Urban Informality and Climate Change — Analyzing Karachi’s Rain

Source: ARY News

Introduction and Background

Urbanization is not a benign process. One, widely known and well-established consequence of rapidly increasing urbanization is environmental degradation and climate change (Champman , Watson , Salazar , Thatcher, & McAlpine, 2017). Coupled with unsustainable methods employed to expand cities, usually to absorb the pressure of rising global population, urbanization is posing a serious threat to the climate. Currently, nearly over half of the world’s population resides in urban areas. This number is expected to rise by nearly 2.5 billion by year 2050 (United Nations, 2018). As a result, the size of cities is expected to rise multifold in the upcoming years, especially in third world developing states like Pakistan where population control still remains taboo.

The majority of the citizens of these developing states are already vulnerable to widespread poverty, unemployment, land dispossession and other socioeconomic and political risk factors. With rapidly growing population, the demand for housing is also mounting, placing a significant pressure on governments and other urban institutions to provide shelter to the poor and vulnerable groups. However, because of lack of resources to provide sustainable housing, governments in developing countries largely remain reliant on unsustainable and sporadic processes of development, usually on city’s peripheries. This basically means that usually, widely touted government led pro-poor housing projects are restricted to areas disconnected from main city and its central economic and financial hubs. Even then, many of these projects never materialize. This compels people to settle in informal settlements, as widely recognized and accounted in the urban development literature.

The basic idea of these settlements, as United Nations (U.N.) High Commission for Refugees notes, is where housing, shelter and services have been constructed on spaces on which the occupants have no legal claim, or which they purportedly occupy illegally (United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 2014). Thus, these spaces are, unlike formal and planned settlements, prone to unplanned, sporadic, and unregulated expansion. Most of these settlements occur in peripheral spaces near river banks, pavements, nullah streams, costal outposts of the city, or in barren undeveloped or widely ignored regions to evade government oversights. As a result of intra-national and rural-urban migrations, and because of the general rise in urban population, the number of such settlements is steadily increasing throughout the globe, especially in cities of the Global South. According to estimates, informal settlements are increasing by an alarming rate annually (Menshawy, Aly, & Salman , 2011). The rate is likely to be much higher in poor states where most of the informal settlements are concentrated.

In this regard, climate change is posing a serious threat to the residents of these settlements. Climate change projections indicate significant increases in the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, in particular storm events and floods, which are the natural hazard most frequently experienced by the urban poor. The location of informal settlements on floodplains, and their insufficient waste and drainage networks, combined with higher runoff from hardened surfaces such as roads and pavements, compound the impact of flooding on the urban poor (Williams, Costa, Sutherland, Celliers, & Scheffran, 2019). Such impacts are widely evident with seasonal changes, and unprecedented monsoon spells even erstwhile arid urban areas like Karachi. Together with socioeconomic instability in these settlements, climate afflicted disruptions lead to loss of shelter, loss of lives, and land dispossession.

Moreover, the relationship between the climate and processes of urbanization are also cyclical. While on one end it remains one of the contributing factors to environmental degradation, on the other hand rising number of floods, changing monsoon patterns, and other climatic disruption which is directly affecting the Agri-economy of many poor countries, is compelling rural population to migrate to urban regions. Resultantly, adding pressure on urban population leading to more informal settlements.

Thus, this article aims to contribute to the literature on the relationship between urban development and climate change, while also exploring the effects of such changes on the poor urban residents of informal settlements, and how they can be mitigated. To this end, this article draws examples from global literature, and assess some globally recognized consequences in context of informal settlements in Karachi. To do this, I will use recent torrential rains and its impact on peri-urban regions of the city as an example.

Urban Informality and Climate Change — Governance, Risks and Climate Adaptability

Climate change widely encompasses variations in weather patterns which intensifies risks like rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, Landslides, drought, increased aridity, water scarcity, and air pollution with widespread negative impacts on people and local and national economies (Williams, Costa, Sutherland, Celliers, & Scheffran, 2019). These risks are globally recognized as points of serious concerns, and countries have already started to assess alternatives that can mitigate these risk factors to a large extent, if not fully purging them. However, much of these mitigation efforts largely remain concentrated in regions where formal development planning is possible, and resources can be employed justifying the costs and returns.

In this regard, informal urban spaces largely remain ignored, due to which they lack essential infrastructure that can protect them from the hazards of climate change. Inadequate infrastructure and lack of services in these areas also decreases climate adaptation, further exacerbating the risks for the poor population. Widespread prevalence of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, along with higher ratios of deaths from heat waves, floods, droughts, and costal inundation can, thus, be attributed to the lack of infrastructure that decreases resilience from to climate change (Satterthwaite, et al., 2020).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report underlines this issue in respect to the lack of resilience of informal settlements in urban areas around the globe. The report highlights that while almost all of the urban population living in formal spaces exhibit some from of resilience because of formal housing and a number of other risk-reducing infrastructure and services, the resilience of informal settlers in poor countries remains fairly low. People living in informal settlements seldom have access to facilities to construct infrastructure that can protect them from natural disasters (Satterthwaite, et al., 2020). For example, a number of slums, also known as Jhuggis in cities like Mumbai and Karachi are composed of houses built with cheap bricks and slabs that only provide shelter temporarily.

