Editors note: Karachi Bachao Tehreek describes itself as a movement of 'demolition affected people and their allies', based in the Pakistani city of Karachi. They campaign on urban poverty, inequality and housing rights. In the wake of the South Asian flooding of 2022, which wrought profound devastation on Pakistan, KBT wrote an open letter to the UN Secretary General that drew profound links between the inter-twined crises of climate and housing. Here, we republish the open letter in full, with deep gratitude to KBT for enabling us to do so, and in solidarity with their struggles. This is the third piece we have published related to flooding in Pakistan. You can find the first here, and the second here. Editors note:
Pakistan is in a catastrophic state after the monsoon rains of July through September 2022. With 30-50 million people affected and over 1500 dead, thousands of people in Sindh and Balochistan are still stranded in flood-stricken areas and are awaiting rescue. Over the last 20 years, around 1.2 million people, victims of climate injustice, have migrated from the Indus Delta alone. Farmers, fisherfolk, and herders who are at the intersection of economic and social marginalities have lost their livelihoods and many of them move to mega-city Karachi to search for better jobs, health services, safe drinking water, and often to escape bonded labor, a form of modern day slavery, in farming or contract fishing – both exploitative systems that maintain the economic subordination of landless people (Haris).
Severe economic inequalities, poor governance, and infrastructural collapse have contributed to the suffering of rural people in Sindh and Balochistan and diminished their capacity for community resilience. Loans from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, and other international financiers have been used to build some of this dilapidated and technically flawed infrastructure, for example, the drainage systems on both sides of the Indus River – the Left Bank Outfalls Drain (LBOD) and the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD). Conditionalities imposed to pay back these loans add an additional burden borne by the people of Pakistan. A big portion of Pakistan’s budget is spent towards debt servicing and people are left without adequate municipal services or social safety nets – protections that they desperately need during this current climate catastrophe. They have to deal with inflation and a very high cost of living as a consequence of these loans. Projects funded by banks in the Global North like the LBOD in Badin (the upper part of the Indus Delta) have completely failed the people of Sindh. They have not drained flood waters and are in fact flushing water back into villages and farms worsening the current floods crisis. Yet the Pakistani people and state are still responsible to pay back these loans with interest. The RBOD too has been an unmitigated disaster for local people and has contaminated agricultural land and water sources and devastated the ecosystem of Manchar Jheel (lake) with agricultural effluent.
Many climate migrants move to Karachi and settle at the peripheries of the city and are not provided with any help from the state, which essentially means that they are forced to acquire housing and utility connections through informal means. This means they have insecure tenure and are susceptible to forced evictions. A lack of adequate and affordable housing and insecure tenure exacerbates people’s suffering and they continue to struggle because of the state’s lack of response towards the provision of subsidized housing, schools, healthcare, transport, and other services.
Housing provision and housing rights in Karachi, thus, are key aspects of climate injustice as we see the impacts of climate change lead to further migration in the coming years. Karachi needs to adopt a humanitarian, pro-poor housing policy that is accommodative and receptive to the needs of climate migrants. Instead, we are witnessing a pattern of mass evictions and demolitions of working-class communities.
In order for a better understanding of how climate injustice is linked to Karachi’s housing crisis, we must first understand the power dynamics influencing and perpetuating the climate crisis that has disproportionately affected the Global South.
The Global South and the Climate Crisis
Over the last 100 years, wealthy nations have exploited ecosystems to benefit their economies at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, predominantly in the Global South, who have been left to suffer the consequences (Geiger, 2020). ). Wealthy nations in the Global North are largely responsible for the production of excessive amounts of greenhouse gasses due to the unchecked usage of fossil fuels (Odeku, 2022), amounting to 75% of all emissions from 1850 to 2000 (Holden, 2018)
The governments in the Global South are also partially to blame for the devastating impacts of climate change on those who do not deserve to bear this burden. Neo-liberal policies including the continued exploitation of rural and urban labor, occupation of land for elite gated communities, and real estate speculation are pervasive in Pakistan. There is unchecked extraction of natural resources – coal mining in Tharparkar, Sindh, and in Malir (Karachi’s last green belt and rural area) relentless sand and gravel extraction from riverbeds and a 39-kilometer expressway that will block natural waterways and the Malir River. And even after this, those impacted are abandoned without any social or environmental protection, and are forced to migrate from place to place in search of shelter and safety (Geiger, 2020). In this context, the state must protect housing rights for the poor, rural climate migrants instead of carrying out forced evictions and encouraging neo-liberal development.
Being a country in the Global South, Pakistan too has borne the disproportionate brunt of this climate crisis, which coupled with Karachi’s housing crisis and forced evictions, have put millions of lives at risk. People have historically fled to this port city, endearingly referred to as the parent of the poor, and sought refuge from diminishing livelihoods and destitution in rural areas. If the state does not enforce a humanitarian housing rights regime, climate migrants are likely to leave one precarity in rural areas and enter another in the city.
Climate Injustice and Karachi’s Housing Crisis
Notorious for its monsoon flooding, Karachi encountered devastation in the wake of the 2020 monsoon floods which damaged infrastructure and claimed many lives. It was the worst case of monsoon flooding witnessed by the city. Ostensibly to resolve this, Pakistan took up a World Bank project called the ‘Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Project’ (SWEEP), which aimed to mitigate high flooding risks caused by tne accumulation of solid waste in the city’s natural drainage channels (nullahs). However, the state and elite media also began to blame the residents living along Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs for these floods using a false narrative of ‘encroachment’, even as it became clear that these settlements, that stood at quite a distance from the drainage nullahs, were not responsible. Rather, it was state delay and negligence towards cleaning and maintaining solid waste management across the whole city, and building over parts of the city that constitute the outer edges of the Indus River’s deltaic regions that led to flooding.
