A $100 million project was meant to protect Karachi slumdwellers from flooding, but instead made many homeless before work stalled

When it was announced, the World Bank’s Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Project (Sweep) was touted as one of the lifelines that would help Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, with its urban flooding nightmare. But that hasn’t happened.

Flooding returned stronger every year since, upending the city in both 2021 and 2022. “We never know what kind of damage to expect when it rains,” said Razia Sunny, who lives by one of Karachi’s nullahs – narrow channels that drain wastewater from the city to the sea.

“Residents here have gotten sick because of the waste flooding into our homes during urban flooding, we’ve even had people slip and fall [into the nullahs],” Imran Gill, another resident of the informal settlement, told Climate Home News.

Since 2017, the World Bank has poured millions of dollars into Karachi. The city, population 16 million, is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. But come monsoon season much of the city is submerged – not least during the extreme flooding of 2022.

A major problem is trash clogging the nullahs, so stormwater overflows. Sweep was supposed to help by improving solid waste management, but two years into the five-year project, there is no sign of progress. Less than 3% of its $100 million budget has been spent, and none of it on new infrastructure.

Slum clearance

Project officials took the promise of funding as a cue to clear slums alongside the waterways. The provincial authority demolished thousands of homes without, residents say, any consultation or plan to find them somewhere else to live.

Climate Home reviewed dozens of official documents, interviewed officials inside the projects and visited the sites affected by flooding. In the sites near Karachi’s sewage infrastructure, Climate Home found several cases where residents of informal housing got injured or even died during extreme floods in 2020 and 2022.

When human rights organisations raised concerns about the demolitions, the World Bank distanced itself from the project.

The Sweep project should have executed millions of US dollars (green line) by 2022, but the actual disbursed amount (in blue) was much lower (Photo: World Bank Implementation Status & Results Report Dec. 2022)

Government officials insist things are not going too badly. “We’re only delayed by three or fourth months,” Sweep director Zubair Channa said.

The World Bank seemingly agrees: its project reports in March 2021 and November 2021 declared progress “satisfactory”, even though no work had been completed on the ground. This rating changed to “moderately satisfactory” for both the June 2022 and December 2022 reports, after further inaction.

In response to Climate Home’s request for comment, the World Bank defended the project and said the consultacy was “fairly advanced and expected to deliver their outputs soon”.

“Based on the current schedule, we expect the construction of the waste disposal facility and transfer stations to commence in early 2023,” said the bank’s press office.

A nullah in Pakistan surrounded by informal settlements typically affected by flooding

Karachi’s nullahs carry waste from the city to the sea, and are often surrounded by informal settlements. (Photo: Shakeel Afridi)

This is a climate adaptation issue. Global heating “likely increased” the intensity of monsoon rains in 2022, when flooding hit 33 million people across the country, an international group of scientists found. More extreme events are expected under a 2C warming scenario.

The money trail

So what has happened to the promised funding? The money comes in the form of loans to the provincial government of Sindh.

Among a few feasibility studies and some operational costs, documents show the authorities have so far spent $91,891 (which at the time was converted to almost PKR 16 million) on furniture. An official source associated with Sweep, who asked not to be named, said the number was too high and seemed out of place.

A report of operational costs by the Sweep project shows more than $91,000 spent on furniture. (Photo: Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Project – Procurement Plan by Zubair Ahmed Channa)

“We’re a poor country; we can’t afford to spend like this on operational costs, not when that money will be paid back by citizens who already can’t afford it,” said architect and urban planner Dr Noman Ahmed, chairperson of Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University Karachi.

The Sindh Government’s procurement plan earmarks $8 million for equipment ranging from bins to waste collection vehicles. Another $30 million is destined for implementation “works”. This money has yet to be disbursed.

On all aspects of these expenses, bank oversight is meant to come once the project is concluded. Yet related projects raise red flags.

In November, the Sindh High Court barred the provincial government from awarding any more contracts under the World Bank’s Competitive and Liveable City of Karachi (Click) project, citing a lack of transparency over where the money was going.

Fahad Saeed, South Asia and Middle East lead at the policy NGO Climate Analytics, said: “Pakistan needs to do some introspection as to why they were unable to tap into the funds that were available. Was their own house in order to access these funds?”

In 2021, the world’s governments agreed at COP26 to double the amount of international adaptation finance by 2025, which stands at around $20 billion per year.

Why does Karachi flood?

Decades of neglect in Karachi’s sewage and waste disposal systems created the perfect recipe for flooding in the city. Every year, come monsoon season, the city’s debilitated drainage system clogs and water overflows.

