Course:GEOG352/2019/ Ecological Urbanism and Public Space in Karachi, Pakistan

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Geographical photo of Karachi, Pakistan

The interdependent relationship between humans and the environment is evident in the current age of the Anthropocene.[1] Ecological urbanism acknowledges this interdependence by advocating for environmentally and socially sustainable practices within the urban ecosystem, including public spaces.[2] Open to the public population, public spaces allow for social interactions to occur in the physical environment.[3] The connection between ecological urbanism and public space relates to the multifaceted nature of sustainability. These facets include the physical environment as well as the social and economic processes that connect people to urban space.

Considering the social impacts of environmental degradation is vital to fully understand the interdependence of humans and environments within cities. These issues are particularly pertinent in the context of textile industries in the production economy in the geographical global south.

“This is a story about clothing. It’s about the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world. The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically”[4]

The globalization of the neoliberal production economy has led many workforces in the global south and east to be exploited. Industry workers and the surrounding environments bear the consequences of the extractive colonial practices that remain today in the global north. Environmental impacts from the garment industry have direct impacts on garment workers’ health, because of environmental degradation and impacts on the urban population. These issues are applicable to textile production in Karachi, Pakistan. Contextualizing the textile industry into larger issues of Ecological Urbanism and Public Space is essential in highlighting the connection between urban cities and populations in the geographical south and east, to broader, global processes, through the supply chain. The overlapping, dialectical nature of environmental and social impacts is apparent in Karachi’s textile industry, with unsustainable production processes impacting workers’ environment, health and economic well-being.


6 Districts, 18 towns and 6 cantonments of Karachi. DISTRICT SOUTH: 1. Lyari Town, 2. Saddar Town, DISTRICT EAST: 3. Jamshed Town, 4. Gulshan Town, DISTRICT CENTRAL: 5. Liaquatabad Town, 6. North Nazimabad Town, 7. Gulberg Town, 8. New Karachi Town, DISTRICT WEST: 9. Kemari Town, 10. SITE Town, 11. Baldia Town, 12. Orangi Town, DISTRICT MALIR: 13. Malir Town, 14. Bin Qasim Town, 15. Gadap Town. DISTRICT KORANGI: 16. Korangi Town, 17. Landhi Town, 18. Shah Faisal Town, CANTONMENTS: A. Karachi Cantonment, B. Clifton Cantonment, C. Korangi Creek Cantonment, D. Faisal Cantonment, E. Malir Cantonment, F. Manora Cantonment.

Ecological Urbanism and Public Space

Ecological urbanism involves a more holistic approach to the development and analysis of cities, ensuring city-systems operate on an environmentally conscious and socially inclusive basis. Public spaces consist of indoor and outdoor spaces that are open to the public, including such things as roads, parks and beaches as well as formal and informal workplaces. Spaces have been structurally formed through power relations over time, creating socially and politically mediated access to spaces. Spaces that do not reflect the environmental and social principles of ecological urbanism, or the democratic, equalizing values of public spaces, can generate negative impacts for urban residents. These negative impacts extend beyond public and private spaces within the urban cityscape through environmental pollution and health issues. The overlapping nature of pollution and health risks relates to the multifaceted nature of sustainability. Sustainability corresponds not only to environmental considerations, but also to social and economic concerns of urban areas. The impacts that externalities, such as the environment have on the daily lives of society and the conditions of public spaces are intertwined with sustainability. Globalization continues to monopolize the worlds systems and threaten sustainability planning for public space. Spaces are becoming more ‘shared’ than ever before as borders are blurred and economies become reliant on each other, forcing some to be exploited for the benefit of others. This process perpetuates marginalization. This brings to light that impacts from decisions made in one locality have far reaching impacts on other communities as global connections continue to persist.

             Considerations for ecological urbanism and public space in the context of the textile industry is critical in the current era of global mass consumption. Multinational corporations that outsource labour have created grounds for socially and environmentally exploitative working conditions for urban residents in the geographic global south and east. These issues are pertinent in the urban context of Karachi, with export-production making up a substantial sector of the city’s economy.[5] The largest export sector in Karachi consists of the textile industry.[5] This industry employs many of the city’s urban residents, threatening their health and environment, both locally and globally.