The biggest issue, in this regard, is the lack of affordability. Most of the residents cannot afford cement, clay and other vital material required to construct resilient infrastructure for sustenance. Similarly, this is also why residents of such settlements cannot move towards formal or semi-formal vicinities, with close proximity to better basic services. Formal residential areas are expensive, with higher living and operational costs, which makes such moves nearly inconceivable. Thus, there is an urgent need to vastly expand the supply and reduce the cost of ‘‘formal’’ (i.e., legal) housing that provides low-income groups with safer and more accessible alternatives to informal settlements (Satterthwaite, et al., 2020).

Moreover, because urban informal settlements do not fall under the ambit of government bodies and institutions, they lack appropriate and effective risk and disaster management. This further results in higher vulnerability of people living in such settlements to climate change. Instead, they usually rely on non-state actors and non-governmental organizations for disaster management during such crisis. However, as William et al., notes, the complexity and multifaceted nature of risk from natural hazards further means that the response to the hazard cannot be undertaken by one single actor, but require a move from dependence on unipolar government to multipolar governance. Governance, in the context of risk, is understood as a “multitude of actors and processes” collaborating in decision-making procedures. In essence, effective governance can decrease vulnerability of socioecological systems to climate-induced natural hazards and strengthen resilience (Williams, Costa, Sutherland, Celliers, & Scheffran, 2019). Such multi-level and multi-faceted interventions, nevertheless, are often absent in informal settings.

In Kathmandu, for example, squatters and informal settlements which house thousands of residents have been disproportionately affected by poor governance during natural disasters. Among the most vulnerable squatters are those living near to the Bagmati, Bishnumati and Dhobi Khola, the major rivers of Kathmandu. Most of the settlement houses are single story with mud walls and tin roofs. Some of the houses are concrete and made of cemented walls while others are made up of plastic and tin. Lighting, ventilation and space are limited and many houses lack basic facilities such as access to water and electricity (CLACC & IIED , 2009). Thus, during monsoon season, these squatters get flooded due to which the residents annually migrate to other parts of the city for protection.

However, with changing climate patterns, predicting monsoon rain is also becoming difficult, which is why many times the residents are left with no option but to leave their houses when rains hit. On the other hand, permanently shifting to formal residential areas is not an option because of expensive real estate prices. Moreover, since there is no infrastructure to cater to the needs of the settlers, have to walk for nearly an hour to reach the nearest public tap and then have to queue for up to five hours to get a bucket of clean drinking water. Solid waste is repeatedly thrown into the rivers as waste collection often does not extend to these areas, and this may lead to illness. These problems are exacerbated by the lack of affordable medical treatment for the poor residents.

Thus, building climate adaptability and resilience remains the only possible solution to protect the urban poor from the climate crises. A report from the Capacity Strengthening in the Least Developed Countries for Adaptation to Climate Change (CLACC) program underlines some possible strategies based on the examples from third world countries. The report notes that variability adaptation needs to take broader issues of development into account in order to ensure that households, communities and cities are able to meet the challenges of today, as well as those that will arise in the future (CLACC & IIED , 2009).

According to the report, adaptation of infrastructure to cope with climate change can take several forms: it can involve planned retreat, accommodating the changes, or constructing various protective measures. Adaptation can also involve “soft” or ecosystem infrastructure, including the use of mangroves or other vegetation to protect coastlines (CLACC & IIED , 2009).

Similarly, it is also important to inculcate adaptability in individuals, households and communities by disseminating information regarding possible hazards and imminent disaster. This includes timely informing communities about changing climate patterns, possible relocation possibilities, and methods to mitigate risk. A wide variety of coping strategies are already in evidence among many low-income groups: moving valuable items; sending children to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere during disaster events; or constructing flood barriers around their homes (CLACC & IIED , 2009). However, adaptation also requires building resilience to a wider range of shocks and stresses, which can be achieved through the improvement of health and education systems, as well as through the provision of adequate shelter, sanitation and drainage (Satterthwaite, et al., 2020).

Torrential rains in Karachi — risks and possible mitigation efforts for protecting informal settlers

Since the past three years, unprecedented monsoon spells and torrential rains have led to a number of deaths, injuries and displacements in Karachi. Last year, the rain-spell broke all previous records, completely unravelling city’s infrastructure and jeopardizing livelihood of thousands of residents for weeks. The situation was especially bad for middle- and low-income areas like Surjani town, Jail road, Naya Nazimabad, Kati Pahari, Sohrab Goth, etc. Research by Farhan Anwar, an eminent urban practitioner, explains that such spells are majorly caused by changes in weather driven by national and international climatic changes. Anwar notes, Main factors that contribute to variability in Karachi’s weather are: changes in Western Disturbances, rise in number of Tropical Storms, changes in Southwest monsoon patterns, and changes in Continental Air patterns (Anwar, 2012). These direct influences, changes in ocean and atmospheric conditions in distant locations also impact the climate of Karachi, particularly the monsoon (Anwar, 2012).

