Pani walla

Catriona Luke looks at the engineering report of the 1880s maverick who gave Karachi its water supply but had to fight the military to do so

Pani walla
In early September, just as the government announced that control of Pakistan’s budgets from the provinces would return to the centre to service military debt and defence, the Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Murad Ali Shah, reiterated his commitment to ensure Karachi would have clean water for drinking and industrial purposes.

Today Karachi receives 583 million gallons daily from Keenjhar Lake, and 100 million gallons from the Hub dam, leaving a shortfall of 550 million gallons daily. The chief minister said that the solution for the missing 40 per cent of supply would be a desalination plant.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a Scotsman by the name of James Strachan arrived in Karachi and made it his life’s work to solve the problems of clean water for the growing town and port. To achieve his goal, he had to fight the military state at the time – the British Raj – who wanted water for only their own barracks and purposes. They constantly pared his budgets, interfered in his schedules and opposed the running of water pipes to the local population of what was then known as the “native” town.

Empress Market, in designing which Strachan played a central role

But Strachan persisted. He used his position as secretary and chief engineer to the Municipality to harass and bully them back. He threatened the government that if the Karachi Municipality did not receive the necessary funding for the scheme, the Municipality would utilise its own taxation powers to implement it by any means possible. He would increase the municipal taxes collected from the government and military vehicles, and the transit duty at the port.

The Raj backed down, then played hardball themselves. The initial proposed budget of the plan was Rs 1.2 million, but the government pushed it down to Rs 800,000. As a result Strachan’s plan could not be executed in full. The diameter of the water pipes to be used was decreased and only two water wells, 16 miles upstream in the bed of the Malir River, were dug. The water scheme which supplied the military barracks and port was opened in April 1883. Strachan then fought to get the supply laid into the “native” town, and between July – October 1884 this was done. Ten years after James Strachan had first arrived in Karachi, forty-five gallons of water were available per capita for 80,000 citizens.

Just two years after James Strachan arrived in Karachi, 45 gallons of water became available per capita to Karachi's 80,000 residents

The military state at the time – the British Raj –wanted water for only their own barracks and purposes. They constantly pared Strachan’s budgets, interfered in his schedules and opposed the running of water pipes to the local population of what was then known as the “native” town

In Karachi, James Strachan’s achievements as engineer are best known above ground. He designed and oversaw the construction of Merewether Tower, Edulji Dinshaw Dispensary, Denso Hall, Empress Market and in 1887 the massive and glorious arts college which is now DJ Science College. In 1883 he began a programme of kerosene street lamps – around 1,000 lamps on 60 miles of road.

But it was his water supply that changed Karachi, and for which he should be remembered. In the Institute of Civil Engineers in London is Paper no. 2050 from Volume 83, delivered in 1886, The Karachi waterworks, by James Strachan M.Inst.C.E. It is a fabulous document of rebellion, geology, engineering, and serving the poor. He writes: “The Municipality has not as yet imposed any general water rate on the inhabitants; those who take service-pipes into their houses pay a monthly fee according to the size of the connection; Rs 1 for a ½ inch connection, Rs 2 8a for a ¾ inch, and Rs 5 for a 1 inch connection.”
While Bombay languished without clean water supplies for its ordinary people, Strachan made sure Karachi did not

The report says that there are twenty eight public hand services, which are in effect water fountains. “As water is almost universally carried from the wells in large earthen pots or gurrahs, which are very brittle, the platform beneath each cock is lined with wood, hollowed to fit the gurrah, which rests on it while being filled.” He continues that “for those who live at a greater distance and who cannot send a member of the family to draw water, the bhistie with his bullock puckhal is required, and for him the bullock service has been provided. This service consists of a horizontal pipe having two branch pipes cast on it, sufficiently far apart to fit the mouths of the bhisties’ puckhals, which are two leather bags, one on each side of the bullock. The horizontal pipe is supported on stone pillars, of such height and distance apart as enables the bullock to stand comfortably underneath. The total number of bullock services is forty. Carts requiring water for any purpose can fill from the ordinary street stand-post of which there are fifty-five.”

