In 2019, Asif Khan sold his two-acre hereditary land in Hyderabad and moved into a four-room house in Karachi’s Orangi Town with his family of three daughters.
“My father and great grandfather invested their blood and sweat in that land,” he said. “I had no option but to sell it to feed my children.” A look of regret crossed Khan’s face as he gazed out of the window. His room’s window gave a view of the 11.25km long Orangi Nullah.
According to a study, 16,800-acre agricultural land in Hyderabad has been urbanised. A contractor visits the city and offers a deal to the residents that “they can’t refuse”. Khan was offered five million rupees. He sold the land and is now running a milk shop from that money.
Over the years, Sindh has seen a sharp growth in both vertical (high-rise buildings) and horizontal (informal settlements and housing schemes) urbanization.
A report by UNDP revealed that Pakistan’s urbanization rate has jumped 3% in one year. Experts have called these rising metrics alarming.
According to research, Pakistan is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in South Asia. But as it undergoes this massive transformation, it faces multiples challenges.
Usman, a resident of Karachi, was stuck in his office for three days during the 2020 Karachi monsoon rain. “When I waded my way back home through waist-high water, I saw my house furniture floating in the water,” he said.
His mother, an arthritis patient, was forced to live on the terrace for days until the water was finally drained.
The four-day spell of rain that soaked Karachi in August last year, took at least 46 lives and left hundreds stranded. Twenty districts of Sindh were declared calamity-hit and army personnel were called in to rescue people, distribute food and provide medical aid.
But what does urbanization have to do with this?
Urbanization reduces seepage of rainwater into the soil due to roads, footpaths and concrete structures, Farooq Fazal, a civil engineering consultant explained. “Due to urbanization, stormwater drains are encroached and their cross-section reduced. With no outlet, rainwater accumulates and gushes onto roads, by-lanes and low lying households causing urban flooding just like the one seen recently in Karachi.”
It’s simple. Water makes its way around when you block it. If it doesn’t, then it will engulf you. It’s a crisis we planned for ourselves, Fazal said.
Karachi has over 550 small and big stormwater drains. But over the years, they have been narrowed down by illegal construction. According to the World Conservation Union, immigrants have put a serious strain on urban areas.
Farmers such as Khan, who migrate with their families, settle down in informal settlements such as the Orangi Town, Korangi Town and Gujjar Nullah. These shanty towns have barely any sewage or filtration systems. These areas were not supposed to be inhabited in the first place.
Fazal pointed out that the residents can’t be blamed alone for the problem. Those who sold the plots and more importantly the city administration are the real culprits. “They never knew what they were signing up for.”
Another weight urbanization brings is in the form of unemployment.
When Khan came to Karachi, 10 people working in his field were left unemployed. The agricultural sector in Sindh employs the province’s 40% labor force. Most of the farmers who sell their land end up unemployed for a long period.
Dysfunctional government policies
“Urbanization in Sindh has been dysfunctional and unplanned,” urban planner and engineer, Farhan Anwer said. “Growth and development patterns are not synergized and government institutions responsible for managing the development are weak and politicized.”
The public policy doesn’t qualify to protect people resulting in non-inclusive and inequitable growth patterns that define our urban spaces while the majority of the population continues to suffer, he pointed out.
Presently, there isn’t a single land-use policy. There is a vacuum for ’land-use protection act’ as well as ’land preservation act’ in the province.
The Sindh Building Control Authority is responsible for overseeing buildings and housing schemes constructed in Sindh. It ensures if the construction is in accordance with the master plans and Environmental Control (Building and Town Planning) Regulations.
“But the authority has fulfilled little of these responsibilities in the last few years, Anwer pointed out. “They’re completely aware of the violations taking place.”
There have been several announcements and advertisements of housing schemes being built on Agriculture land throughout last year.
The environmental damage caused by this rapid urbanization is being addressed by “the Environment protection Agency set up by the government”. Over the years, it has, however, been seen that agency only suggests ways that help minimize the “potential” effects of the sprawl of development.
According to a report, Sindh has the highest rate of urbanization in Pakistan. The province’s land resources have been exploited, resulting in salinisation and water-logging. Its infrastructure, on the other hand, at both town and district level, is in shambles.