compared the temperature in shade and in open air know the difference.

Planting trees in this concrete jungle is the real way we can stop this from happening again. However, few people recognise the impact of planting a tree today that could potentially save lives decades later. Those who are seriously inclined towards it, often end up planting the wrong trees at the wrong places due to a lack of awareness. Other than experts, like the unsung heroes of the ‘Mera Karachi (My Karachi) drives for tree plantation, people may be planting trees in Karachi but are planting them wrong.

First and foremost, not every tree can bear Karachi’s temperament – what to plant should be a primary consideration. In Karachi, one thing to bear in mind is that anything we plant will have to be watered by us, as rains are a rarity and the city is already suffering from water shortage even for human consumption.

As horticulturist and activist, Tofiq Pasha Mooraj says,

“If you plant it, you water it.”

For that, water conservation and recycling is important. However, this should not be the only consideration. The Corynocarpus is hassle free, fast growing, adaptable to even high salt content, economical when it comes to watering, and is the most popular choice of Karachiites since recent years.

Photo: Wikipedia

However, it does not provide shade as it grows almost straight and vertically. There have been studies that point in the direction that Corynocarpus causes allergies in humans who live nearby. Most importantly, its roots, when they grow deep underground in search of water, break or clog Karachi’s sewage and water lines.

In this, it resembles the harm the Eucalyptus trees caused the city earlier. The city realised 25 years later what the Eucalyptus had done. As a result, an unnecessary effort was put into cutting out Eucalyptus trees in the city, and we lost out on the city’s greenery as well. While it has the advantage of providing cheap wood and grows fast, it literally throws toxins at other plants and does not allow other plants and trees to grow close by.

Photo: Reuters

A recent trend is to plant Khujoor (date) trees with full grown tree implants. However, the tree and its fruit are prone to fungal attacks due to the humid weather here. The date tree is therefore a less than ideal choice.

Photo: AFP

The best trees for the city are those that take less water and provide shade. The best example is Neem, a very smart life form, which sucks in water from underground and provides cool shade. Other sensible choices are Gulmohar (Flame of the forest), and Amaltas (Indian Laburnum). These are deciduous trees that shed leaves, which proves to be very useful for Karachi.

Photo: Express Tribune

Photo: Pinterest

Photo: Twitter

Indigenous varieties like Laal Badaam (Indian almond) and Jaamun (Syzygium cumini /jambolan) are also useful fruit-giving trees that give shade. Lignum is also a good option; it looks pretty, and uses less water, but takes time to become a shade giving tree. As it is a mid-sized tree, it is good to plant in areas where there are electricity wires above.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Pinterest

The choice of the tree you plant also depends on where you plant it and the space available. This brings us to the second consideration – where should one plant trees?

For starters, if you are planting in a place other than your lawn, make sure you have permission to do so. Make sure the tree, once it has fully grown, will not interrupt electrical wires or obstruct underground sewage or water lines, or damage any walls. A good place is dividers or the place between your boundary wall and the road. Those living in apartments will have to be more creative, and settle mostly for plants that can be grown in pots on the roof. Yet, the important role green roofs can play must not be undermined.

The ideal planting season for trees is mid-February to mid-March and mid-July to mid-August. Trees can be planted at other times too but extremely hot or cold months should be avoided. This means that it is best not to plant in April, May, June, and October.

The reality of Pakistan through Brandon Stanton’s lens

Published: August 1, 2015

It’s about time people start seeing Pakistan through Brandon’s lens. PHOTO: HUMANS OF NEW YORK FAECBOOK PAGE

While Pakistani fans of Brandon Stanton were posting warm and welcoming comments on the Humans of New York (HONY) Facebook page, the power of pre-conceived notions and assumptions about Pakistan was evident in the contrasting rude and dismissive comments. Some of them called Pakistan “that wretched country” and threatened to give up on being fans of Brandon if he visited Pakistan.

Photo: Screenshot

And so it has been. Pakistan, a beautiful country, inhabited by a vibrant nation, is often seen globally as a monolithic entity in which only extremists and bigots live, and where only bad things happen. It is seen as not just the land of the 2005 earthquake, the 2010 floods and the 2015 heat wave, but the land where these natural disasters could not be handled and too many precious lives were lost. It is seen as the land of the patriarchal man who throws acid at the woman who rejects him, and the country where schools are bombed. This is how Pakistan is seen by many who have a simplistic and, unfortunately, a binary world view. They have seen that side of Pakistan that makes headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Pakistanis, thus, find themselves in a situation where people of the world are not willing to visit it, and they cannot really be blamed. Who would want to plunge into danger knowingly? If at all they do, there are very typical places they will visit, amid caution, fear and high security. They will experience the beautiful but sterile (parts of the) federal capital, Islamabad, and take selfies at the Mughal and colonial architectural sites in Lahore. They will give a talk at a university campus, eat at Cuckoo’s Den, and rush back home at the earliest. In doing so, very few visitors of non-Pakistani origin really get a flavour of what the real Pakistan is. Karachiites, in particular, have even forgotten what a non-Pakistani taking a walk on the streets of Karachi looks like.

In such a situation, while as Pakistanis we are grateful that brave and unprejudiced visitors like Brandon and the players of the Zimbabwe cricket team took the risk and cared enough to see what Pakistan actually is, a part of us is saddened. Our excitement and hash tags like #cricketcomeshome or #HONYcomestoPakistan express how starved we are for such cultural interactions. We wish that it was just a given that people from all over the world would visit Pakistan for its natural beauty, its cultural diversity, and as one of the most interesting places in the world.