These ecological and social issues persist not only locally and nationally, but globally through the supply chain. Spatial agglomerations of industries contribute to international commodity flows through competition and collaboration.[6] Intense competition can lead to companies bidding down the cost of production to unrealistic numbers, and offset costs by reducing working condition standards to meet the agreement. The industry has a net worth of US $1 trillion[6], and is coupled with heavy wastewater and air pollution. Global atmospheric wind circulation distributes localized air pollution throughout the world. Manufacturing alone contributes to approximately 20% of global freshwater pollution.[7] Negative social impacts are experienced due to the prioritization of capital growth in the textile industry. These impacts include unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Health risks have increased through improper waste disposal, occupational illness and wage-theft.[8] Subcontracting and production sharing has been internationally widespread since the late 1970s, as low skill and low wage work are avenues of exploitation to generate highly profitable competitive advantages for the industry.[6]

Case Study

Garment workers making shirts at a factory in Karachi, Pakistan

The Textile Industry in Karachi, Pakistan

Karachi is among Pakistan’s most developed industrial zones and the central location for textile production.[5] [9] Fast fashion retailers in the global north, including Target, Wal-Mart and Jessie Penny, outsource garments produced in Pakistan.[5] Pakistan's textile industry must adhere to supply demands by meeting quantity and quality standards assigned by these multinational corporations to maintain competitiveness in the international supply chain. Unsustainable processes in textile production occur as a result, in terms of long work hours, intensive water-use, wastewater generation and air-pollution that result in illnesses for urban residents and industry workers.[9]

Environmental Effects

As the commercial center for the textile industry, Karachi’s urban landscape is severely impacted by the industry’s negative environmental externalities. Karachi relies on wastewater for irrigation due to its aridity, but the majority of wastewater is left untreated because of high costs.[10] Closer analysis of the wastewater from the textile industry has found that metal ions were tested to be “above the recommended NEQS,” (National Environmental Quality Standards), studies have concluded that textile effluents are highly polluted.[11] Immediate effects may be difficult to predict, as more fatal consequences could be experienced over time.[9] Wastewater mixes into marine environments through open water channels and contributes to the high levels of metal ions being transmitted into marine ecosystems.[9] Livelihoods that are dependent on such water sources for food, water and cleaning are directly affected.

Wastewater entering a water channel

Karachi is one of the most polluted areas in South Asia in terms of air quality where it is continuously deteriorating at a high pace. It is recognized “as a serious problem by the Government and various other organizations.”[12] Many studies have found “current levels of PM, SO2, NO 2, CO, and Pb to be much higher than World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines.”[12] The city’s rate of particulate matter emissions per day is 75μgm−3,[13] placing Karachi as the third highest in the world. This measurement drastically exceeds WHO guidelines of 25μgm−3.[13] The Air Quality Index (AQI) states that industrial areas of Karachi are either just below moderate pollution levels or had unhealthy pollution levels.[14] The multi-pollutant index (MPI), which accounts for three WHO criteria pollutants, including total suspended particulate (TSP), found Karachi to be the fourth most polluted city in the world. When looking at TSP as an indicator alone, Karachi “appeared as the most polluted city in the world.” [12] High particulate matter pollution or deteriorating air quality was found consistently across Karachi due to industrial sources.[14]

Social and Economic Effects

A garment factory in Karachi. Textile revenues account for 9% of Pakistan’s GDP, but the industry also consumes almost 70% of the country’s industrial water.

The textile industry processes in Karachi directly impact urban environmental systems and human health. Among the urban residents impacted, factory workers are most at risk. Power relations dictate the decisions and ultimately the consequences that directly impact marginalized urban dwellers.

Occupational diseases, such as air-pollution related respiratory illnesses, and environmental illnesses, such as wastewater-contaminated drinking water, are particularly prevalent in connection to Karachi’s textile industry.[15] Approximately 20% of wastewater generated in cities is treated, while the remainder is discharged into the Karachi harbor and coastal waters without treatment.[16] Improperly treated wastewater directly threatens the health of workers who depend on local water sources for their daily lives. Due to chemicals used in the textile industry, improper treatment of wastewater can cause “cancer, tumors, and brain diseases” if consumed by humans.[9] Many workers also face the burden of respiratory illnesses due to the working conditions comprising of long work days in a polluted environment.[15] In a study which measured the Risk of Mortality due to Air Pollution (Ri-MAP) caused by TSP in the air, Karachi measured the highest Ri-MAP and very high TSP.[17] Respiratory symptoms include “cough, phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, chronic bronchitis, and byssinosis… common among workers exposed to cotton dust.”[18] These health impacts compound the already socially exploitative working conditions in place, in terms of unpaid overtime labour and wage-theft.[5] Studies have shown those working longer hours and overtime shifts are at a significantly higher risk of developing respiratory diseases due to their extended exposure to poor air quality.[19] The costs of treating respiratory illnesses sourced from air pollution come out-of-pocket for workers within the textile industry. Check up fees and prices of medication can drain workers’ already low wages, take time away from work, and further threaten workers’ income generation capacities.[19] For a large fraction of the textile industry’s workforce, treatment costs are kept generally low through social security hospitals, however, this is not a solution to the root of the problem.[19]

