The underground mafia that sells Karachi's subsoil water to factories
They have different names for this kind of water in Karachi. A popular one is white petrol, a spin-off from white gold. But it was the frontman for one gang who really managed to describe just how intoxicating the profits in the underground water business are:
“Once you’re hooked,” he said, “It'll take you higher than powder.”
And so it seems that Karachi’s groundwater is its smack, its crack cocaine, its heroin. Once you get into the business of selling it you won’t be able to turn away from the profits.
Of course, this city of roughly 22 million people should be getting its water supplies officially from the Karachi Water & Sewage Board but this is not the case. There simply isn’t enough from the River Indus and whatever makes it to KW&SB’s wheezing pipelines half leaks out.
This is why people have started drilling or boring for water, sometimes as deep as 150ft to hit the water table. A while ago, when it was trying to grapple with Sindh’s drinking water crisis, the Supreme Court declared you can’t extract water from the ground. But as they say, every general prohibition creates its bootleggers. A ruling from the top judges didn’t stop the water business. The advantage of boring is that you don’t have to go through the fuss of setting up a hydrant, or running a fleet of tankers. These vendors did the simplest, most clever thing: they just bought houses close to the water and sucked it up.
The water is found in Karachi’s natural stormwater nullahs or streams which are generally uncemented. “There is boring in every single house,” says Sajjad in Liaquatabad. “They have been paid, Rs500,000 per house. They also get paid monthly because it’s continuous work.”
The nullahs flow with raw sewage but the water seeps down and is filtered by the ground, rock and soil. So by the time it is pumped up from a boring well, it is generally clear but not fit to drink. Hundreds of thousands of gallons are sold every day. And that water is ultimately ending up in your glass and on your body.
Karachi’s biggest industrial estate, SITE, has hundreds of factories, mostly for the water-hungry beverages and textiles. According to one estimate, they need 40 million gallons of water each day but the KW&SB can only supply up to 2mgd. The remaining 38 mgd is provided by illegal water suppliers from the Orangi nullah. “They pump the water up and then supply individual factories," explains Khalid Mehmood Shaikh, who was recently posted as the MD. He knows exactly where the boring is taking place as he says he had surveys conducted.
The only problem is that the KW&SB is stuck until it can actually supply the factories on its own. “If you crack down [on the boring]—we've done it—the supply to industry stops,” he said. “It’s a Catch-22.”
There was a proposal from Hubco to turn sewage into industrial grade water but if it goes ahead it would still take two years for those treatment plants to be up and running. “That contract's basic condition is that as soon as it is working, these illegal water suppliers will be removed from here," Shaikh added. But the difficult is that until that happens, the KW&SB cannot cut off this illegal supply.
For its part SITE just shrugs. “We take from subsoil suppliers and some factories have bored as well on their own,” said SITE chairman Abdul Hadi. “Up to 70% of our factories are textiles and beverages, which all need water. Water is needed by every industry.”
The irony is that in order to keep factories fed with water, SITE is paying a high price. The KW&SB sells SITE roughly 2mgd at Rs334 per thousand gallons. Then SITE sells it at Rs352 to factories. But since this is nowhere near how much the factories need, the rest has to come from the subsoil vendors.
They sell the groundwater for Rs450 per thousand gallons. Since this water is very hard (1500 to 1600 total dissolved salts), the factories have to run it through reverse osmosis plants to bring its hardness down to 300 to 400 TDS. This ratchets up the cost. The processed subsoil water ends up costing Rs700 per thousand gallons—almost double.
There used to be just three or four men who ran the subsoil water business but this has grown to about 25. We tried to approach the frontman of one ringleader, Shakeel Mahar, on the excuse of wanting to start a water business. Shakeel has run into trouble with the police over running two illegal water hydrants along with Taj Kohistani. His frontman told us that Shakeel Mahar would provide the connection for 70% of the profit and the remaining would go to us. But from that 30%, we would have to pay 10% for labour. When we complained that this would leave us with nothing, he scoffed.
“My friend, 20% will leave you with more than you can imagine.”