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Karachi Sewerage and Water Board corruption investigation, Dawn newspaper
Karachi Sewerage and Water Board corruption investigation, Dawn newspaper

Illicit water theft by private companies has left the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board public utility underfunded and suffering from crumbling infrastructure. Image Shutterstock



Investigating Corruption and the ‘Tanker Mafias’ in Karachi’s Water Supply Chain

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As a journalism instructor in Pakistan, if there is one piece that I share with my students — or any other reporter looking for a study in the craft — it’s the story to end all stories on Karachi’s water tanker mafia, published in January 2023 by the English-language newspaper, Dawn.

While the investigation itself is smashing — and you should read it before you go any further — it is how the three uniquely skilled journalists brought it together that offers insight into what it takes to do investigative journalism in a city like Karachi.

The byline is shared by Naziha Syed Ali and Aslam Shah. Syed Ali is an experienced reporter known for taking down one of Pakistan’s biggest real estate tycoons; Shah is a city water beat reporter who knows when a paper so much as rustles at Karachi’s Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). They were assisted by the fastidious Dr. Syed Nawaz-ul-Huda, who has a PhD in geography and regional planning and holds the slightly Elizabethan title of chief cartographer at DawnGIS — the newspaper’s mapping cell.

Their 5,000-word story, Selling Liquid Gold — Karachi’s Tanker Mafias, goes deep into the mechanics and breadth of systemic corruption in the supply of water in a city twice the population of London. The investigation outlines the network of politicians, government functionaries, water board staff, military personnel, hydrant contractors, water tanker owners, paramilitaries, community-level strongmen, and others, all on the take in the 62-million-rupee-a-day (US$200,000) profit-making enterprise. And this is a conservative estimate, because it only takes into account the water sold from six official city hydrants — and not that sourced from dozens of illegal hydrants.

The reporting team staked out water pumping stations (or hydrants, in local parlance); pored over geoscientific data and satellite imagery; obtained documents and maps; and spoke to sources up and down the water supply chain. The investigation revealed that the scale of water theft in Karachi is far worse than was known — and shone a light on the kleptocracy at the heart of the distribution of this essential shared resource.

Crumbling Infrastructure

Karachi’s sagging network of pipelines dates to the era of King George VI, and is almost 100 years old. The government-run water utility decided that one solution to bulk up an aging, underfunded network as the city expanded was to encourage private tanker services to fill up at hydrants (giant nozzles at main KWSB water lines) and transport water across the city. The management of the six official hydrants, named after neighborhoods across the city, are auctioned off for two-year contracts to private operators who own fleets of tankers.

Karachi, Pakistan water supply network

Image: Screenshot, DAWN

The result is that Karachi residents can’t get water from the underground KWSB line when they turn on the tap at home — they have to call a private tanker service and pay for them to deliver it to the house. Residents face regular shortages.

Everyone knows that water rates and distribution in Karachi are inequitable: At first, Dawn reporter Syed Ali wondered if it was an important enough story. “Then I thought, you know what, it’s a struggle for everybody to get water, whether you can pay for it or not,” she says.

The flow meters at the six government-sanctioned hydrants are tampered with, so the private tanker services can extract and sell far more than they document. Two other official hydrants are not auctioned to private companies, so there is even less accountability. Beyond these eight sites, however, the city is dotted with illegal hydrants, whose operators take water from the KWSB mains. The scale of the informal, undocumented illegal water-selling business in Karachi is thus so vast that investigations such as this one can only scratch the surface.

“A fundamental problem is that in Pakistan people have no ‘water right,” explains Simi Kamal, chair of the Hisaar Foundation, a Karachi-based nonprofit focused on food, water, and livelihood security. “We must unpack Karachi’s socio-political map, its inequalities, and its poverty profile to even begin to understand why the KWSB is unable to play its role, is undervalued as an institution, and is the target of scathing criticism.”