Response From Urban Population

Karachi’s working poor face severe consequences of economic liberalization. More people have to join the labour market to support their families, especially within the informal economy.[20] The informal economy consists of a large sector of the garment industry where workers are employed through subcontractors. Workers are paid based on piece-by-piece rates instead of being paid based on a regular salary. Informal wages can be 75% lower than formal rates. Subcontracted workers have less direct regulation and little protection for their rights over health and safety. Factory garment workers ultimately have weaker participation in collective bargaining as their labour could easily be replaced.[21]

Workers in Karachi have participated in their own forms of emergent politics to work against such conditions. The All Karachi Hosiery and Garment Labour Association is an example of a grassroots solution created by the workers. Alternative collective solutions were needed, as unionization among garment industry workers have been violently suppressed by state functionaries and by factory management.[20] These are viable solutions as workers who work in different factories live in the same neighborhoods, allowing for more discussion pertaining to working conditions and to develop solutions to deal with these problems. With respect to urban solutions to health and safety, a case study carried out in 18 textile mills in the Faisalabad and Lahore districts in Pakistan demonstrated that social security hospitals in close proximity facilitated treatment for the workers.[19] They supply low cost treatment to the workers. Treatment cost specifically includes the wages lost to seek treatment and also the cost of lost productivity to the textile firm.

Karachi’s Textile Industry, Ecological Urbanism and Public Space

Environmental resource demands paired with intensive labour practices, medical ailments and financial challenges for workers have led to unsustainable conditions environmentally, socially and economically. The unsustainable nature of Karachi’s textile production process does not align with the cohesive framework of Ecological Urbanism or the democratic ideals characteristic of open, equal and safe access to public spaces.

Lessons Learned

Ecological urbanism and public space are important themes to consider in regards to the textile industry in Karachi, Pakistan. These themes taught us that many stakeholders are involved in the production process, as the local industry is heavily integrated into the international economy. It should be noted that the degree of formality is highly correlated to increased empowerment and livelihood enhancement.[21] Our suggestion is to formalize and recognize the work in the textile industry, as this would help narrow gaps of social and ecological inequity, and empower workers through trade. Formalization could emphasize the importance of social sustainability. This could be completed by increasing access to free social security hospitals, and also implementing higher standards of occupational health and safety.[19] Our ideals of formalization of Karachi’s textile industry includes institutionalizing legal regulations for factory owners in the form of working condition standards, working hour time limits, and health check-ups for workers. Formalization may create positive change, as local environmental and social concerns, such as air and water pollution, correlate with the growth of the international economy growth in the global north. We should recognize that such changes are interdependent. From our position, we should also recognize the rights of marginalized workers in the global south through our consumption behaviours towards the biggest fast fashion corporations in the global north. This could fundamentally shift economies in the global south. That being said, this is difficult as we will need to pursue sustainable consumption solutions in which do not directly affect the day to day livelihoods of the workers in Karachi, Pakistan. Without supporting their jobs to feed their families and to empower  minorities, this will be unsustainable for global south populations as well. Therefore, improvements must be made to the current industry. Further research would be beneficial to connect these dots across nations to understand the impacts that cross borders. Increased research, especially ethnographic work situated in the urban context, is needed to help find clothing consumption solutions that are economically viable to those in the global north as well as socially and ecologically sustainable for those in the global south. Solutions should involve grassroots initiatives and policies in the fast fashion industry at the global scale. By situating larger processes of textile production within the localized environmental and social contexts of Karachi, and applying the frameworks of ecological urbanism and public space, we have contributed to understandings of the global south theory, and hope to inspire further situated research to address unique issues related to urban environments and cities in the geographic global south.

Reference List

  1. "Anthropocene". Wikipedia. April 8, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  2. "Ecological urbanism". Wikipedia. April 8, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  3. "Public space". Wikipedia. April 8, 2019. Retrieved April 8, 2019.
  4. Ross, Michael. (2015). The True Cost [Film]. United States.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Faraz, M., Shamsi, A. F., & Bashir, R. (2014). "Working off the clock and its impact". Journal of Business Ethics,. 122(3): 395–403 – via JSTOR.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Imtiazuddin, S.M.,Majid Mumtaz and Khalil A. Mallick. (2012). "Pollutants of Wastewater Characteristics in Textile Industries" (PDF). Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences. 8: 554–556 – via Life Science Global.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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