For Karachi's Water Mafia, Stolen H2O Is A 'Lucrative Business' : Goats and Soda In Pakistan's port city, gangs siphon off water from government pipes and resell it to residents. Surprisingly, the municipal water board is now partnering with the mafia to distribute it.

For Karachi's Water Mafia, Stolen H2O Is A 'Lucrative Business'

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All this week, we'll be looking into drinking water around the world - who has access to it, who doesn't and the forces that separate the haves from the have-nots. Pakistan has one of the worst water situations in the world. There just isn't enough to go around. And in Karachi, a city with more than 16 million people, gangs control much of the water supply. They deliver dirty or drinkable water depending on the price you're able to pay. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.


DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In this noisy Karachi slum, no water flows from the taps, so they call men like Mohammad Zubair. Pakistanis describe men like him as drivers who belong to a water tanker mafia. His truck inches up an alley.


HADID: Zubair says he's providing a service.

MOHAMMAD ZUBAIR: (Through interpreter) There's no water in the pipes. We have to do this.


HADID: But given how narrow most slum alleys are, residents have to get creative. One man delivers water from a tanker perched to his donkey cart. Men latch jerry cans to their motorbikes and fill them up at water stations, like gas stations but for water. They dot the slum.


HADID: Families here have to fill up on water several times a day. It's tiring work, and it often falls on the shoulders of kids, like Shabina.

SHABINA: Shabina.



HADID: She stands on her tippy-toes to grab a water hose. She fills up two jerry cans and pushes them home on a wheelbarrow.

RAJA AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Residents like Raja Akhtar say years ago, they used to have running water. He says Mafias tapped their pipes, and their supplies dried up.

R. AKHTAR: (Through interpreter) Mafia people steal the water and sell it.

HADID: And the mafias sell it at different prices depending on the water's quality. The government's water's considered the cleanest, so it fetches the highest price - about $150 a month. Akhtar can't afford that. It's more than his monthly salary as a security guard. So he buys cheaper brackish water. It's about 20 bucks a month.

SANAA BAXAMOOSA: It's a lucrative business (laughter).

HADID: Sanaa Baxamoosa is the general manager at Hisaar Foundation. It's a nonprofit that works on water issues. She says this has gone on for years.

BAXAMOOSA: So that's really how there's a business or a mafia being created around water.

HADID: This business exists because Karachi's water supply barely covers half the city's needs. So to understand how the system works, we met Saghir Ahmed in a cafe.

SAGHIR AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: He's one of those drivers who Pakistanis see as part of the water mafia. And Ahmed says the mafia is way bigger than just the drivers.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: Ahmed alleges everyone's involved - officials from the Karachi water board, the cops and the people who own the land where the drivers like him tap the water pipes. They're called the landlords. He says he bribed them all to fill up his tanker.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) The water board, police and landlord - these three - they benefit. They take all the money.

HADID: But Karachi's water crisis got so bad that about a year ago, a judicial commission was formed to investigate it. Soon after, the water board stopped a lot of the illegal siphoning. And Baxamoosa, the activist, says they tried to entice the mafias to work legally.

BAXAMOOSA: They've partnered with them, and they're using these tankers now as their distributors.

HADID: And two water officials who spoke to us on condition of anonymity confirmed this. They said tanker mafia drivers could fill up from legitimate government water sources but on one condition. They'd have to distribute about half the water at cheaper government rates. They're free to sell the rest.


HADID: But back in the slum, they still don't get government supplies. And they can't afford the Mafia's prices for that better-quality water. Raja Akhtar, the security guard we met before - he invites us to his house for tea. His wife, Imtiyaz, shows me where she boils the water.

This is boiled water. Are you boiling...

IMTIYAZ AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: (Laughter).

It's for cooking and, she says, the tea that she's making for us. She says she's got terrible stomach pain. They're not sure if it's the dirty water they're forced to buy, but they say it makes a lot of people here sick. Whatever the cause, she can't afford decent medical care because all their spare money is spent on water. Her husband says it's a vicious cycle that will only be broken once they have piped water.

R. AKHTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: "Our lives would be so much easier," he says, "and we'd no longer face this problem." Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi.

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