For Karachi's Water Mafia, Stolen H2O Is A 'Lucrative Business'

Sep 10, 2018
Originally published on September 11, 2018 11:35 am

Around the world, people are struggling for access to drinking water. All Things Considered is examining the forces at play in separating the haves from the have-nots — from natural disasters to crumbling infrastructure and corruption.

In Korangi, a slum neighborhood of Karachi, a sprawling port city of some 16 million people in Pakistan, there's no running water.

So how do people get the water they need to drink, to cook, to wash up and to clean their homes?

Residents have to call men like Mohammad Zubair, a driver who belongs to a group of water handlers known as the "water tanker mafia." For a price, drivers will deliver clean water, which is pricey, or polluted water, which is cheaper.

Zubair's tankers can't reach into the narrow alleyways deep in Karachi's slums. So residents order water by donkey cart or motorcycle, or they pay to fill up their plastic jerrycans at "water stations" — large drums of water set up alongside little grocery shops.

Fetching water at these stations is a duty that has to be done several times a day — so it's often left to children like Shabina.

She shrugs when asked about her age, but says she's in preschool. She fills her two jerrycans, about 10 gallons in all. They are placed in a wheelbarrow and her playmates help her push it home.

The situation wasn't always like this.

Residents like Raja Akhtar say that years ago, they used to have running water.

But about a decade ago, residents say the mafias began siphoning off water from government pipes running through private land — and their supply dried up.

The reason for water tapping is obvious. "It's a lucrative business," says Sanaa Baxamoosa, general manager at Hisaar Foundation, a Karachi-based nonprofit that works on water, food and job security.

The mafia sells it at different prices based on the water's quality. The government's water is considered the cleanest, so it fetches the highest price, about $150 for a month's supply.

Akhtar can't afford that — it's more than his monthly salary as a security guard. So he buys cheaper brackish water from a different supplier. Men like Zubair specialize in selling polluted water to Karachi's poorest residents. This water often comes from wells dug near a dam on the outskirts of Karachi. Residents say if they don't boil it immediately, it starts to stink. It also costs Akhtar about $20 a month.

The business largely exists because Karachi's water supply barely covers half of the city's needs. According to Ghulam Qadir, the chief engineer of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, the city receives 450 million gallons a day from the Indus River and a nearby dam — but requires 1,200 million gallons. "We are suffering from water scarcity, and that's why the tanker mafia is active," says Qadir.

He estimates that about a third of the municipal water supply is lost or siphoned off.

The situation in Karachi reflects a broader water crisis across Pakistan. Inefficient agriculture, dwindling aquifers, an increasingly dry environment, rapid demographic growth and heavy pollution are diminishing both the quantity and quality of water for residents. And this means that Karachi's water problems, and its attendant crime of water theft, may become a problem in other parts of Pakistan.

In a grubby café in Karachi, Saghir Ahmed, a water tanker driver, explains how the mafias work. He says that he and other drivers routinely pay off officials from Karachi's water board, the police and the "landlords" — men who own the land where the government pipes are punctured, and who build valves to allow the drivers to pump the water. Those valves, used to steal government water, are called "illegal hydrants."

"The water board, police and landlord — these three — they benefit, they take the money," he says.

Karachi's water crisis got so bad that about a year ago a judicial commission was formed to investigate it.

Soon thereafter, the water board shut down many of the illegal hydrants. Qadir, the chief engineer at the Karachi water board, said they also lodged more than 300 complaints with the police against suspected water thieves. It's unclear, however, how many illegal hydrants remain.

And then, says Baxamoosa, the activist, the Karachi water board tried to entice the mafias to work legally.

"They've kind of partnered with them. They're using these tankers now as their distributors," she says.

Two water officials spoke to us on condition of anonymity — they were not allowed to speak to media — and confirmed this. They said tanker mafia drivers could fill up from legitimate government water sources, but on one condition: They would have to distribute about half the water at cheaper, government rates to residents in designated areas where there are no pipes, or where the water infrastructure has collapsed. They are free to sell the rest at commercial rates to whomever they wanted.

Basically, the tanker drivers now sell nearly half of the city's supply of water.

Despite those reforms, Karachi's water problem isn't solved.

Because the water tanker drivers can sell about half of the government water at commercial rates, it's still unaffordable for many of Karachi's residents. And the taps that run into the slums? They are still dry, likely as a result of ongoing drought and infrastructure damage, says Qadir.

So residents like the Akhtars must buy water from the local water stations that dot the slum.

