The modern water carriers of Islamabad

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jun 3, 2013.

Islamabad – Under the shade of a tattered sack cloth propped up on sticks, Fazal Ghafoor throws water from a steel glass in to a blue jerrycan that is tucked between two slightly bigger water drums.

A round block of ice, no larger in diameter than a naan, is swimming in the water and 30-year-old Ghafoor is trying to melt it by taking water from the same can and throwing it back in, so the water gets cold quickly.

With a steel jug held tight in his other hand, Ghafoor is a modern-day maashki — or water carrier. He sells drinking water to people at the Khanna Bridge bus station on the Islamabad Highway.

In the dry heat of summers, water carriers such as Ghafoor are quite a common sight at bus stops around the twin cities. Commuters, van conductors and drivers are the main clientele of these water carriers. The demand for cool drinks is high due to the extreme summer weather but the water carriers, much like other sherbet and lemon soda vendors, are finding it hard to make ends meet.

They charge three to five rupees for a glass of cold tap water, but even that is negotiable.

“If someone wants to pay more, they are welcome,” Ghafoor said. “If they don’t pay at all, we feel we are just doing a good deed by quenching people’s thirst.”

Ghafoor, who lives in the Zia Masjid residential area, said the water service was a seasonal occupation. He is a daily-wage manual labourer during the rest of the year, he said.

Muhammad Irshad, another water carrier who said he works as a mechanic off-summer season, said water carriers usually make Rs200-300.

“It is barely enough to keep his household afloat but better than the daily wage work,” Irshad said.

The twin cities saw an unusual heat wave in mid-May and, despite occasional rains, temperature highs have remained in the 40s. The Pakistan Meteorological Department predicts more hot and dry weather for Islamabad over the weekend, before chances of rain on Monday.

But even with vendors who sell lemon soda and other cool drinks such as tamarind-plum sherbet, the returns on business are just enough to sustain their families.

In the Aabpara market, Muhammad Saeed, who sells lemon soda from a sidewalk stall, said the price of a 5-kilo sack of lemons has doubled from Rs700 in 2012 to around Rs1,400 this year.

The increased cost of production meant Saeed had to raise the price of regular and disposable glasses of soda by Rs5 each from last season to Rs30 and Rs35 respectively.

“I use around Rs2,000 worth of lemons in a day’s work,” he said. “The other day I calculated that the cost of one lemon comes out to be around Rs9.15.”

The main cost for the water carriers is a large block of ice that costs around Rs100 and melts in a couple of hours, Ghafoor said. He said there main paying customers were conductors and bus drivers.

Irshad and Ghafoor both fetched water from nearby taps: from a police check point or a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) station in their cases.

The water might not be top quality — it might even put people at the risk of waterborne diseases — but in the intense summer, some water is better than none. And it has obvious benefits.

“If it were not for these people, there would be fist fights breaking out at these bus stops every five minutes,” said a smiling Muhammad Jamshed, a commuter, who before accepting his glass of water told Ghafoor that he will not pay for it.

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