A woman performing water-intensive chores in a Karachi household. Photo by Ali Rizvi

Brackish water in Karachi disproportionately affects women

“Many women in my building are suffering with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs),” said Tasneem Ahsan, 59, a resident from an affluent residential area of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. “Many around me have reported skin diseases and conditions due to the use of brackish water.”  

The Defense Housing Association (DHA) is not a depressed area. Actually, it’s home to financially stable residents. Yet the locality’s water woes are not a secret. In fact, most of the residents of Karachi are trying to grapple with the issues of water scarcity. 

Fresh water is rarely available to the residents of this metropolitan city. Tap water is usually either mixed or brackish. And while this inadequate supply means challenges for everyone, women are most impacted. 

In most parts of the world, especially in the global south, women are in charge of water arrangement. Rural women fetch water on a daily basis for work in the fields and for housework. 

Brackish water extracted from a water well in Nazimabad, Karachi. Photo by Ali Rizvi

Urban women

While women in urban settings don’t usually have to fetch water from wells, the responsibility for making adequate arrangements and the household chores lies on their shoulders. DHA is not an exception.

“The shortage of water adversely affects women, more so than men,” said Ishrat Afshan, a home-based entrepreneur, who lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with her husband in a densely populated vicinity of Karachi. “We are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and managing the supply, and it is a struggle.”

According to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan holds a spot in the list of the top 36 most water-stressed countries. The exploding population, agricultural mismanagement, and climate change are quoted to be the top reasons for water scarcity. 

Pakistan’s location and landscape make it vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The country faces an acute shortage of water due to its exposure to extreme weather conditions like droughts and floods. This results in the destruction of its water infrastructure.  

Pakistan’s rainfall patterns are highly erratic which means that the natural water available is seasonal. Increasing temperatures are adding to reservoirs running dry. But water management is also a huge issue, as the agricultural and irrigation system uses up a lot of the available water and dams are unable to meet the needs. There is also no mechanism of water storage. 

IMF’s report suggests that Pakistan’s per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic meters now, down from about 1,500 cubic meters in 2009. This means that it is about to hit scarcity levels, which are at 1,000 cubic meters and below.  

Karachi water crisis 

Being the economic and financial capital of Pakistan, as well as exploding with a population of over 16 million (claimed to be understated by many political parties), Karachi’s water needs are immense. However, the residents’ water needs are seldom met. 

According to the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, a whopping 42% of the water allocated for the city is either lost or stolen before it reaches the residents. The KWSB also states the population of Karachi at 18 million. 

“In our building, we only get brackish water, and that only once daily,” said Ahsan. “When poured into a bucket for storage, one can see foam developing.” 

Ahsan shared that this water is not suitable for drinking or cooking, but has to be used for cleaning and doing the dishes. She said that surfaces of cups and glasses are very salty due to this and metallic utensils corrode very easily. 

Residents of Karachi rely on water tankers and gallons to fulfill their needs. The price of a tank of water is around $31, which lasts about 20 days for a small household. This puts a dent on their wallets leaving them no choice but to bathe with brackish water. 

A Karachi water tanker
A water tanker for delivery in Karachi. Photo: srsly/Flickr (Lic: CC BY-SA 2.0)

This has a lot of implications on the health and well-being of commoners, especially women. According to UN Water, women need water for particular needs due to menstruation, pregnancies, and childbearing. Their role as primary child caregivers and nurturers also demands more water at their disposal. Women are further impacted by skin conditions and are prone to hookworm infections.  

“I have severe hair fall due to the use of brackish water,” said Afshan while discussing her concerns. “We don’t even feel fresh after taking a shower. The entire body starts itching.” This also leaves an unpleasant white layer on the bathroom tiles and floors. No matter how hard she tries, this layer refuses to budge. 

According to Zohair Ashir, a founding member of Hisaar Foundation’s Think Tank on Rational Use of Water, a complete transformation of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board is the need of the hour through a public-private partnership, whereby the operational and management functions of the board are outsourced to a private investor. This will enable the organization to focus on servicing customers and develop infrastructure. 

Women’s lives will continue being disproportionately impacted by water scarcity, whether such structural and policy level changes take place or not.