The story of Karachi’s K-IV canal plan to ensure the city gets new water supplies for the next 25 years
Mahim Maher & Sohail Khan
If anything, the government’s press releases from Sindh Chief Minister House should have served up the first telltale signs there was trouble with K-IV, a mega canal project to bring Karachi city new water supplies for the future.
In late 2018, one press handout said that the K-IV project was “ill-conceived”. A few months later, another handout said, “[Sindh Chief Minister] Murad says K-IV project to be completed by removing all bottlenecks”. And then, a week later, that, “Murad vows to complete K-IV…” and that completing K-IV has become a “difficult task”. The bravado had slowly dissipated into frustration.
Efficient-sounding announcements were made that meetings had been held on K-IV. The press handouts swung wildly between extremes of promise and punishment. At times they were thin missives on some opaquely detailed yet isolated point about K-IV and at other times, they were impenetrable blocks of text studded with acronyms and numerics. It made for excruciating reading.
Consider these examples reproduced word for word and see if they make sense:
A short handout from October 2018, reads: The 26th Public Private Partnership Policy Board meeting held under the chairmanship of the chief minister Syed Murad Ali Shah took important decisions for expediting the procedures of BRT, Yellow and Blue Lines, Lyari Expressways and establishment of 50 MW power plant for K-IV project.
The most detailed press handout was issued in November 2018 and reads like an entry from an NED University of Engineering and Technology civil works textbook:
Package-A: The total length of the project is 708 meters, including 300 meters intake and wet portion, 408 meters intake dry portion, Length of canal is 93,852 meters, canal in fill 38,930 meters, canal cut 54,922 meters, length of M.S Siphon (4×84” dia pipes) 8500 meters, length of RCC conduit 10,072 meters, culverts 82, super passages 29, transition structures 29.
We do not dispute that decisions taken at meetings chaired by the chief minister would be anything but important, but perhaps we could be forgiven for wondering why the import of the decision-making would be inversely proportionate to the government machinery’s ability or desire to clearly share information with Karachi’s people. What did this all mean? Were we supposed to be impressed with these freighted sentences? Did this level of scientific detail prove that everyone knew what they were doing?
It could only take a mule-headed beat reporter with decades of covering water in Karachi to be able to decipher these treatises in all their philological glory. Government papers, press handouts, feasibility studies are Kafkaesque texts. Bureaucratspeak obfuscates, and unless reporters cut through its foggy language, readers just find themselves wandering around in the dark about decisions being made that affect their lives and those of their children.
It was only in June 2019 when something in a handout caught my eye and I nearly missed it. The well-known National Engineering Services Pakistan, a state-owned engineering firm that builds stuff around Pakistan, was asked to undertake “third-party vetting” for K-IV because there were problems in the design.
Normally, we would have just blindly published this snippet as we have other incremental K-IV developments over the years. Water infrastructure news stories put people to sleep. It is the misfortune of government projects that have dragged on for years that they recede into a blackhole of institutional and public despair. It takes too much effort to keep up to date. Google searches on them are like doing homework.
This time, though, I stopped. A small question, borne out of the interaction between a confused but dogged copy editor (me) and a patient reporter (Sohail), had to be answered. What do you mean by “third-party vetting” of the consultant’s design, I asked Sohail who had filed the news. This ugly cluster—third-party vetting—does make some sense but it failed to convey the magnitude of the backstory.
So, I got angry, first in frustration when we realised we had more questions than answers, and then because the System did not provide them. Plus, there were no maps from CM House. A bell started ringing in my head. Who was the consultant on K-IV? Why is their name not mentioned in these CM House press handouts as such? We squabbled. No one will be interested in this story. It’s too technical. Days later, we had mounds of scattered information. Other people in the newsroom urged us to take a closer look. And then I started to feel stupid. That’s when we went to work.
As it happened, Chief Minister House had been mentioning K-IV with some frequency. So we went digging into the email archives of press handouts that come from Murad Ali Shah’s helpful spokesperson Rasheed Channa. The warning signs had been there all along, embedded like silent clues. Something had gone terribly wrong with K-IV. The language of the handouts were a dead giveaway. We had just not been paying attention.
Drone footage: Farhan Gul
Art: Obair Khan, Sheikh Faisal Rasheed
Video editing: Rahim Sajwani, Muhammad Jawad
Animation: Junaid Khatri
Coordination: Abeer Mahar
Logistics: Muhammad Amir Khattak