At the Akhtar household, Raja's wife, Imtiyaz, showed us where she boiled their water, hoping that would kill whatever made the water so smelly. Then she made everybody tea.

She gestures to her neighbor, Shabana Khalid, 28, who dropped in for a visit. Her son constantly has diarrhea, one of the leading causes of child mortality in Pakistan, according to UNICEF. The cause of much of Pakistan's diarrhea: bacteria in the polluted water that residents drink.

Akhtar says she has terrible stomach pain. She and her husband aren't sure if it's the dirty water they buy because they can't afford so-called "clean" water.

Whatever the cause, she can't afford decent medical care because their spare money is spent on water. Her husband says it's a vicious cycle that will only be broken once they have piped water.

"Our lives would be much easier," he says. "We would no longer face this problem."

Junaid Ahmed, freelance reporter in Karachi, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All this week, we'll be looking into drinking water around the world - who has access to it, who doesn't and the forces that separate the haves from the have-nots. Pakistan has one of the worst water situations in the world. There just isn't enough to go around. And in Karachi, a city with more than 16 million people, gangs control much of the water supply. They deliver dirty or drinkable water depending on the price you're able to pay. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In this noisy Karachi slum, no water flows from the taps, so they call men like Mohammad Zubair. Pakistanis describe men like him as drivers who belong to a water tanker mafia. His truck inches up an alley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN HONKING)

HADID: Zubair says he's providing a service.

MOHAMMAD ZUBAIR: (Through interpreter) There's no water in the pipes. We have to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

HADID: But given how narrow most slum alleys are, residents have to get creative. One man delivers water from a tanker perched to his donkey cart. Men latch jerry cans to their motorbikes and fill them up at water stations, like gas stations but for water. They dot the slum.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

HADID: Families here have to fill up on water several times a day. It's tiring work, and it often falls on the shoulders of kids, like Shabina.

SHABINA: Shabina.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Shabina.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Shabina.

HADID: She stands on her tippy-toes to grab a water hose. She fills up two jerry cans and pushes them home on a wheelbarrow.

RAJA AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Residents like Raja Akhtar say years ago, they used to have running water. He says Mafias tapped their pipes, and their supplies dried up.

R. AKHTAR: (Through interpreter) Mafia people steal the water and sell it.

HADID: And the mafias sell it at different prices depending on the water's quality. The government's water's considered the cleanest, so it fetches the highest price - about $150 a month. Akhtar can't afford that. It's more than his monthly salary as a security guard. So he buys cheaper brackish water. It's about 20 bucks a month.

SANAA BAXAMOOSA: It's a lucrative business (laughter).

HADID: Sanaa Baxamoosa is the general manager at Hisaar Foundation. It's a nonprofit that works on water issues. She says this has gone on for years.

BAXAMOOSA: So that's really how there's a business or a mafia being created around water.

HADID: This business exists because Karachi's water supply barely covers half the city's needs. So to understand how the system works, we met Saghir Ahmed in a cafe.

SAGHIR AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He's one of those drivers who Pakistanis see as part of the water mafia. And Ahmed says the mafia is way bigger than just the drivers.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Ahmed alleges everyone's involved - officials from the Karachi water board, the cops and the people who own the land where the drivers like him tap the water pipes. They're called the landlords. He says he bribed them all to fill up his tanker.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) The water board, police and landlord - these three - they benefit. They take all the money.

HADID: But Karachi's water crisis got so bad that about a year ago, a judicial commission was formed to investigate it. Soon after, the water board stopped a lot of the illegal siphoning. And Baxamoosa, the activist, says they tried to entice the mafias to work legally.

BAXAMOOSA: They've partnered with them, and they're using these tankers now as their distributors.

HADID: And two water officials who spoke to us on condition of anonymity confirmed this. They said tanker mafia drivers could fill up from legitimate government water sources but on one condition. They'd have to distribute about half the water at cheaper government rates. They're free to sell the rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: But back in the slum, they still don't get government supplies. And they can't afford the Mafia's prices for that better-quality water. Raja Akhtar, the security guard we met before - he invites us to his house for tea. His wife, Imtiyaz, shows me where she boils the water.

This is boiled water. Are you boiling...

IMTIYAZ AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: (Laughter).

It's for cooking and, she says, the tea that she's making for us. She says she's got terrible stomach pain. They're not sure if it's the dirty water they're forced to buy, but they say it makes a lot of people here sick. Whatever the cause, she can't afford decent medical care because all their spare money is spent on water. Her husband says it's a vicious cycle that will only be broken once they have piped water.

R. AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: "Our lives would be so much easier," he says, "and we'd no longer face this problem." Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.