Going to the Source 

Water distribution was a new topic for Syed Ali, so she started with background research and interviews, followed up with field reporting to interview water board staff, officials, hydrant contractors, linemen, residents, and fish farm operators. Conversely, Shah was already in the field, so to speak, and covering all the micro-developments on the water board — decisions made, money spent, corrupt practices, negligence, and the officers and staff involved or the higher-ups who cover up or turn a blind eye.

“You meet people: union folks, staff,” says Shah. “They tell you what’s happening, then I do a follow-up with the officers.” Syed Ali adds that on-the-ground reporting for a story of this scale is non-negotiable.

The team made a list of the official hydrants auctioned off by the KWSB and asked the staff how the system worked, down to the smallest details. Syed Ali then questioned the staff, tanker drivers, and contractors on how the metering system worked, where the tankers were dispatched, how the water rate was set, and who collected the revenue. These threads, combined with Shah’s insider information, revealed the web of connections of who was involved in the water theft.

Syed Ali and Nawaz felt that a good place to start was the source of Karachi’s water, where the city’s water infrastructure begins: Keenjhar Lake, located about 75 miles east of the city, and the canal that brings in the main supply, Gujjo. Nawaz took samples because he wanted to test the water that fed the fish farms. They talked to water board staff there, asking how the system worked. Syed Ali finds this more helpful than speaking to government officers.

Kheenjhar Lake, Karachi's water source

Keenjhar Lake, Karachi’s main water source. Image: Shutterstock

“I’ve always believed that you get the best quotes and the best info from the people lower down,” said Syed Ali. This is a nugget of wisdom: the lower-tier water board staffers did not have an interest in covering up and presenting the official version. And if they were too scared to talk, others would. “Whenever we showed up, the government staff would run off, but the locals would be a lot of help,” Nawaz added. This happened at the canal and at hydrants.

To get a sense of how much water is drawn, at one point Syed Ali and Nawaz sat at one of the official hydrants and counted the tankers during one hour — an instinct that proved fruitful. The Sherpao hydrant is supposed to be the principal source for one of Karachi’s exclusive posh neighborhoods, Defence Housing Authority, which sits at the tail end of the pipeline network and thus has a chronic shortage.

Finding the Story’s Beginning

For Syed Ali, the investigation turned a corner when a 36-year-old water board supervisor named Furqan Akhtar — whose job was to hunt down illegal hydrants and report them to the KSWB’s water theft cell — was killed in November 2022, shot by armed men who took his motorbike when he was on the hunt for thieves. (The exact motive for the murder has never been determined;  it may have been a simple case of vehicle theft. The victim’s family did not speak to the Dawn reporting team, citing security fears.)

Map showing portion of Karachi's network of illegal hydrants.

Map showing a portion of Karachi’s network of 86 illegal hydrants. Image: Screenshot, Dawn

“When I found out about Furqan at one of the KWSB offices, I thought, I’ve got my beginning,” she recalls. Syed Ali recognized that Furqan’s death would grab readers’ interest because he was an innocent person trying to do good, but whose life was cut short. “The murder of a guy who is trying to track down illegal hydrants. They’ll care about that.”

The killing also highlighted the possible real-life danger associated with this story. Not surprisingly few people were willing to go on the record. In addition, some of the locations where illegal hydrants operate are risky to visit. Nawaz’s trick was to say he was a PhD researcher, which wasn’t untrue. The team also warned their driver to disown them if necessary and pretend to be an Uber driver.

At the Sherpao hydrant, an armed guard accosted the reporters and told them to leave. “I love these incidents and always include them,” says Syed Ali. “The little sexy bits you throw in just to make the story interesting — and it’s true.”

Shah didn’t accompany Syed Ali and Dr Nawaz into the field, as his job was to unearth documentary evidence that they would never be able to get officially, such as the accounts kept of the hydrant operations. As he had sources in the water board, he was also able to tell Syed Ali who was connected to whom and involved from deep within the KWSB.