Another major reason for the devastation caused by the rain is change in Karachi’s demography that has increased the vulnerability of the city to the effects of climate change. As Dr. Noman Ahmed notes, as the city expanded in a haywire manner, the storm water drains were transformed into sewerage trunks. Even the planned neighbourhoods had their primary sewerage conduits ejecting into the nullahs (Ahmed, 2019). The blockage of storm water drainage, consequently, led to urban flooding in numerous areas of the city.

Most of these blockages, as also noted by Ahmed, are caused by sporadic and informal settlements on the embankments of storm water channels in the past three-four decades. According to Sindh government statistics, there are two rivers, 44 nullahs (major drains) and 511 small nullahs in Karachi. Around 13,441 households and 2,948 commercial establishments are built on four nullahs and one river (Abro, 2020). There are 5,916 households and 2,412 commercial units on the Gujjar Nullah, 4,480 households and 380 commercial units on the Orangi Nullah, 1,049 households and 156 commercial units on the Mahmoudabad Nullah and 1,996 households on the Malir river (Abro, 2020).

According to a report by Reuters, about 12 million people living in such informal settlements, are increasingly vulnerable to urban flooding as Karachi faces worsening inundations because of the extreme weather changes (Chandran, 2021). Most of these settlements are directly affected by flooding because of their close proximity to the natural storm water channels, and because most of these path ways have massively shortened, most of the water over flows to nearby neighborhoods. Apart from the floods, another threat they face are water-borne and vector-borne diseases which flourish in water that accumulates as a result of flooding, since there are no functional drainage systems to carry water out in such settlements.

Moreover, with climate change, experts anticipate a rise in such settlements throughout the city. This is mainly because many people migrate to cities like Karachi due to rise in monsoonal flooding in regions like Punjab and interior Sindh. One such example is the establishment of Ilyas Goth jhuggis along the Liyari River in Karachi. These settlements thrived when people moved into the settlements from Mirpurkhas following the flash floods of 2010 wrought by climate change, and finally a few families that have migrated to Karachi from various parts of Sindh, looking for better jobs and infrastructure (Saleem , Toheed, & Arif, 2020). Much to their dismay, these settlements were disproportionately affected by recent spells, which rendered scores of people homeless. This reflects the perpetual miserly of the poor population.

Another aspect pertinent to mention is that these people often become scape goats for government’s incompetence in city’s management. Informal settlers are usually blamed for ‘causing’ urban flooding in the city because of their encroachments. These claims are often grossly exaggerated, and reflects simplified and shallow understanding of city’s stakeholders when it comes to land and crisis management. According to Thompson Reuters Foundations, flooding is in fact a result of clogging that occurs because of government’s failure in removing solid waste from storm water channels during monsoon season (Chandran, 2021). Consequently, coupled with unprecedented rains, the clogging serves as a recipe for disaster. Moreover, most this clogging is also associated with provincial and metropolis government’s failure in building separate channels for sewage disposals. Most of city’s sewage is dumped into storm water channels because there is no alternative.

As a result, people are forcibly removed from their homes during anti-encroachments drives for widening nullahs. Recent examples include Mahmoudabad and Gujjar nullah anti-encroachments, in which more than 4000 houses are earmarked for demolition (The News, 2021). Such steps further exacerbate the plight of already poverty-trodden inhabitants of informal settlements. They also pose serious concerns for inclusive development goals as encapsulated in Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of 2030.


Increasing rates of urbanization in developing third-world countries has been accompanied by rapid rise in unplanned informal settlements. Such settlements are highly vulnerable to plethora of issues, because they lack basic infrastructure for protection. Similarly, they also lack legal legitimacy to garner support from government and other institutions for protection of their livelihood. In this regards, impending environmental degradation and climatic changes are further exacerbating their vulnerability. Most of these settlements, as in Karachi, have no infrastructure to protect them from heavy spells of monsoon, storms, heat waves, and resultant health crisis. To solve these issues, governments need to prioritize upgradations of informal settlements, along with providing alternative housing where upgradation is not possible. Upgradation can help in increasing climate adaptability, and will also motivate people to take anti-climate change measures like urban foresting. This is only how the rights of such settlers against the looming climatic catastrophe can be ensured.


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The author (Muhammad Ashar Khan) is a Resident Research Fellow at the Youth Center for Research (YCR), and is currently pursuing his bachelors in Social Development and Policy from Habib University, Karachi, Pakistan. The author is also an alumnus of the Study of United States Institues (SUSI) Program in Comparative Public Policy, from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.