By the Blouin News World staff

Karachi’s ‘water mafia’ exacerbates drought crisis

by in Asia-Pacific.

Underprivileged Pakistanis fill water from a hand water pump in downtown Islamabad. AFP/Getty Images

Underprivileged Pakistanis fill water from a hand water pump. AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan is all too quickly becoming one of the most unsustainable areas in the world in which to live — but not, as some might suspect, because of incursions by the Taliban or a sputtering economy.

Rather, the issue is that Pakistan is becoming bone dry, according to The Express Tribune, which says that by 2040 it could be South Asia’s most water-stressed country, a victim of “climate change coupled with rapid urbanization and population growth”.

And yet that is not the most alarming part of this catastrophe in the making. The fact is that just a few years ago Pakistan enjoyed an abundance of water, only to see that advantage evaporate under the weight of irresponsibility, both governmental and personal. The International Monetary Fund now ranks Pakistan’s water use as the fourth highest in the world.

What would help? Mass improvements in the infrastructure; such out-of-the-box solutions as a plan for solar-powered “ATMs” that would dispense clean water rather than money; a renewed emphasis on conservation efforts, and an increase in current desalination efforts, especially in the face of an ongoing, spread-out drought.

What wouldn’t — and doesn’t — help? The water mafia of Karachi.

Interestingly, that’s not a pitch for a post-apocalyptic gangster flick, a sort of “Mad Max”-meets-“Goodfellas” about a cartel dealing in black-market water.

Except … that last part is exactly what Karachi’s water mafia does — and it’s been around for years.

According to Al Jazeera, illegal stations dotting the outskirts of this former capital on the Arabian Sea tap into government-owned pipelines, siphoning off water into tankards for later sale at an inflated price to those with little choice but to pay up.

It is important to understand that this is happening in a megacity whose 2014 population exceeded 23.7 million residents, making it not only the third largest in the world (by population within the city limits) but also the largest in the Muslim world. Imagine 63,000 parched people per square mile (according to World Population Review), and the enormity of the problem — and, unfortunately the opportunity to make a buck off it — begins to become monstrously clear.

Water traders running a fleet of 30 to 40 tankers can earn as much as $16,000 a day, Al Jazeera reports. Millions of dollars’ worth of water has already gone unaccounted for by the authorities — who claim to be aware of the situation even as they stand accused by some of looking the other way in exchange for a cut of the illicit gains.

In a 2010 Los Angeles Times article on the proliferation of certain cartels — among them railroad mafias that forge tickets and steal much-needed locomotive parts, sugar mafias that control market prices, and land mafias that manipulate property values and the cost of real estate — it was the black-market water mafia that was deemed the most hated, by far, with the poor having to spend one out of every four dwindling dollars every month on water. And that was when it was flowing freely elsewhere.

Today in Pakistan, H2O might as well be the chemical formula for liquid gold. As a Karachi businessman said in the Al Jazeera article: “[The water traders] are holding us by the neck basically, and this is all because a few big people are involved in this . . . There are people on higher levels involved.”

Many Pakistanis believe that these same “higher-level” officials have purposely failed to craft or enact strong enough legislation aimed at organizing and improving water conservation. Their policy, to the extent that they even have one, the critics say, seems to be to shoot for short-term profits over long-term sustainability.

Their fuming countrymen, meanwhile, at least in Karachi, are left to wearily contemplate an increasingly dehydrated landscape and a future in which water may not be able to be had — at any price.