This Coastal Megacity Is Running Out of Water

A seller sits on a wooden cart as he sells gallons of water in water-starved areas of Karachi, including Bilal Colony (pictured). Photo by Sabrina Toppa

KARACHI, Pakistan—In Karachi’s western neighborhood of Orangi Town, stretches of desiccated, cracked earth run underneath single-story homes, and water sellers on donkey carts ply the streets with plastic jugs. Here, the water does not flow, pipes sit corroded and broken, and residents have learned to live without a basic necessity.

Sameena Begum, a 47-year-old mother of four, says the water in her home only comes at night, when most residents are sleeping. “You have to stay awake all night waiting for it,” she said. When it does come, it’s of questionable quality: Begum decided to stop washing her hair in the water after she noticed it had become damaged and brittle. Not long thereafter, she also stopped washing her clothes in the water since it ruined the colors, she told Earther.


The Pakistani megacity of Karachi, home to more than 20 million people, is among the most water-stressed cities in the world, only able to meet half of its daily water demand. Karachi requires 1,100 million of gallons per day (mgd), but only receives 550 mgd, according to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). Karachi’s water is sourced from the Indus River via Keenjhar Lake, which sits more than 90 miles away from the city.

The water shortage in Karachi is linked to myriad factors including climate change, mismanagement of water resources, and corruption. Most of all, however, a rising population increasing at a rate of 4.5 percent a year creates a strain on the finite water supply. Pakistan ranks in the top ten of countries worst affected by climate change, and water shortages are likely to deepen in both intensity and frequency in the coming decade.

“With a changing climate, rising temperatures, and mounting pressure on scarce water resources, big cities like Karachi are likely to experience more severe water shortages in the future years,” Naseer Memon, the former manager of World Wildlife Fund Pakistan’s Sindh program, told Earther. “The city has already exhausted much of its groundwater aquifer, and the natural recharge has been outpaced by the ever spiraling demand from Karachi’s population.”


Pakistan’s national water supply is predicted to reach critical levels of scarcity by 2025. With the majority of the population dependent on agriculture, water shortages have already been identified as the country’s biggest threat, according to the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

“In the 21st century, we are not providing water to citizens,” Misbahuddin Farid, former managing director of the Karachi water board, told Earther. “This is shameful,” he adds, pointing out water is a fundamental human right, yet continues to function as an unmet need for millions of Karachi’s citizens.


Karachi’s water shortage is so bleak that even the airport, the largest in Pakistan, is facing a water shortfall of 500,000 gallons per day, compared to the 800,000 gallons per day it requires to operate.

Moreover, for the few Karachiites that receive regular water, water quality is a growing concern. Reports frequently materialize of fecal matter, E. coli, and other health hazards impacting the city’s water supply. Substandard water quality has contributed to up to 40 percent of deaths and incidents of disease in Pakistan, where over 65 percent of the population is exposed to contaminated water and millions find arsenic in their drinking water.


Karachi residents living in the most destitute areas have not waited for the municipal government to step in, however. Thirty-year-old Sitara Rani, sitting next to Begum in her Orangi Town home, tells me about the erratic water schedule in previous months: “First, the water only came on weekends,” she told Earther. “Then, it came for only fifteen days in a month.”

Rani and Begum joined other Orangi Town housewives in setting up a women’s co-op to gain access to water, after years of neglect from municipal authorities. These days, Rani and twelve other families draw water from underground aquifers through a boring system, but the water that emerges is an unusable, dirty brown. On most days, Rani waits up to fifteen minutes for the dirty brown color to change. Other days, turning on the faucet offers little more than a squeak, with dishes stacking ever higher, clothes piling on top of each other, and prayer rugs waiting for their owner to carry out ritual ablutions with or without water.

