Water mafia and governance in Karachi

Water supply is “more lucrative than drugs”, said one of our interviewees in Karachi, Pakistan. Competition for control of the city’s water includes water mafias and formal institutions. As water becomes increasingly scarce due to ongoing climate change in the Indus Basin, it is already a source of intense economic and political competition. If left unaddressed in time, water scarcity can deepen rifts in this highly fractured, multi-ethnic and populous city.

Gaining a better understanding of water insecurity in Karachi can provide key insights into governance, local politics and criminality related to water access issues for marginalized social and political groups. Climate-related stresses make understanding the relationship between water issues even more urgent for Karachi and other cities where violence shapes daily life, including access to water.

How Karachi turned into water-stress : product and natural rarity

Karachi is located in the far south of the country and is the most downstream city of the Indus river system. As the Indus flows have diminished in recent decades, they have triggered intense political tensions between upstream and downstream populations across the country. Karachi’s share of water is also under strain in the city. Home to nearly 20 million people, Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, its financial center and (until recently) its only coastal city. Currently, only half of the city’s needs are being met – the city has 550 million gallons per day, but the size of the population requires 1.1 billion gallons per day. This is unsustainable, especially considering that around 0.6 million people migrate to Karachi every year.

Studies suggest that resource scarcity can be either produced (for example, caused by inefficient water management) or caused naturally. Karachi knows both types.

According tonatural scarcity argument, water can become scarce due to increased demand, natural degradation (eg, climate-related stresses), or a combination. Due toclimaticand changes in the Indus basin,the flows aredecreases. The increase in demand stems in part from massive immigration from other parts of Pakistan to Karachi. A often suggested solution in the literature is more efficient management of resources and technical advances.

According to the produced scarcity argument, a resource can become scarce if it is not shared fairly or equitably. In cities, scarcity can also be produced by political and economic decisions. This type of scarcity occurs in Karachi where, in addition to climate-related stresses, the scarcity produced is compounded by different actors competing for power over this vital human need. A potential solution to product scarcity is for peoplegovern the commons—working together to manage their shared resources—learn more effectively.

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The water transported in jerrycans in OrangeKarachi (source: Dr. Noman Ahmed)

Governance, urban planning, and Inegation

Water scarcity in Karachi is often linked to water mafias and poor governance. However, our previous and In progress research indicates that its scarcity is the product of decisions made over time by provincial and municipal governments, political actors, and urban planning.

striving to win Administrative control of the Karachi Water and Sanitation Board (KWSB), which is formally responsible for water and sanitation, illustrates how governance decisions are linked to scarcity. Representing particular ethnic groups, the main political parties have sought to control the institution by appointing loyalists on a large scale during their terms in power. These actions aggravated inter-ethnic grievances. Fiercely challenging policies, carrying out high profile development projects under public-private partnership models, and awarding contracts only to allies are some of the strategies used by the groups.

Informal housing and planned communities are another arena of competition for water resources. Investments in prime real estate by the economic and political elite have contributed to unequal access to water. While residents of low-income or informal settlements barely have access to clean and affordable water, residents of planned residential communities are assured uninterrupted channeled access.

This competition makes the city’s water distribution very unfair.


Filling water canisters from neighbour’s piped connection in Lyari, Karachi (Source: Dr Nazia Hussein)

water mafia and other water suppliers

It is in these contexts that the “water mafia” sells water in Karachi. The term was used by people we interviewed who belong to different socio-economic backgrounds. While the term refers to crime, the the water mafia narrative actually involves the interests of multiple actors– including government officials, contractors, community members and political parties – trying to increase access to water in their community for economic and political gain.

Fierce contestation by political actors over the city’s resources led to a significantly weakened KWSB. The KWSB has limited control over its own water lines. One employee we interviewed said, “We don’t know where the water is going anymore. The valves that were installed on the main pipes to regulate the distribution of water in different neighborhoods were broken by local strongmen. They have set up their own valves and control its distribution in most areas.

Informal actors, from political party workers to criminal gangs and small entrepreneurs, have stepped in to achieve economic and political gains. Gangs and low-level political party workers facilitate access through illicit means to maintain control of the area, obtain votes, and derive financial benefit from these transactions. These small providers often receive tacit support from political actors in the city.

In Lyari, one of Karachi’s poorest areas, local gang members regularly tamper with the pipelines. A resident said of the difficult situation in his neighborhood: “When the gang war was raging a few years ago, the local gang leader didn’t want us to take any more water, so he cut the pipe. Now the gang war is over, but we are still stuck.

In Korangi, another low-income settlement, agents from a local political party collect water fees and control everything from pipeline construction to when residents are allowed to fetch water . One interviewee said, “Times when pipelines have water in particular neighborhoods are known to local strongmen with surgical precision. WhatsApp groups relay this information to us. Whether it is the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, we must be ready with our suction pumps and pipes to connect to the network at the appointed time to obtain water. Those who do not have large water tanks built into their homes rely on jerry cans and small drums to store water.

The other major source of water for the people of Karachi is water tanker delivery. Although the exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that millions of Karachi residents depend on water tankers – from affluent, gated communities to densely populated inner city neighborhoods and informal settlements. Depending on what a buyer can afford to pay, the quality varies from potable water to untreated and unsanitary water. Disadvantaged populations living in low-income and informal settlements suffer the most. Barely making ends meet, they pay exorbitant prices to access poor-quality water via tankers, drilled wells and leaky mains.

Many water tankers are linked to crime, both because they tap into illegal standpipes and because they bring in substantial, confidential revenue that is shared among influential actors in the city. Meanwhile, the KWSB suffers significant revenue losses each year.

Crime in the water supply is made lucrative in part through the complicity of formal actors. For example, low-level water government officials share information with contractors in exchange for money. Officials are well aware of how gangs in the area divert water from pipelines to neighborhoods favored by their own political party, as well linking crime to city politics.


People connecting alone to the mains in Korangi, Karachi (source: Urban Resource Center, Karachi)

Water scarcity and politics instability: what awaits us

Pakistan is one of the countries most affected by climate change and is experiencing enormous water stress. Acquiring additional water for Karachi seems almost impossible. Scarcity can only intensify tensions within institutions and on youhe streetgiven how criminal and political violence has been an effective mechanism for access to water, and how ethnic, sectarian and class divisions crisscross the urban and social fabric of the city. The entrenched link between informal providers and political entrepreneurs who compete for money, votes and precious access to water will also gain more influence.

Developing a better understanding of water insecurity in Karachi is urgent for conversations on climate-related urban water stresses. Without full explanations, governments can implement policies that contribute to water stress among the most marginalized populations, as well as increasing the power of gangs and other criminal actors. This could exacerbate social, political and economic rifts in societies. For marginalized populations already experiencing the scarcity produced, living conditions could become even more desperate. More holistic research into these dynamics is essential for Karachi and other growing cities.

noman ahmedPhD is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, Pakistan.

Nazia HussainPh.D. is Assistant Professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan.

Sources: Liberty Fund, Nazia Hussain, Oxford Scholarship Online, Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, ResearchGate, SAMAA TV, Springer Nature Limited, The News International, “Water Supply in Karachi” by Noman Ahmed, and SON Water

Photo credit: Children walk over a broken drinking water pipe at the Korangi crossing point, Courtesy of Asianet-Pakistan, Shutterstock.com

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