Pakistan: Building resilience against floods in its largest city
By Henrike Brecht and Ahsan Tehsin
Mehar Khan, 54, had poured his life’s savings into building a modest home for his family in Naya Nazimabad, a housing society in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Karachi was particularly hard hit by torrential rains in August which caused around $1 billion in national economic damage and loss. Streets across the city turned into rivers and washed away many houses. Mehar’s family was one among thousands stranded in inundated parts of the city for days.
Pakistan’s financial and economic center, Karachi with its 16 million inhabitants is home to the country's largest corporations and main ports. Its economy has grown steadily for decades - last year its GDP was nearly $164 billion. The city has also made impressive progress in reducing poverty, which fell from 23 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2015.
Now, Karachi is at a crossroads. Will flooded businesses and interrupted connectivity become the new normal and hamper its economic success? It doesn’t have to. Moving forward, the city can make climate resilience and disaster risk management central to its development by taking important steps in the right direction:
Karachi is at a crossroads. Will flooded businesses and interrupted connectivity become the new normal and hamper its economic success?
First, the sewage network needs an urgent overhaul. Karachi can reap large benefits from the development and implementation of a comprehensive Drainage and Stormwater Master Plan for the entire city. The World Bank is helping large cities implement drainage solutions for the 21st century and adapt to climate change, for example, in Yangon, Myanmar or Manila, Philippines.
Second, comprehensive solutions for solid waste management are important. Of the 12,000 tons of municipal solid waste generated each day in Karachi, 60 percent does not reach a dumpsite, and trash accumulates in drainage pipes. Across the globe, cities are employing new approaches to solid waste management, focusing on reduction and recycling. Since 2000, the World Bank has committed over $4.7 billion to more than 340 solid waste management programs, for instance, in Indonesia or China.
Third, moving towards sponge city concept to absorb rainwater, prioritizing green infrastructure and permeable surfaces will go a long way to counter floods and heat. Instead of carrying the water away, these sponge cities treat it as a resource that is filtered by the soil and then stored. This ensures the economic and sustainable use of the valuable natural resource that fresh water constitutes. It also helps the city cool down through evaporation. This would involve stopping encroachment into urban wetlands and increasing water infiltration through greening, which would reduce the need for costly storm water drainage systems in the city. China’s Sponge Cities Initiative provides $12 billion to more than 30 of its cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan, with the aim of re-using 70 percent of rainwater in 80 percent of the urban areas which are part of the program.
Karachi can make climate resilience and disaster risk management central to its development by taking important steps in the right direction.
Comprehensive policy changes would be as equally important as targeted investments to reduce flooding in Karachi. Responsibilities between agencies at national, provincial and local levels need to be clearly defined. Coordination among the different jurisdictions to develop entire-city approaches need to replace administrative fragmentation. Risk-sensitive land-use plans and their enforcement must ensure that new development takes place away from the most at-risk zones. New infrastructure and risk reduction strategies cannot be developed separately. These measures need to converge to help reduce the city’s vulnerability in the long-term, for example, through building code development and enforcement. Strengthening Karachi’s emergency management response systems through drills and equipment will also reduce the impacts of disasters.
Challenging the status quo will not be easy. For Karachi to move forward, its citizens and civil society need to be empowered. Increased financial transparency and reform-minded officials will need to play a major role.
But changing course will be cost-effective in the long-term. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Plan 2012–22 ranks Karachi as the country’s most vulnerable district. Karachi is not only prone to floods but also to earthquakes, cyclones and more recently, heatwaves. Pakistan is also the fifth most affected country by climate change. If these vulnerabilities are not addressed, they will severely impact people’s livelihoods and Karachi’s economic competitiveness.
For Karachi to move forward, its citizens and civil society need to be empowered. Increased financial transparency and reform-minded officials will need to play a major role.
The good news is that Karachi can benefit from existing developments and build on initial achievements. Pakistan shifted to an ex-ante disaster risk management approach after the 2005 earthquake. A National Flood Protection Plan, Pakistan’s investments in nature-based solutions and reforestation programs along with the Karachi Transformative Strategy pave the way. The World Bank continues to strengthen Karachi’s efforts to become more resilient. It committed $652 million in 2019 to reinforce the city’s infrastructure and institutions with a focus on urban management, public transport, safe water, and sanitation.
Karachi also benefits from the Sindh Resilience Project, which invests in flood protection works and integrates disaster risk reduction in planning processes. The Karachi Neighborhood Improvement Project and the Hydromet and Climate Services Project also support climate sensitive and sustainable solutions.