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Pakistani Slum Takes On Sewer Problem

A laborer works to connect a house to a new sewage line in Karachi's Orangi Town slum.
A laborer works to connect a house to a new sewage line in Karachi's Orangi Town slum.

The final straw for Orangi Town slum resident Sultana Javed was when her young daughter fell into the soak pit where the family disposed of their waste.

Like many families living without proper sanitation, Javed’s has used the porous chamber, which allows sewage to soak into the ground, in lieu of a toilet for the nine years since she moved to the Gulshan-e-Zia area of the Karachi slum.

After Javed’s son also caught dengue fever from mosquitoes near the pit outside their home, she began to mobilise others on her street to work on installing their own sewerage system.

"We are fed up with the stench of wastewater and mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. So we decided to lay a sewerage pipeline in our street on a self-help basis," she said.

Orangi Town is known as Asia's largest slum, sprawling over 8,000 acres in the port city of Karachi in northwestern Sindh Province. The population in the settlement exploded in the early 1970s after thousands migrated from East Pakistan following the 1971 war of independence, which led to the establishment of the Republic of Bangladesh.

As many as 2.4 million people are estimated to live in Orangi Town, although the exact figure is unknown because since the country’s last national census was taken in 1998.

The first informal settlements, known as “katchi abadis,” appeared in the wake of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947, which resulted in a massive influx of refugees. By 1950, the population had swelled from 400,000 to 1 million, and unable to cope with the numbers the government gave refugees permission to settle any vacant land. Land has since been also traded informally.

After Orangi Town’s population exploded in the 1970s, the government introduced a system of land titling and upgrading, which gave residents a bit more security and also a greater chance of success for community initiatives.

About 60 percent of Karachi’s 15 million people now live in shanty towns. It’s the lack of services -- and not housing -- that is the slum’s major problem, unlike in other places around the world.

Despite the level of poverty, the streets bustle with markets and surrounding industrial areas offer some employment for unskilled workers.

In 1980, development expert and entrepreneur Akhtar Hameed Khan observed how many communities were organizing to make up for the lack of services, from building homes and schools to water delivery, and launched the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP).

The project, known known around the world, has not only led the ongoing DIY sewerage projects. It has also built a network to manage programs like micro credit, water supply, and women's savings schemes.

OPP Director Saleem Aleemuddin said that when activists began working in the area in 1980, the lack of sanitation was the biggest problem facing residents.

While it took the OPP around six months to convince local residents to invest and pay for the installation of the first sewerage line on their street, people soon began following their lead.

"Since the government gets almost nothing in revenue from the slum, it therefore pays the least interest in its [slum] developments too," Aleemuddin said. "In fact, people in the town now consider the streets part of their homes because they have invested in them, and that's why they maintain and clean the sewers, too."

Nearly three decades later, the OPP has not only ensured that more than 90 percent of Orangi Town’s nearly 8,000 streets and lanes have sewer pipes -- all installed by residents -- but has built a network of collaborators with experience at a wide variety of other nongovernmental organizations.

Programs are offered to young people for training to map and document drainage channels, as well as equipping community architects, technicians, and surveyors. OPP activists say that so far around 553 or Orangi Town’s more than 2,700 settlements are documented.

To date, according to OPP statistics, 96 percent of the settlement's 112,562 households have latrines, with residents footing the total bill for the sewage system of 132,026,807 Pakistani rupees ($1.26 million).

‘Enough Is Enough’

When Javed and her neighbors in Gulshan-el-Zia decided to kick-start their works, they chose 28-year-old Saleem Khan to lead the project. Khan will work closely with OPP specialists who provide local communities with expert design advice, as well as the technical and engineering support to install the new system.

"I am sacrificing my time and energy to clean my street of the wastewater and protect people from diseases," Khan said. "It isn't an easy job, but I hope to get it done in the next couple of weeks with the cooperation and trust of the neighbors."

Households plan to share the total cost of 65,679 rupees ($629) for materials to build the pipeline, which will then service the entire street. Everyone chips in with digging and laying work, including women and children.

Most families are home-based workers earning around 15,000 to 20,000 rupees ($143-$191) per month selling embroidery and other cloth products at city markets. Most families can’t afford transport costs out of the slum, and because there are only a few schools many young people work alongside their parents earning meagre incomes.

In addition to paying for the installation, residents are also taking responsibility for the pipes’ maintenance. Manholes are to be installed at intervals along the street, Khan said, so that residents can have easy access to connections and can monitor and maintain their pipes themselves.

Shahadat Hussain, who lives on a street that installed its own sewerage line in 2003, collected 1,000 rupees from each household on his street last month to replace some damaged pipes. He says he believes that the local authorities should be charge of repairing infrastructure and constructing secondary and main sewerage lines.

Hussein, 29, said the government should give residents a lease to provide some security against eviction in return for a small fee. This would encourage them to contribute to maintenance and cleaning in the long term.

Despite repeated requests, however, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), has failed to do this, he said.

"We urge the provincial government to grant a lease and at least provide basic amenities including installation of secondary and main sewerage lines," he said. "Our homes and streets are flooded with sewage even after a light rain as there is no main line to flush it out."

Rapid Growth

Aleemuddin says the city authorities have a responsibility to step in and support the slum residents who have taken on the DIY construction of internal sewer pipes for their streets.

Communities in 40 other slums in Sindh and Punjab provinces have taken Orangi Town’s lead to install sewerage lines with technical help from the OPP, he said.

For Javed, encouraging her community to work together and collaborate with the local government has given her a sense of optimism and empowerment.

"We have started feeling the positive impact of it, although our own sewer line is yet to be completed," she said. "I personally feel empowered and encouraged by the work I helped to initiate to get rid of the wastewater forever."

Reporting by Aamir Saeed for Thompson Reuters Foundation