The care and detail he gives to the provision of water to the ordinary citizens of Karachi comes before the description of how the Raj demanded its water. Only now in the report does Strachan address the military’s demands, but it is almost as an afterthought. He writes that “supplies of water have been furnished to the Sind, Punjab and Delhi railway company’s workshops, the arsenal, the jail, to all the troops in garrison, both European and native, and to various mills and factories in Karachi. A 6-inch branch has been taken along the Napier mole to Keamari, a distance of 2 miles, for the supply of shipping in the harbour, the Keamari station of the Sind, Punjab and Delhi railway […] A branch line has also been laid along the Merewether pier, whence steamers lying alongside can fill their boilers at any time.”

Strachan was unusual as an engineer in that he seems to have intricate knowledge of water and cholera. In 1854 a physician in London, Dr John Snow, was the first to make the connection that cholera was a water-borne disease, to the scepticism of the authorities, who simply saw it as a disease of the dirt of the poor. As a young man Strachan had been apprenticed to the municipal engineer who put the clean water supply into Birmingham in England. Although Strachan’s career was later on the railways, including the Great Indian Peninsular Railway in Bombay from 1869-71, this early influence directly impacted on what happened in Karachi. While Bombay languished without clean water supplies for its ordinary people, Strachan made sure Karachi did not. Freak rainfall in Karachi in 1851, 1865, 1869 and 1878 of 20 inches or more brought epidemics.

The methods of collecting clean water, Strachan writes, were the digging of wells down to the water table in the dry riverbed of the Malir River. These became brackish after a few weeks and were simply covered in and new ones dug. Strachan’s water system dug two massive wells, 40 feet in diameter and to a depth of 35 feet, on the right bank of the Malir, 16 miles from Karachi. From here pipes were laid down to a specially constructed reservoir (by Messrs Meherally and Lallu Gugoo of Karachi) some 200 feet long by 150 feet in width on the side of a hill one mile from Cantonments and civil lines. The main water pipe bifurcated into two branches: one through Saddar to the “native town”, the other to the military barracks and Keamari.

Along the way, in Strachan’s paper, you pick up intricate details of the geology, climate and temperatures of Karachi. “The rainfall at Karachi is exceedingly scanty and precarious, being seldom more than 6 inches per annum.” “The Malir river is called by different names along its course. At its source it is known as the Vuddia, in the middle as the Gooban, where it is joined by a small torrent called the Kuttagree […] Although this river is dry for the greater part of the year, yet water is readily obtained at any time in the sandy bed by digging down a few feet beneath the surface […] At a depth of 10 to 30 feet the below the bed water is plentiful”. Karachi reaches a temperature of 28 degrees celsius in July, August and September, but its peak in May and June is below 30 degrees celsius.

“The Pubb hills, near Karachi, are the continuation of the Kirthar chain, which extends in a southerly direction until it meets the sea at Cape Monze. It is amongst the ravines of this line of hills the Hubb, the only permanent river in Sind except the Indus, takes its rise. The other rivers or mountain-torrents of importance, which are not tributaries of the Indus, are the Lyari and Malir. The Lyari rises in among the hills of Kohistan, a few miles north of Karachi, and falls into the harbour close to the town. During the greater part of the year the bed of this river is dry, but after a heavy rainfall a considerable body of water flows in the channel for a day or two. The Malir river is like the Lyari a torrential stream, dry for the greater part of the year. It has its rise in the mountainous tract between Karachi and Sehwan, and after a south-westerly course of 60 miles falls into Karachi Bay by a creek, a few miles east of the town.”

The water-bearing “shelly limestones are met with about 6 miles from Karachi, interstratified with sandstone and calcareous grit, superimposed on which are thick beds of gray clay, somewhat calcareous.” The geological formation of the tract is identical to that generally of lower Sindh. It is identical with what is termed the Gaj or Miocene group and so the section from ground level descends in this way: conglomerate (mixtures of sand and gravel), clay and sandstone, upper bone-bed, sandstones, a pale yellow arenaceous limestone more or less pure, followed in some places by a thin stratum of nummulitic limestone.

The population of metropolitan Karachi, the 2017 census revealed, was 16.05 million people, with a commensurate entitlement for clean water which would have been impossible to imagine by James Strachan in 1884. But what he did is a reminder that water always involves a fight – and good engineering and novel solutions and fighting the powers-that-be for funding. And so some things, along with the geology of the landscape, do not change.