How the fallout of the water crisis in Pakistan's commercial hub Karachi is felt by school going girls.

For Mohammad Abbas and Hameeda, their daughter meant the world to them and yet they pulled her out of school to meet water expenses. 

The couple lives in Qayyumabad, a densely populated and underprivileged settlement in Pakistan's port city Karachi. Nine years ago, when their only daughter was born, they named her Iqra, the first word revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad, which means read, according to the Muslim faith. 

But poverty and social structure shaped by decades of patriarchy compelled Abbas and Hameeda to take Iqra out of school in 2018, while allowing their son to continue his education. 

“My monthly income is $125 (Rs.20,000) out of which I spend $50 (Rs.8000) for house rent. I also have to foot the drinking water bill of at least $15 (Rs. 2,500) per month,” Abbas said. 

Iqra is still hopeful that one day she will be able to go back to school.

“I want to study and become a schoolteacher. I love going to school,” a shy and smiling Iqra told TRT World.

She enjoyed her English class the most, she said, and wanted to speak the language as fluently as her English teacher did.

“Two of my friends still go to school. My mother says I will go again next year when my father has more work – better work”, she said.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolis, has long been affected by severe water shortages. A person's social standing determines access to clean water. Affluent neighbourhoods buy bathing water from private tanker services and potable water from other private distribution companies, such as Nestle. Low-income families however struggle to keep up with such expenses and they often have to sacrifice other necessities — even their children's education in many cases — to meet this basic need. 

Nine-year-old Iqra along with her mother Hameeda and two brothers.
Nine-year-old Iqra along with her mother Hameeda and two brothers. (Courtesy of: Syeda Sana Batool)

Why are people buying water?

Running water in Karachi is full of waterborne diseases. In fact the entire country struggles with water pollution, with at least 60 million people exposed to high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water, an impending crisis that has been dubbed 'the largest mass poisoning in history'.

About 50 percent of diseases and 40 percent of deaths occur in the country due to poor drinking water quality.

“The water hydrants in our area are full of sewage water. And that’s the reason why faecal substance is found in the water,” said Abbas

The per day quantum of water set by Pakistan's Human Rights Commission is 10 to 20 gallons for a family of at least six. Dr Simi Kamal, a geographer and founder of the non-profit Hisaar Foundation says the only way to ensure every Pakistani has access to clean water is to allow water pricing after the set quantum. 

"This principle is used across the globe and we should be able to follow it too. We also need to fix whether the fixed quantum of water is 50 gallons per day or 20 gallons per day.”

In Abbas's neighbourhood, 20-50 gallons of water bought off of a donkey-cart costs between $6 (Rs.1000) and $15 (Rs.2500). He buys 50 gallons of water at least three to five times in a month. That's the additional cost he has to bear besides paying $15 for drinking water. 

Poison-infested pipelines 

There are six water pumping stations for Karachi's over 20 million population. The people who live close to them, locally known as hydrants, often complain of a stench and pollution emanating from the attached pipelines. Last year the corpse of a dead dog was found inside one water reservoir, triggering a citywide outcry. 

Rizwan Haider, one of the spokespeople at Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB), a government-run authority, shared a strong disapproval of Karachiites, accusing them of lacking "civic sense" and showing "disloyalty" towards the state. 

"People have illegal connections to both sewerage and water lines," Haider told TRT World, adding that as people suck up the water using supplementary hand pumps, the pipelines dry out. And with reckless usage of hand pumps, he said, the pipelines develop leakages and sewage water seeps into them.  

"The equal and clean distribution of water is impossible with this level of corruption and disloyalty from the citizen's side," he said.

Karachi’s urban sprawl is another factor Haider holds accountable for the city's poor water condition. The intersection of the construction business and mafia, locally dubbed the ‘land mafia’, have led to a situation where a 1,000 people are living on a piece of land that can legally be inhabited by only 16-18 people.  “When a 1000 machines pull water, the pipelines start leaking. Sometimes they burst and the treated, drinkable water gets mixed with the sewage water,” Haider said. 

But Syed Mohsin Raza, General Secretary of the KWSB’s People’s Labor Union, has a different take. He said the government has lost control over its water policy because of the powerful mafia running illegal hydrants, which compromises both hygiene and supply.

Rusty water pipelines in the outskirts of Karachi.
Rusty water pipelines in the outskirts of Karachi. (Courtesy of: Syeda Sana Batool)

The fallout

According to a UNESCO report, 51 percent of public schools in Karachi have no access to drinking water and about 46 percent of them lack toilet facilities. 

“Show me one government school which does not have this issue [the water shortage]?” said Karim ul Islam, the headmaster at government-run Taqwa Model School in Qayyumabad, where Iqra lives. 

Islam said schools in Qayyumabad are financially weak and unable to maintain toilets, water and sanitation facilities. “I was recently sent to another school where the situation is far worse. I have not seen a government school with a proper toilet and water facility in my 25 years of career,” he said.

A Human Rights Watch report cites a lack of water and sanitation facilities in schools as one of the main barriers to girls’ education in Pakistan. 

“Our girls have to come home to use the toilet because schools here have contaminated water,” said Iqra's mother Hameeda, adding that boys usually urinate in the open.

Hisar Foundation's Simi Kamal said that it’s not just the added cost of buying water leading to girls being pulled out of school at a very early age. 

"The bigger reason is the lack of running water and sanitation facilities in schools especially required by girls after attaining puberty”, she said.

The 2015 Oslo summit on Educational and Development declared Pakistan as the worst-performing country in education. As per Pakistan’s education statistics 2017-18, at least 22.8 million children in Pakistan are out of school. The report states that nearly 10.7 million boys and 8.6 million girls are enrolled at the primary level and this drops to 3.6 million boys and 2.8 million girls at the lower secondary level. 

By grade six, according to Human Rights Watch, 59 percent of girls are out of school, versus 49 percent of boys. Only 13 percent of girls are still in school by grade nine. 

The combination of harsh economic circumstances and lack of hygiene facilities in schools has destroyed the future of tens of thousands of Pakistani girls. 

For any parent in the world, putting food on the table is the top priority. Likewise Iqra's parents are making sure that their children aren't going to bed hungry. 

In Iqra's mother Hameeda's words, education in Pakistan has become a "luxury" only a few can afford.

Source: TRT World