What happens when one of the world's mega-cities suffers a mega-breakdown in basic services?
The answer: It slowly rebuilds itself, using the good deeds of common people.
Karachi, Pakistan's business center and a city that will soon overtake New York in population, has had its share of problems. Last year, ethnic violence in this city of 12 million claimed more than 2,000 lives. On the surface, much of that trouble was triggered by strife between the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), an immigrant-based party that represents almost 60 percent of the city's population.
But Karachi's problems don't just stem from ethnic violence, they are also due to a widespread breakdown in the city's social services, growing poverty, dramatic population growth, and rising joblessness.
Many neighborhoods, for example, are without water even though supply lines have been set up. The city's "water mafia," the large water-trucking business that delivers water to homes, makes certain that the pipelines in many neighborhoods are never connected to water supplies. Municipal workers who have dared to restore the water lines in poorer neighborhoods have been threatened at gunpoint and forced to back off.
The violence that has brought the city close to civil war at times, senior government officials say, also is fueled partly by the large number of unemployed young men, who are easy recruits for the MQM. The MQM denies it is the problem. The party, which represents Urdu-speaking people who moved to Pakistan when it was partitioned from India in 1947, has demanded greater political representation and jobs for its people.
"Because there is so much urban overcrowding, they [poorer people] end up living in shanties, and there is no proper sanitation, electricity, roads. What eventually happens is that [the neighborhoods] end up becoming ghettos.... Inevitably drugs and guns move in," says Quatrina Hossein, a prominent Karachi-based journalist.
But in one of Karachi's poorest neighborhoods, Orangi, a development project is helping residents carve out better lives.
THE Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), the city's most successful urban development program, began 18 years ago. The project is now used as a model by international planners to demonstrate that urban development can take place even when there's little money.
The OPP's entire annual budget is just under $150,000, but it serves a population of more than 1 million. The staff of OPP works on very modest salaries. Expenses have been kept much lower than in government-run development programs.
At the Eurasia Public School in Orangi, principal Moeen-ud-Din Siddiqui is eager to show visitors his school's new computer lab.
For the school's 900 students, who had never seen or used computers before, the arrival of the first 12 machines was much anticipated. "The OPP helped me to expand the school and add new facilities. Without the OPP this would have been impossible," Mr. Siddiqui says.
The OPP first helped the school plan the construction of newer classrooms using low-cost construction material. They then loaned the school money for the purchase of books and computers.
Elsewhere in Orangi, private clinics have been set up to provide low-cost medical care, people have laid down sewerage lines to replace open drains, and new roads have been built.
However, what has happened in Orangi is not yet true of the rest of Karachi.
Tasneem Siddiqui, an architect who heads the government's slum-area development authority in Karachi, says 60 percent of the population of Karachi lives in squatter settlements without any services. "They are planned areas, but the infrastructure has broken down. There is lack of sewerage. There is lack of water supply, and people are facing tremendous difficulties," he acknowledges.
The government says a lack of funds hampers its ability to revitalize essential services in cities like Karachi. "The disappointment is that we were not able to plug more money into the cities as we would have liked," said Prime Minister Bhutto in an interview earlier this year.
But critics charge that the cost of urban development could be significantly reduced if the local population is encouraged to become involved and if the government encouraged the use of low-cost construction materials.
Parveen Rehman, director of research and training at OPP, explains that her organization's strategy is to make "the people see that they have the resources and make them realize that 'Look, you just cannot wait for the government. That is reality. You'll have to do something yourself.' "
Karachi's urban problems have also mounted because of the absence of locally elected grass-roots leaders. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, the city's municipal body, was dissolved five years ago and local affairs were handed over to government administrators.
Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi businessman who heads Security and Management Services, the city's largest privately run security agency, says, "Without any delays they [the government] must have local elections because there is a leadership vacuum at the grass-roots level." He adds that "it's very necessary that you bring mature people through the democratic process who can come and become leaders of their local areas. And these people should combine together and bring in initiatives to fix their local problems."
As Karachi's breakdown continues, alarm bells are ringing concerning the future of the city, which has experienced rapid and unplanned population growth. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, by 2015 Karachi will be the world's seventh-largest city, with more than 20 million people.
That would make Karachi more crowded than New York or Beijing today. Pakistan as a whole has an annual population growth rate of more than 3 percent, making it one of the world's fastest-growing countries. Government efforts to reduce the population-growth rate so far have shown few results.