Plague of Flies Infests Pakistan's Karachi: ‘The City Stinks, Hard to Breathe’

Residents of the seaside Pakistani city wade through clouds of flies following a perfect storm of circumstances, including extreme monsoon weather probably driven by climate change

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People wading through a flooded street after a heavy rainfall in Karachi, Pakistan, July 30, 2019.
People wading through a flooded street after a heavy rainfall in Karachi, Pakistan, July 30, 2019. Credit: Fareed Khan,AP

Karachi is covered in flies. A perfect storm of circumstances produced a plague of practically biblical proportions in this seaside city in Pakistan: rain, inadequate garbage and offal disposal, floating sewage, steaming heat, governmental incompetence, the timing of the sacrificial festival Eid al-Adha — and more rain.

In the streets, Karachiites walk through clouds of flies. But the worst is when they sit down and the insects descend. “You spend half your time just shooing them away,” says K. (who spoke on condition of anonymity). “If your car window is open, they fly in. If you’re having a cup of tea, don’t leave the sugar out. In fact, don’t leave out any food of any kind.”

As a sprawling city in a temperate climate with inadequate-to-nonexistent waste treatment, Karachi has a perennial pest problem. It isn’t unusual for flies to proliferate following Eid al-Adha. “But usually it ends after a week,” K. says. This time it isn’t some population bump, it’s an explosion, and solutions are not obvious.

Dr. Seemin Jamali of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center told the New York Times it was the worst fly infestation she had ever seen. “It’s not just affecting the life of the common man — they’re so scary, they’re hounding people,” she said.

Trifecta of trouble

Karachi is home to over 15.5 million people and treats only a small fraction of its sewage. In 2018, local newspaper The Express Tribune wailed that while Istanbul gained control of its sewage treatment problem, Karachi took the other path. It basically gave up on fixing the problem and shunts sewage into the sea. Garbage collection is handled by local authorities, but they are at loggerheads, say local sources, and only a small fraction is handled.

The upshot is piles of garbage, a fetid sea and, given the ideal conditions for the common fly, a modern-day plague.

Climate change is altering weather patterns around the world, including the patterns of the monsoon. But locals are less concerned about the worldwide phenomenon of global warming and more concerned with local incompetence, says K.

The trouble with flies began with the heaviest August rains Karachi has experienced in decades. “And as the sun rose after the rain — so did the flies,” says K. But that was just the start.

Almost all the rain in Karachi falls from mid-June to mid-September, averaging about 190 millimeters (7.5 inches). Rainfall in July averages 80-85 millimeters, and in August about 40-60 millimeters.

Credit: Fareed Khan,AP

This year, a torrential rain began on July 29. It continued for three days, in which time 66 millimeters of rain fell on the city. A second spell began on August 12, adding 200 more millimeters. The city’s drainage system was hopelessly overwhelmed — not least because it was clogged with trash.

‘It’s hard to breathe’

On August 4, as the city factions squabbled, Ali Zaidi, federal minister of maritime affairs and a Karachiite in origin, stepped up to spearhead a citywide garbage cleanup, working not as a representative of federal government but on a volunteer basis. Absent federal funds for his “Clean Karachi” mission, he asked the people of Karachi to volunteer for the labor.

However well he meant, Zaidi’s efforts did not pan out well. “It just aggravated the situation,” K. says.

Acting in what turned out to be a hiatus between storms, the cleanup crews removed sludge clogging the drains and dumped it on the streets and the ground to dry out for transportation onward. But then “nature conspired against the city and it rained again — just flooded everything: the sludge in the streets and ground and even the presidential buildings flooded. It went everywhere,” says K.

Those were the conditions under which the sacrificial festival was marked, which resulted in unordered mass animal waste disposal. “Take the sludge and the rain and the offal: the three combined to create a very warm bed for flies. The city stinks,” K. adds. “It’s hard to breathe.”

The common fly is indigenous to Asia, though it is now found worldwide. It thrives on a diet of sewage and garbage. Under suitable, warm conditions, it can reach maturity and reproduce in a week. A female may lay up to 500 eggs in three to four days and, crucially, a moist environment is crucial for their larvae to hatch. That accomplished, the life span of the common fly may be as long as 25 days. Their role in the propagation of disease was first reported in 1898.

