Pakistan: Heavy rains threaten squatter settlements

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

LAHORE, 13 July (IRIN) - Ten-year-old Iqra and her younger sister, Rida, stood quietly beside a large pile of mud and rubble in one of Lahore's 130 shantytown settlements, locally known as 'katchi abadis'. Moments earlier their simple mud-brick home had literally collapsed in front of them following a sudden cloudburst, burying what few possessions they had under a giant slab of still shifting clay.

"My doll is under there," six-year-old Rida, cried. "It's the only one I have."

But the family is fortunate no one was killed in this particular roof collapse. Iqra and Rida's father Younis, a day labourer, believes he will be able to recover what lies buried in the ruins of their home - perhaps even Rida's lost doll.

In other areas of this populous eastern Pakistani city, at least seven people lost their lives in similar roof collapses after torrential rainstorms. With few alternatives, Younis and his family must now go to live with his brother which will mean 12 people sharing three small rooms for months or perhaps even years.

Such incidents are not uncommon in the low-income 'katchi abadis' because in Pakistan an estimated 35 percent of the population lives in such communities. In Lahore alone between 2 and 3 million people live in these squatter settlements. Over the past 3 years, under a 1985 law, ownership rights to the land on which they live were granted by the Punjab government to 25,000 residents of 95 abadis.

Others, however, were less fortunate. Thousands of people were evicted from their homes in 2001 and 2003 because they were on land owned by the country's national railway. Three years on, many of those evicted remain without shelter, adding to a homeless population of at least 50,000 in the city.

According to Lahore district Nazim (mayor) Mian Amer Mehmood, the remaining katchi abadi dwellers also have land rights under the 1985 law. This would include those who had not been granted housing rights because they lived mainly in settlements that did not exist in 1985 and were therefore seemingly not covered by the law. Other components of the same law including the provision of basic amenities to the shanty towns, including sanitation, power, gas, sewage lines and drinking water, remain unenforced. Only a tiny minority of katchi abadi dwellers enjoy access to basic utilities.

"Such basic facilities do not exist in at least 70 percent of the katchi abadis in the country," a spokesman at the Karachi-based Urban Resource Centre explained.

With further rains threatening, the question of the safety of houses has intensified. Early in 2005, Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi had pledged that the government would help repair unsafe structures, identifying hundreds of dangerously dilapidated buildings throughout the city. The promise of repair work has yet to be realised. Most people continue to live in houses built from mud, straw, wood and unbaked bricks which are particularly vulnerable to collapse especially during heavy rains.

"It is a primary responsibility of the state to provide reasonable shelter to its citizens," I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN. "Just one day of rain has exposed the claims that housing conditions have been improved."

According to the HCRP, safe housing must be accepted as a basic right, despite the fact that recent rains have turned almost all 'katchi abadis' and also many other areas of the city, into giant piles of mud and pools of stagnant water where mosquitoes breed. Inadequate sewerage systems, where they exist, overflow and often contaminate local drinking-water supplies.

An epidemic of cholera has affected thousands in the lower income areas of Lahore over the past two weeks and caused at least 10 deaths, mainly of small children. The outbreak is blamed by residents of the affected areas, by doctors treating them at emergency medical camps and by the media, on contaminated drinking water. The local health authorities have denied that this is the case.

"The tests on the water samples are not conclusive," Mian Amer Mehmood said when asked by IRIN.

Even beyond the shantytowns, few residents of the city need scientific evidence that civic facilities, particularly during the monsoon season, do not meet even the most basic standards. Over the past week the streets of the city have filled with water, gutters have cascaded their content onto roads and mains supplied drinking water tested by consumers has been found repeatedly to contain bacteria or rusty sediments.

The problems are most acute for those with families like Younis. Alongside his wife, he earns just a few dollars a day and must now scrape together enough money to rebuild his home. Somehow he must once again attempt to raise a structure without using cement or baked bricks because they are materials priced well beyond his reach.

Yet once their dwelling is rebuilt, most probably after this year's rains are over, they can only hope that it doesn't pour down again to destroy their home. At least 100 people in the Punjab this year have already lost their lives, their dreams, and their possessions under thick layers of mud, earth and brick.


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