Outwards and Upwards

Hundreds of thousands have flocked to Karachi in search of a better life, but can the city cope?

Words Neil Arun
Illustration Sarah Vanbelle

Karachi is the teenage tearaway of global mega-cities: it is growing up fast and doing as it pleases. Here it is growing outwards, cementing over desert and villages. Elsewhere it is building upon its buildings, growing upwards because it can no longer expand outwards, packing people into the inner city because the periphery has been exhausted.

Karachi’s civic infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. It is Pakistan’s cultural and commercial capital, yet there is no city-wide system for cleaning the streets, repairing the roads, flushing the drains and providing homes with running water and steady electricity. The poor, who make up the majority of Karachi-ites, would regard the very idea of such a system as fantasy.

To speak of Karachi is to speak in superlatives. It is one of the fastest growing megacities in the world and the largest city in Pakistan, which in turn is the most rapidly urbanising nation in south Asia.

To grasp what Karachi is, ask what it is not. It is not Islamabad, an orderly grid of gardens, boulevards and government buildings that supplanted Karachi as Pakistan’s capital in the 1960s. Islamabad followed the plan; Karachi ran away from it. The rationale behind Islamabad — build it and they will come — is reversed in Karachi. The people keep coming and so the city is built, stretching haphazardly along every possible axis.

Behind its expansion lies the convergence of two broader trends — natural population growth and migration to the cities. Pakistan’s overall population is growing rapidly. Those who do not already live in cities want to live in them, and Karachi is their first choice.

“Karachi has become a network of competing fiefdoms, run by politicians and their various business partners.”

In the last 25 years, the city’s population has more than doubled. By 2025 it is expected to have surpassed 20 million. But as more and more people make Karachi their home, it is becoming less and less habitable — a paradox shared with many developing-world megacities.

When Pakistan became independent in 1947, Karachi was home to around half a million people. Today, it has 16 million. How has Karachi housed them? The city — in the abstract sense of its institutions — has not. Instead, the people have housed themselves through an unregulated construction sector, and the city — in the concrete sense — is their creation.

Grand schemes for the city’s expansion, poorly implemented, have been rendered obsolete. “There are so many governing agencies and bodies in Karachi,” says Sobia Kaker, a researcher at LSE Cities, a centre at the London School of Economics. “They don’t follow any masterplan and that creates chaos.”

Like other large cities in the region, Karachi is vibrant, chaotic, polluted and overcrowded. Unlike them, it is also very violent, with a homicide rate that has been described as “Latin American” — closer to that of Bogotá than Mumbai.

Much of that violence is political, a by-product of Karachi’s unique history. The city’s population are mostly migrants, refugees or their descendants, whose presence in Karachi can be traced to a series of regional conflicts. As they have settled the city the strife that brought them there has been focused on a smaller stage, in struggles for homes and influence.

“Karachi has developed enclaves which are predominantly ethnic or religious,” says Asiya Sadiq Polak, an architect and urban designer who has taught, researched and practised in the city. She describes a vicious circle where each wave of newcomers congregates in neighbourhoods where their community has a foothold. In this way, they shore up the constituency of community leaders, who in turn reinforce their power by using settlement as an electoral tool, awarding homes in exchange for loyalty.

Karachi has thus become a network of competing fiefdoms, run by politicians and their business partners. They have undermined civic institutions to create a surrogate infrastructure that delivers services — of which housing is only one — to their clients and constituencies. It is their generators that compensate for the power cuts, their buses that ferry workers from the outskirts, and their trucks that bring water when the taps run dry.

Along with land, water is Karachi’s most precious resource. Perched between the desert and the sea, the city depends on rivers, reservoirs and wells to provide for its booming population. But many local rivers and wells have been polluted or exhausted, while reservoirs further inland have been starved by erratic rainfall.

Karachi’s location, its vast population and its lack of planning mean it is also particularly vulnerable to the predicted consequences of climate change — particularly rising sea levels and frequent floods. In 2011, catastrophic flooding hit the surrounding province of Sindh, sending a tide of homeless people into the city. Pakistani scientists linked the floods to climate change and warned of worse in years to come.

