Selling liquid gold: Karachi's tanker mafia.

KARACHI -- Furqan Akhtar, 36, a supervisor at the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), had the task of doing discreet recces on his motorbike of streAets in Manghopir, district West, and, upon spotting illegal hydrants, repAort them to the organisation's water theft cell. KWSB personnel would then carry out raids to demolish those hydrants. One such operation in October lasted for 48 hours and resulted in seven illegal hydrants being dismantled.

According to the police report, on Nov 1, 2022, Furqan was waylaid by armed men while on his way back from the Manghopir filter plant after having had lunch there as per routine. They shot him in the head and made off with his motorbike. He was father to a six-year-old girl. It may have been a straightforward case of vehicle snatching - or not. Furqan's family refused to speak with Dawn, citing security fears.

KWSB officials claim they've had violent run-ins with the owners of illegal hydrants while trying to shut down their operations. 'One of them hit me with a big stone during a recent raid in Ayub Goth,' says a colleague of Furqan's, touching the top of his head gingerly. 'I can still feel the depression in my skull. We had two or three police mobiles accompanying us, but they're scared of the mafias themselves and do nothing.' After Furqan's murder, the KWSB employee says, everyone at the office is unnerved. 'Last Saturday, we were to carry out a raid against illegal hydrants, but we were stopped from doing so until we know more about who killed him and why.'

Illegal hydrants are one component of a monumental racket that revolves around the supply of water through tankers in Karachi. A very conservative estimate drawing on various sources and empirical evidence suggests the water tanker business rakes in at least Rs62 million on a daily basis from no less than 32 million gallons per day (MGD) of water ferried across the city in tankers. And this figure takes into account only six legal hydrants in the city. Political VVIPs, government functionaries, KWSB personnel, military personnel, hydrant contractors, tanker owners, police, Rangers, community level strongmen/political workers are all part of this massive profitmaking operation. Instead of being an equitably shared resource, water has become a commodity, sold to whomever can pay the price. But as Dawn Investigations discovered through site visits and interviews (most interviewees, given the nature of the topic, preferred to remain anonymous), the situation is far worse, with some quarters even more unaccountable than others - a true reflection of the kleptocracy that Pakistan has become.

Political VVIPs, military personnel, law-enforcement agencies and KWSB officials are all complicit in profiteering on the city's water woes

'Access to water is a privilege, not an essential right of Karachi residents,' says academic and researcher Dr Noman Ahmed. He cites 'social and political connections, influence of KWSB Union staff, local influentials and other power wielders' as being critical factors in citizens' access to water.

There are six 'official' water hydrants in Karachi - NIPA, Sherpao (near Steel Town), Safoora, Manghopir (often referred to as the Crush Plant hydrant), Sakhi Hassan and Landhi hydrants. Their management is auctioned to private contractors for two-year periods, with the next auction process starting from Jan 26. (In the next cycle, some changes to location, procedure, etc are on the cards.) There are two other hydrants that lie outside this auction process. One is in Baldia, district Keamari, which is operated on the 'deputy commissioner quota' and meant exclusively for the use of residents of Baldia and Orangi localities, areas severely impacted by water shortage. The other is the NEK hydrant in district East, run by the National Logistics Cell (NLC) whose operations - handled by a serving major - are virtually autonomous of the KWSB, the government body that legally has jurisdiction even over the city's subsoil water. (The above estimate of at least 32 MGD per day delivered through tankers does not take NLC tankers into account.)

Karachi's official water quota is 650 MGD; given its population, there is an acknowledged shortage of at least 450 MGD. In fact, a recent Nespak survey confirmed that the amount of water that actually enters the city is around 520 MGD. This comes largely from three sources: the Indus-fed Keenjhar lake, the Haleji lake - both in Sindh - and the Hub dam in Balochistan. Availability of water in the dam - which supplies mainly to the sprawling, low-income Baldia and Orangi localities - is completely dependent on runoff water from the Kirthar Range. A network of canals, conduits, pumping stations, filter plants, K2 and K3 bulk mains, conduit lines, etc brings the water from these sources to Karachi. The KWSB oversees its management and distribution. One-third of the amount ends up as 'non-revenue water', ie water that is pumped and then is lost or unaccounted for.

In December 2016, in response to a constitutional petition filed by lawyer Shahab Usto, the Supreme Court set up a commission of enquiry to look into the provision of clean water to residents of Sindh as well as sanitation issues in the province. The commission was earlier headed by a serving Sindh High Court judge, Justice Mohammed Iqbal Kalhoro, and later by retired SC judge Justice Amir Hani Muslim. It submitted four reports to the apex court on its provincewide findings. Where Karachi's water supply was concerned, the commission found a state of anarchy, and 30pc operational losses 'due to poor network of water supply lines, unchecked pilferage and illegal water hydrants'.

In the section on water hydrants, the second report noted that they 'are running without any laid down rules and regulations. ...[I]t was also seen that the process of contracting out the hydrants is quite inappropriate. ...[T]he last process of tendering was done in 2008 and 2009. ...[T]he fixation of prices is also very arbitrary... .' Among its 14 recommendations to improve this sector, it said: 'The entire hydrants operation should focus on public service with a clear intention of serving to the deprived areas.'

Several sources told Dawn of a 'ringleader', the son-in-law of a now retired top provincial bureaucrat, who runs at least two official hydrants either directly or through front men, has a share in a third and is behind several illegal ones as well. 'He manages all our maslay masaail (problems),' says an individual closely connected with hydrant operations.

Following these reports, for the nth time in the city's history, and under pressure from the SC, a number of illegal hydrants were demolished. Government-sanctioned hydrants were brought down to six, which were to be auctioned 'transparently' in accordance with public procurement rules. At each hydrant, flow meters would quantify the water gushing into the tankers and cameras on the premises would bolster this 'transparency'. But the situation on the ground is a far cry from this. A...

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