Pakoras will not save us – Rafia Zakaria

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KARACHI is unprepared for the rains this year. It was unprepared for the rains last year as well and the year before that. In the devastating rains of 2020, scores of people died and hundreds of thousands were affected. In the worst of it, the city experienced over 200mm of rainfall in a 12-hour period in August. The rainfall and consequent flooding was such that it could be seen from space and Nasa has pictures of it on their website.

Stagnant rainwater stood for days becoming a breeding ground for all sorts of waterborne illnesses. Hundreds of businesses, already struggling due to repeated Covid lockdowns, were further affected. One man told Al Jazeera “you would be shocked looking at the streets of Karachi. There is no way you can get out in that water”.

In pictures: Torrential rain floods Karachi, shatters records

This time the people of Karachi should not be shocked. While the cyclone has been dodged, the monsoon rains will almost definitely come. Soon after the devastating rains last August, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah asked the federal government (to whose coffers Karachi sends the largest amount of taxes) for help. The level of the catastrophe, it was apparent, was not something the provincial government or the city could tackle by itself. But no substantial help arrived — the prime minister promised Rs1.1 trillion but there is no further news on that front.

For the very wealthy, it is possible to live in Karachi without ever living in Karachi.

A lot of the flooding was caused by storm-water drains that were blocked. The water had nowhere to go and so it went inside people’s homes. Recently, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah convened another meeting as more rain was anticipated on account of the cyclone. To his credit, he did make an attempt to prepare for the 80mm of rain forecast, and asked for the “choking points” of the city’s nullahs to be cleared and for the provincial authorities to provide dewatering machines and generators to all districts. A special ‘control cell’ was to be set up at the Sindh Secretariat so that various agencies could coordinate help for those who needed it.

All of this seems like a valiant effort and perhaps similar efforts should be considered for the monsoons. However, for things to get better, Karachi needs to create a functional storm-water-drainage system and reform the interdependent systems that are affected by the water-drainage system. This would involve mapping low-lying areas and increasing the capacity of the drainage system. The gradient of major avenues in the city must be made uniform and constructed in a way that allows the storm water to flow toward the drains. No city can manage huge amounts of rainfall without a subterranean drainage system of some sort, and the authorities would do well to understand this and act on it for the situation to be better this year.

It is now obvious that climate change has altered the rain patterns in the region. In earlier decades, Karachi rains were elusive. Some years it hardly rained at all and when it did it was nowhere near the colossal amounts seen in recent times. The increasing temperature of the water in the Arabian Sea means that cyclones will form more often, and the greater the number of cyclones, the bigger chance there is of cyclones hitting Karachi. If a city cannot handle heavy rains, imagine how utterly wrecked it would were it to be hit directly by a cyclone.

Karachi, this forlorn megacity that 20 million people call home, is in a deplorable shape. A Dickensian manifestation of vast inequalities, squalid neighbourhoods squeeze between wealthy localities that are home to walled compounds within which the wealthy can hide their money and themselves. The truly rich have power generators and then back-up generators such that they never have to experience the swampy heat of the rainy season. It is possible to live in Karachi without ever living in Karachi.

That, however, is the story of the very wealthy. Most of Karachi, living in makeshift slums or small apartments in high-rises, suffers agonies every day. These folks will be failed by the city’s administrators all over again. To add to the thoughtless misery of it all, television channels will insist on saying ‘mausam khushgawar hogaya’ (the weather has turned pleasant) again and again as the water rises. Everyone is supposed to stop worrying about their homes being flooded yet again and to fry pakoras instead. What’s a few inches of water soaking your living room sofa if you can sit on it and eat plate after plate of pakoras? That it appears is what the city’s administration feels as it watches the city collapse into a sodden mess.

Who says hell has to be hot and dry? Karachi can show you a wet and water-logged hell that is just as miserable and relentless in its tortures. As the monsoon season approaches, the citizens of Karachi must prepare themselves. They should make sure they have food ready and stored. They should ensure they have batteries for flashlights, and the means to charge their phones if there is a power outage. If the showers are heavy, the first thing to be lost will be electricity.

It is smart to have a plan to deal with flooded streets, no electricity and consequently no Wi-Fi etc. One positive outcome of the absence of electricity is that one can stop watching television anchors discuss pakora recipes and insist that the weather is pleasant.

Karachiites have a right to be bitter and cynical about the rain. Every year in recent memory, the rains come and the city collapses. Suddenly, basic survival, basic hygiene, in fact basic life becomes difficult if not impossible to handle. Every year, an apathetic federal government watches while people suffer. This year will be no different. There will be no rain-fed romance between Islamabad and Karachi. The best the federal government can do for disaster-stricken Karachiites is offer up a plate of pakoras.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.