More news show: Flies on KarachiCredit: Ary News, Pakistan, Youtube

Last Tuesday, Sindh province Health Minister Dr. Azra Fazal Pechuho, promised that Karachi’s flies and mosquitoes would be handled by citywide fumigation, meaning toxic pesticide.

Unfortunately, the Karachi municipality itself admitted it has only 40 fumigation vehicles per district. (The city has six districts.) “It is extremely insufficient. There is no impact. It’s peanuts, lip service,” K. says.

On Wednesday, the province’s chief minister, Murad Ali Shah, charged that the “federal government” took control of garbage collection in Karachi, only to pick up trash accumulated in the drainage system and dump it on the roadside instead of transporting it to landfills. The same day, the political squabble took another turn when Mustafa Kamal — the “garbage czar” appointed by Mayor Wasim Akhtar and a former mayor himself — was suspended within hours, ostensibly for political posturing, Geo TV reported.

Mosquitoes also proliferate in hot, wet weather, but their numbers seem roughly normal — and anyway, they pester their victims on schedule, not 24/7. “There are no mosquitoes in the afternoon, but there are flies in the light, in the dark, in the cold, in the rain, without rain, in the sun, everywhere,” K. says.

How are people coping? “They adopt different methods,” he reports. “Some burn neem tree leaves, or simply shut their doors and windows. Some try fumigation and clean the floors with disinfectant. You can’t leave food unattended or uncovered.” And they’re swatting at the flies with whatever comes to hand. Geo TV even suggested “seven quick DIY methods to rid your house of flies.”

Credit: AFP

What is the forecast for the flies? There isn’t one. The authorities haven’t issued any forward-looking statements about the infestation. Meanwhile, while the local and provincial governments trade accusations of incompetence, some residents haven’t lost their sense of humor.

‘Spray like crazy’

Miserable as fumigation is as a solution, for any number of reasons, nobody seems to have better ideas. BioBee, an Israeli company that exports irradiated fruit flies to Eastern Europe in order to control drosophila populations there, says it doesn’t deal with the common fly.

Even if it did, releasing “fixed” flies over Karachi wouldn’t work. Academics Haaretz consulted counted the reasons: The process of isolating male flies is inefficient; the process of neutering them is inefficient; one needs to inundate the target area with the sterilized flies because the local females will mate with whoever is nearest, so the local male fly population must be fundamentally overwhelmed for the whole idea to work at all. That is inefficient, too. Now add the high cost of the whole procedure — and its transient effect.

“Within a few seasons the effect dissipates,” an entomologist in southern Israel explains. In other words, it can be big bucks for a very small bang.

The only solution she can think of is to spray like crazy, which will take more than 40 fumigation vehicles per Karachiite district.

David Kadosh is an agriculture coordinator for the Tamar regional council in southern Israel, right by the Dead Sea. The desert conditions make the area seem sub-ideal for agriculture, but some crops are grown there and have experienced trouble with flies too.

He points out another reason why the sterile fruit fly solution wouldn’t work with house flies. The female fruit fly mates once, and if it mates with a sterile male, that’s that. “The house fly mates all the time,” Kadosh says. “All anyone can do is handle the garbage and offal problem, and the sewage.”

Advised that this wasn’t likely to happen, certainly not in the space of days, he had one more suggestion. “When it gets hot, cover the garbage with plastic sheeting,” Kadosh advises. “When the garbage gets hot, it will kill the fly eggs and maggots. Even if they hatch, if they’re under the plastic sheet they will die.”

So, barring massive spraying or plastic sheeting, the people will just have to grin and bear it, as K. says: “We’re waiting for the flies to dissipate by themselves.”

A Karachiite belatedly turned to Sindh High Court last week, claiming the provincial and municipal governments are responsible for the fly infestation because they failed to clean the city, and that diseases are spreading, the Samaa news website reported.

On Thursday and Friday, it rained in Karachi. Come Sunday, K. told Haaretz, it was still raining cats and dogs.