The skyway to disaster

THE WATERS may be calm, but the bridge has been certainly troubled. After 18 months and much controversy the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), approved the 17-km long, 50-feet high skyway, proposed by the Karachi Development Authority (KDA). The Sindh government also has passed the project following the Canadian report. The skyway will cover the length of the Lyari river which cuts through the congested old city and the port areas of Karachi. The expressway will zoom over the present bridges across the river and will be linked to the city road network at key intersections.

The project is not cheap and is expected to cost the city Pak Rs 3,500 million. But, city-based environmental groups allege the ecological cost of the project may be even higher. The Lyari bed and the open spaces on either side of it up to the flood mark, act as a lung for the inner city. High congestion and abnormally high levels of environmental degradation in the inner city are results of the expansion in storage and warehousing activity related to the port and wholesale markets and to the transport sector that serves them. Arif Hasan, an urban planner writes about the project, "The Lyari expressway project is a typical example of piecemeal planning that has, and still is, playing havoc with the city."

The purpose of the bridge is to provide a road link for freight and related traffic to the port and the wholesale markets in the inner city. But given the speed with which the city is growing even the expressway will not meet the traffic needs after 15-odd years.

Today, Karachi handles over 20 million tonnes of cargo annually and the volume of trade in the wholesale markets of the inner city has increased by 3,000 per cent since 1962. Lack on space for the growth of storage and warehousing has led to the entire residential neighbourhood being converted into godowns and workers quarters.

The main problem with the scheme is its lack of foresight. The expressway will not ease the situation as it does not provide access to another location where port-related and wholesale activity can be shifted or expanded.

Furthermore, in large areas on both sides of the Lyari river survive large informal settlements, industrial units and the local fish industry. Sorting and recycling of solid waste exists alongwith storage and warehousing. Densities are as high as 2,000 persons per acre and pollution levels well above bearable limits. Surveys have established that amnesia, vomiting, giddiness, hypertension, eczema, and various respiratory diseases, all related to the air and noise pollution, are common, with their occurrence increasing.

Yet the sewerage-filled Lyari bed is the only breathing space for the inner city. And the expressway ignores this potential of the Lyari corridor. The 50 feet-high motorway will in fact create a ribbon of pollution dwarfing the settlements on either side of the river bed. Hasan suggests as the future plans for disposing off the city's sewerage include laying of trunks in the river, after which the bed will become dry except during the rains, the entire 17-km stretch could be used to develop the city's green area. It could be turned into a large tree-filled open space which the city desperately needs. "Of course," he adds, "encroachments on this space will have to be prevented. But this the city authorities can do as we know that no encroachment takes place without the active involvement of the administration."

Instead of the expressway, the city needs to study alternatives which combine new rapid load links to satellite townships to take the pressure off the port and an additional bypass which draws traffic away from the city.

But the proposals have a snag. A letter in the Dawn points out that as the southern bypass suggested by Hasan goes through a small section of the prestigious Defence Housing Society it would be a "nuisance" for the rich and the famous who live there.