He also admits to feeling “tension” and being fearful at times while reporting the story. One chilling example: some people running an illegal hydrant network paid Shah a visit to have a little “chat” with him. His response was to take the higher moral ground and, in effect, make clear he could not be bought off.

Maintaining an immaculate reputation is a prerequisite for deep investigations. Syed Ali’s reputation precedes her, which is why both retired and active bureaucrats are willing to talk to her.“The water board managing director was very welcoming and perhaps a little blindsided because he didn’t know how big a story it was,” she explains. “I think he actually wanted to do some good.”

Getting the Evidence

Given how entrenched the water tanker mafia is, two benchmarks were essential to this story: getting enough hard evidence and knowing when to stop digging.

Shah was able to get key documents, such as a list of received net pay orders from hydrants and government agencies, the billing for tankers, and the receipts of the amount recovered from those given preferential treatment.

At the heart of their investigation was the assertion — backed up with calculations — that  KWSB’s funding from the hydrants in no way reflects the actual amount of water drawn. The lists Shah obtained made it clear who was involved in making illicit money and it involved all the major nodes of power in Karachi. Shah even spoke with the company that did the actual hydrant math for the water board.

But extrapolating a day’s volume of water would always be an estimate, one that could be challenged. So, even with the documents Shah brought in, the team decided that, to be safe, their own estimates would fall somewhere in the middle of the possible range.

A retired bureaucrat provided a good physical map of Karachi’s water supply network and pumping stations, which they drum-scanned (a scanning method for converting large analog images into precise, digital files). Nawaz digitally matched the map with satellite imagery and registered it with Georef, an international geoscience database founded in 1966.

Archival KWSB map showing Karachi's water infrastructure

Archival KWSB map showing Karachi’s water infrastructure and hydrant network. Image: Screenshot, Dawn

“The advantage is that if your map is registered, you can extract geographical data from toposheets and satellite images,” he explains. Nawaz created an extensive map of all of Karachi’s water infrastructure and also provided crucial visual satellite evidence of water theft from official KWSB lines — after painstaking visits to these dangerous spots.

“Satellite imagery is no friend of criminals and a huge friend of journalists,” Nawaz says. “That’s how we found the [Sherpao] hydrant, which despite court orders, was still operating.”

Unlike reporting in some other countries, confronting those at the top of this corruption scheme just wasn’t viable or safe.  So at a certain point, the team stopped digging. “At that level, I’d frankly be scared,” Syed Ali says. “I don’t want to get to that point where I feel like I’m really putting my life at risk.”

‘Pin Drop Silence’

These kinds of in-depth investigations need untold amounts of patience, as they require a lot of time that your newsroom has to be able to give you. Syed Ali says their team was lucky in that Dawn’s editor, Zaffar Abbas, gave them the roughly three months needed for their investigation.

Shah does admit to some disappointment that Dawn decided not to print some of the names linked to the water scheme. But he points out that documenting the water theft and how it all worked was the bigger revelation.  “It is not my problem that the name has been dropped,” he says. “In this city, almost everyone knows who is running the system.”

Perhaps that explains the lack of official reaction or pushback to the story. “There was pin drop silence,” Syed Ali explains. No phone calls at all. “Anywhere else with some semblance of governance, heads would be rolling if anybody came out with a huge story about corruption in water distribution.”

But Dawn’s readers weren’t silent, they flooded the team with gratitude.

A few months later, Karachi’s provincial government introduced a law to tweak the water utility’s powers and governance, which, among other reforms, included establishing dedicated police stations to prevent water theft and making it easier to fire the water board’s managing director.

Mahim Maher is a journalist based in Karachi. She reports on urban infrastructure and served as the founding city editor for the Karachi sections of the national newspapers the Daily Times and The Express Tribune. She has also taught the Masters in Journalism at the IBA’s Center of Journalism Excellence in Karachi and holds regular writing workshops.

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