More than 6 million people in Karachi live in informal settlements, many of which have encroached the city’s nullahs – the riverbeds that carry waste from one end of the city all the way to the sea.

These populations are the first victims of urban flooding, and also major contributors to the problem.

Residents of Karachi have been affected by flooding near the city's river basins.

Gujjar nullah residents use a community-funded makeshift bridge to get around. The bridge can be torn down at any time by authorities. (Photo: Shakeel Afridi)

“In 2019, when the Sindh Government took the issue to the World Bank, we realised that there was a serious requirement to clean the nullahs once or twice a year,” Sweep director Channa told Climate Home News.

After bad urban flooding in 2020, the Sindh Government reached out to the World Bank to speed up the cleaning of nullahs. “We asked to be allowed to work and they agreed, so despite Sweep not having been signed yet work began, and we were to get the money back through retroactive funding,” Channa said.

The World Bank announced the decision to finance these efforts in December 2020, saying they would “improve solid waste management services in Karachi” and “upgrade critical solid waste infrastructure”. This would help to reduce floods “especially in vulnerable communities around drainage and waste collection sites.”

The reality on the ground was different.

Destroyed homes

Instead of protecting the vulnerable, the provincial authorities started by bulldozing homes that had been built without planning permission.

The World Bank denied responsibility. “There were meetings between civilians and WB officials, who claimed to us that they had never sanctioned any encroachment removal,” Zahid Farooq, senior manager at Karachi’s Urban Resource Centre, told Climate Home.

The World Bank’s press office told Climate Home their projects “will be prohibited from financing any future investments on the affected nullahs. Sweep will not retroactively or prospectively finance any nullah cleaning works, or any studies related to the nullahs.”

Then, in 2022, extreme flooding hit informal settlements the hardest, turning the water filled area around the nullahs into quicksand, according to resident Imran Gill. “No one has ever died because of the nullahs before all this construction took place. And yet, the area has now seen several people lose their lives.”

Bhutta Masih died in flooding this year when the ground beneath his feet went out. He leaves behind five children and his widow, Parveen. His youngest son helped pull his father’s body out with ropes and has found it difficult to recover from the trauma.

“He used to have a job but lost it. He hasn’t been okay mentally since that day. We can’t afford this,” Parveen said.

A resident of Karachi near the informal settlements affected by floods.

Bhutta Masih’s widow Parveen stands next to the barricades that were added after his
death (Photo: Shakeel Afridi)

Owners of the broken homes are not permitted to rebuild what remains of their homes – even by hanging curtains.

But some have nowhere else to go. Ruksana and Sadayat, a couple in their 80s who have lived most of their lives on the nullahs, used broken bricks they found to do some repair work.

“We know they can break this down, but we have no other choice but to rebuild it. We can’t afford the rent [elsewhere], and when they come to tear it down, they will tear it down. What can we do?” Ruksana asked.

Sweep’s future

Despite all its troubles, Sweep director Channa told Climate Home that Karachi’s flooding wasn’t as bad as previous years.

Urban planning expert Ahmed said this was “completely untrue” and infrastructure under the WB’s Competitive and Livable City of Karachi (Click) project had caused flooding to worsen.

“They’ve done improvement projects, for example, the green belts, which themselves created bottlenecks,” he said. “It seems that this was nothing more than an emergency cleaning effort with no long-term thought process for solutions. When the WB is intervening with such a large portfolio, why aren’t they providing a plan to help the people who are being displaced?

An elder couple sitting in a couch in an informal settlement near Pakistan's nullahs

Ruksana and Sadayat sit in what used to be their living room (Photo: Shakeel Afridi)

Lawyer and activist Abira Ashfaq has worked with the affected communities. She said the World Bank failed to use its influence on the Sindh government to help people living on the nullahs.

“We filed a complaint with the WB, and they deemed our case eligible. We held five meetings with WB officials and with the stakeholders,” she recalled. “Nevertheless, they distanced themselves and said their project was only meant to address waste disposal, and they eventually dismissed our complaints, claiming no responsibility,” she said.

The result of this interaction was that the nullah cleaning work was once again thrown back to the Sindh government, which has now handed it over to the Frontier Works Organization (FWO), the engineering wing of the Pakistan Army.

For now, residents can expect little more in the way of flood aid than tarpaulins from local NGOs to cover their damaged homes. They rely on each other and wait for the next flood.



Luavut Zahid



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