The GoS demolished over 7000 homes, partially or fully, around Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs. All of these homes had formal legal or equitable title and most residents were settled here for over fifty years. Communities facing forced evictions and homelessness were neither given adequate and reasonable notice before being evicted, nor were they involved in any consultations regarding urban renewal or development projects. Most of these settled communities are now in a state of shock and spending all their income on rent. Although the state has promised stop-gap rental payments for two years, these are inadequate given the astronomical real estate prices, and there are hundreds of people who have been wrongly left out of even this small benefit. Many who are entitled are given the run-around when they go to municipal offices to demand entitlements and several families have thus given up trying to get their checks.
Despite the Pakistan Supreme Court’s direction of August 2020, the government has shared no plans of rehabilitation for almost 100,000 of those forcibly evicted. Furthermore, the state has negligently conducted flawed drone surveys, and has attempted a draconian cancellation of leases, coercing residents to sign off their rights, and depriving people of a legal remedy.
In the rains of July through September that wreaked havoc all over the country, homes near these Karachi nullahs are exposed to the dangers of land sliding and have either already fallen or are at a risk of falling.
Social and economic impacts
The communities living in Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs have seen their economic and social conditions deteriorate; children have had to drop out of school and women have lost their networks and economic activities. Several deleterious processes including land speculation and gentrification have made affordable housing for these low-income displaced families an impossibility. The state does not have a system of adequate housing subsidies, and over the last twenty years, we’ve witnessed an unraveling of mechanisms that allowed informal settlements (katchi abadis) to seek regularization and shield themselves from legally forced evictions.
Among the most pressing concerns right now is that residents who are still living on the site of demolitions — which we casually refer to as "living on the rubble" — are doing so in extremely challenging circumstances. Their electricity, water, and gas lines have been cut and procuring basic amenities has caused undue hardship — especially to women and children who have to buy and fetch water from long distances several times a day. People have lost their community networks, have had their livelihoods interrupted while dealing with the double impact of inflation and homelessness.
Moreover, these demolitions are being carried out without warning signs or protective barriers. The site has trenches, sand mounds, heavy machinery, and yet there seem to be no safety measures taken to protect residents in and around the area from hazards. This negligence has resulted in a number of deaths, but once again, the residents are deprived of access to substantial legal remedies through which their grievances can be addressed.
Women have especially been disproportionately impacted in multiple ways, including loss of access to income from economic activities, having the task of managing unoccupied children deprived of their constitutional right to education, as well as facing a higher risk of violence both at the hands of state officials present at demolition sites when they tried to mediate with them to save their homes, and other forms of gender-based violence at home.
The Urgency of Climate Justice
As seeing how climate injustice is evidently linked to a humanitarian housing crisis, it is also important to realize that climate ‘action’ solely is not the answer or even similar to climate ‘justice’ (Geiger, 2020). Here’s what sorely needed climate justice might look like:
The wealthy nations of the Global North should and need to pay climate change compensation and reparations. Climate justice, then, would include funding by the industrialized nations for adaptation and mitigation in areas affected by the crisis, provision of technology that is accessible and can be used fairly and democratically, as well as the payment of the “historical ecological debt” these nations owe to the Global South (Geiger, 2020).
Pakistan currently owes a significant amount of debt to banks and financiers in wealthier nations and spends almost 41.57 percent of the budget on debt servicing a year. A big chunk of this debt has been used to construct infrastructure like the Left Bank Outfall drain in Badin that contradicted local wisdom as it blocked natural water courses and rivers draining into the sea which has exacerbated flooding in the current monsoons. We see climate refugees in Sindh and Balochistan barely surviving and waiting for aid for food and water, but only a little bit is coming through. Hence, a strong case for debt forgiveness can and should be made for climate vulnerable countries like Pakistan.
Legal recognition and protection of rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (art. 11, para. 1) posits that state parties recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for oneself and one’s family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, and that state parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right. The contrary can categorically be defined as a human rights abuse. The international community needs to offer legal recognition of those displaced by the impacts of climate change as a group in need of special protection. This means ensuring their rights to medical care, legal protection, and education (Geiger, 2020).
Finally, there is a need for change on a systemic level. This could look like implementing the Green New Deal (GND) which relies on the foundations of “science, equity and justice” (Geiger, 2020). However, mainstream versions of the GND only focus on the effects of low-carbon transition on communities and parties that are related to the fossil fuel industry in transitioning economies, instead of communities outside those economies that will be negatively affected by this (Zografos, 2022). It would not be justice if the Global South’s supply of low-carbon energy to economies in the Global North consistently disadvantages the former, and simply reincarnates colonial relationships from the past (Zografos, 2022). What a reformed GND needs is a dialogue about these risks, necessary reductions in trends of consumption, a decline in the use of fossil fuels, shared responsibility of environmental and social compensation, and incentives to support local and regional production (Geiger, 2020). The goal needs to be climate justice, but for all.
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Karachi Bacho Tehreek. (September 9, 2022). [Letter from Karachi Bachao Tehreek to the United Nations General Secretary, 2022].
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