Karachi was originally one of several fishing villages along the delta of the Indus river. The other harbours silted up; Karachi did not. It became a port. Under British colonial rule, the port was expanded for trade and military use, attracting labourers from the rural interior. The city became a melting pot — though most of its inhabitants still spoke Sindhi, the local language.

That changed with the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Karachi’s substantial Hindu community fled for India, while over half-a-million Urdu-speaking Muslims left India for Karachi. The newcomers were known as mohajirs, after the Arabic word for immigrants. Having doubled the city’s population in less than five years, they also began to dominate its politics.

The city swelled. Unregulated tenements sprang up on public land in the centre. Those who could not find a home there — the very poor — settled on cheap, unwanted land on the periphery. Restricted by the sea to the south, this low-density sprawl stretched further and further into the desert.

In the 1970s, the war in East Pakistan — responsible for the creation of Bangladesh — delivered another surge of migrants to Karachi. And since the 1980s, the conflicts in Afghanistan and in the adjoining border areas of Pakistan have been sending wave upon wave of Pashto-speaking migrants into the city.

Each new community has announced itself with a chaotic construction spree, and by the 1980s a stunning two-thirds of the city’s population was living in unplanned settlements known as katchi abadi. The Urdu term katchi means rough, incomplete or temporary. It refers not so much to the quality of the construction as its legal status. The buildings are solid enough, and have become so common a feature of the city that the authorities eventually decided to recognise them as lawful.

According to Ms Kaker, the authorities realised that rather than uprooting and rehousing people, “it might be better to regularise settlements” which they had already developed. In doing so, Karachi quietly acknowledged its failure to build for its citizens and upheld their right to build for themselves.

Recently, in many parts of Karachi, the periphery has reached its limit. Remote and underdeveloped, the costs of living on the fringe have begun to outweigh any benefits. As a result, the outward expansion of the city has slowed down, while the construction spree in the centre has sped up, the urban sprawl replaced by what the experts call “densification.”

In central districts two to three storey homes are being replaced by ten-storey tenements on the same land, often in areas smaller than a tennis court. The buildings are usually unauthorised and badly planned — resembling, Sadiq Polak says, “a stack of shoeboxes.”

These homes — mainly for the poor and the lower middle-class — are crowded and unsanitary. They block the light from the streets and themselves lack natural light, ventilation and privacy. With shallow foundations, they are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.

Above all, they place a further strain on an infrastructure already struggling to provide for such concentrations of humanity. As a result of densification, Kaker says, conditions in the city centre have become even more squalid.

“Those who campaign on behalf of dispossessed villagers risk their lives. One of the most prominent campaigners was shot dead in 2013.”

Where the city continues to expand it is into existing settlements. Once-remote villages now find themselves on the fringes of Karachi. The value of their land has gone up, attracting the attention of unscrupulous developers and their political patrons.

In an oft-repeated pattern, the rights to the land are signed away in a pact between developers and local officials, with villagers who held those rights for centuries cut out of the deal. Those who campaign on their behalf risk their lives. One of the most prominent campaigners — Parveen Rahman of the Orangi Pilot Project NGO — was shot dead in 2013.

There is, of course, more to Karachi’s population boom than conflict. Pakistan’s rural poor have been coming to the city for decades, as their livelihoods are thrown into turmoil by modern farming practices or natural disasters.

Karachi is also a magnet for the country’s burgeoning middle-class, as well as for Pakistanis from the diaspora in the Gulf, Europe and the US. It has been a manufacturing hub since the 1950s, and now has a thriving service sector with opportunities aplenty in banking, media and fashion. The wealthy have also left their mark, Sadiq Polak says, building homes in gated communities inspired by upscale developments in Dubai.

Karachi’s poor seem to inhabit a different world to the rich of the same city. Yet, says Sadiq Polak, the concept of the gated community is being copied among lower-income groups, even if they cannot afford the expensive location or materials. If nothing else, both are united in their pursuit of a better life. It has brought them to Karachi and holds them there still — in spite of it all.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s second issue: Megacities.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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A publishing project by @HumanAfterAllStudio to understand & articulate the global challenges shaping our world. Find out more weaponsofreason.com