Providing clean drinking water to the world’s sixth most populous city is the responsibility of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). Given the 15-million population of Karachi, which grows at six per cent every year, it’s an arduous task.
Since the media is not allowed into the premises of the KWSB water plant, I carried out an undercover survey to determine the quality of water supplied to the ever-expanding metropolis. Located at the COD Hills in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of Karachi, this plant supplies 120 million-gallons-a-day (mgd).
The chlorine dilemma
Two water treatment plants, imported from France and Germany, were included in the survey. These plants work on the principle of the pre and post chlorination, coagulation and precipitation of settled matter in sedimentation basin. The last stage involves further purification in rapid sand filter beds.
While this lengthy process is meant to provide clean water, tests conducted at independent laboratories showed starkly contrasting results, which revealed that no chlorine whatsoever was infused into the raw water. This being despite the fact, that the KWSB buy chlorine on a monthly basis. The board also openly claims to monitor the presence of chlorine in the water.
However, the absence of chlorine that I discovered was further strengthened by an official of KWSB who said that he had been working with the organisation for over 10 years and had never seen appropriate amounts of chlorine infused in the water.
Also suggesting the illegal selling of chlorine, a highly reputed official who runs a private business in the chemical industry, on condition of anonymity said, “A few years ago, I needed a chlorine cylinder, which I very easily bought from the KWSB at a reasonable amount.”
According to Farhat Naveed, a retired microbiologist of KWSB, who still serves at the organisation, chlorination tests are carried out “approximately three to four times a day.”
“We are working in collaboration with the Karachi University, Pakistan Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (PCSIR) and Agha Khan Laboratories and there are no chances of error at all,” she told Dawn.com, rejecting all claims of the absence of chlorine.
During this survey, I visited the laboratory at the COD water plant and discovered that the staff was not present on their seats or working rather they were indulging idly in chit chat. Some of the workers’ children, off from school were playing around on the premises.
Following-up on the microbiologist’s claims, I spoke to officials at PCSIR. Dr Askari, the institute’s director for planning and development confirmed that it conducts regular tests on water samples. Curiously, however, no representatives of the PCSIR are involved in the process of collecting samples from the plant.
A female medical officer was reached to comment on the consequences of this absence of chlorine in the water. She quoted, “Among the many cases of diseases that come in, at least 40-45 per cent are those of water borne diseases. Sadly, the situation is getting worse by the day, and due to a lack of awareness programs, people continue to fall prey to these diseases.”
Now it’s clean, now it’s not
In the subsequent process of clarifying, each sedimentary tank that was inspected was either not functioning or found to be in an unserviceable condition. When officials were inquired, they argued that the water coming from the Indus River is free of turbidity, hence, “diminishing the need of sedimentation in the tank.”
With regard to this claim, a senior professor, currently working in collaboration with KWSB said, “The water is not only highly turbid but also contains high amounts of heavy metals which are hazardous for health and KWSB is fully aware of it.”
During the survey I found that only a few sub-plants were functional, especially in the last stage of the filtration process. The granular beds of the filtration plant (which separate the clean water from the impurities) were in dilapidated condition. Shockingly, there was a hole on the side of the bed, the water was forced to gush through it without being cleaned.
This ‘treated water’ is then distributed to Karachi.
To verify the results of the observation, samples of raw water from the filtration plants and storage tanks were collected and checked at an independent laboratory.
The results depicted the true picture: While chlorine (which destroys disease-causing organisms in water) was infused at the initial stage, it was absent at the last stage, making the water harmful for health and leaving the consumers vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Microbiological tests endorsed these findings.