Mofiz Khan, 55, sits with his wife and neighbor in Orangi Town, a residential area suffering the worst of Karachi’s water crisis. Photo by Sabrina Toppa

Some Karachiites resort to a black market of water tanker trucks—known locally as a “tanker mafia”—which sells water at extortionate prices. Many of the homes disconnected from the municipal water lines have no choice but to depend on a byzantine network of water tankers to alleviate the water shortage. For homes that are perched on hilltops, the expenses add up: beyond a $10-$20 tanker, residents on an incline are forced to rent a suction pump at an additional cost.


For many, Karachi’s water crisis is as much an issue of resource mismanagement as it is of climate change. An underfunded water board fails to check where water is needed, and claims frequently emerge of the board working in collusion with tanker mafias to operate an informal market of water sold from punctured pipelines. Nearly 30 percent of Karachi’s total available water supply disappears due to leaks and pilferage, Jawed Shamim, KWSB’s former chief engineer, told Earther. With rusty, old water pumps pushing Karachi’s water through the system, inefficiencies are rampant, and waste remains unmeasured without any metering system to assess real cost or use.

It also does not help that a rapidly growing population continually places demands on the water supply, experts say.


“Due to rising temperatures, water consumption and demand are increasing,” said Dr. Muhammad Zia Hashmi, Head of Water Resources & Glaciology at the Pakistan-based Global Change Impact Studies Centre. “We are expecting, based on climate model projections, that there will be more variability of magnitude of monsoon rainfall and also its spatial and temporal distribution, which will make it a challenge to efficiently manage too little and too much water.”

The declining average rainfall in Sindh province, where Karachi is located, has exacerbated water scarcity in recent years. Less precipitation led to the Hub dam drying up in 2016, according to Dr. Noman Ahmed, the author of Water Supply in Karachi. The Hub Dam is shared between two of Pakistan’s most water-parched provinces: 63.3 percent of its water is intended for the southeastern Sindh province, where Karachi is located, and 36.7 percent for the southwestern Balochistan province, Pakistan’s largest province by size, and home to some of the country’s driest terrain.


Karachi’s main water source, the Indus River, is also forecasted to have reduced water flow as a direct consequence of the accelerated rate of Himalayan glacier melt from global warming. Decreased rainfall in Hub Dam’s catchment area has already been responsible for the reservoir shutting down in 2016, when it reached “dead storage levels.” Normally, the reservoir water flows through the Karachi Water Supply Canal at a rate of 100 million gallons per day, or 134,606 acre feet per year, the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority told Earther. Under drought conditions, the availability of water from the dam is significantly reduced, and in the most extreme cases, the dam no longer supplies water.

Yet these concerns remain distant for women like Rani. In recent months, she paid three tankers 1,400 rupees each (around $13 each) to procure water. That’s not always a solution, though: “Sometimes even the tankers don’t have water,” Rani said.


In recent years, Karachi’s water authorities have looked into other solutions. Aware that most of the water is pumped inefficiently, upgrading pumping stations is a priority, the Karachi water board told Earther, as is changing the pipeline routes to minimize leaks. Moreover, the Karachi-4 (K-4) project hopes to add 650 MGD to the city’s water supply from Keenjhar Lake. Despite Karachi’s proximity to the Arabian Sea, other solutions like desalination plants are difficult to fund.

“The cost of water produced by desalination plants is more than ten times the cost of water being supplied right now,” Shamim said. None of these measures, however, solve Karachi’s ultimate problem: the widening gap between supply and demand.


Recently, Rani’s 62-year-old mother-in-law spent an entire night awake collecting what was supposed to be the whole month’s drinking water. The supply barely lasted two weeks. In one particularly difficult month, Rani said the water only came on for thirty minutes. She had to phone the water tanker company to send over a week’s worth of water. And she was disappointed by the lack of concern from municipal authorities. “If the government wants, it can be fixed,” Rani said, adjusting the gauzy scarf draped over her head.

Sabrina Toppa is a Pakistan-based journalist who has reported for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, TIME, Washington Post, and NBC News, among other outlets. Find her on Twitter @SabrinaToppa


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