The real Watergate

Published May 01, 2012 04:49pm

In the time it takes for a person to finish drinking a glass of water, three innocent children die somewhere in the world. According to Unesco, 5,000 lives are lost each day due to preventable water and sanitation-related diseases. Supplying clean water could vacate 40 per cent of hospital beds in developing nations such as Pakistan.

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.”

A non-functional sedimentation tank. –Photo by author

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.

The water is passed through only from one side where no sand bed is present. –Photo by author

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.

‘A neglected body’

Interestingly, KWSB claims that it carries out tests based on random water sampling for bacteriological analysis’ at the COD Hills plant, as well as counter checking the samples through tests.

When probed about the standard of the water being cleaned and then distributed by the KWSB, officials denied being at fault. “The water is clean and pure until it leaves our premises (COD plant). It becomes unclean during distribution through the water lines, which are not looked after.”

However, according to the board’s website, it adopts remedial measures by expositing the line to locate the cause of any reported contamination in water.

Officials at the KWSB were quick to blame the government for a lack of interest in its grievances. According to one official, only 16 per cent of the city’s population pay their water bills.

“We cannot improve our technology and efficiency under such circumstances,” an official complained, claiming that if the board were provided the same resources as some of the other bodies, like the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC), it could improve the condition of the water plants and lines. Load-shedding, a problem plaguing the entire country is also one of the reasons for the board’s inefficiency, according to one of its chief engineer.

PCSIR’s Deputy Managing Director Ali Muhammad Palijo, when contacted, favoured KWSB’s stance.

“The water (received from Indus River) contains a small amount of turbidity, but the KWSB still infuses chlorine to ensure purity in the water provided to Karachi’s inhabitants,” he said.

Reiterating the board’s protest on lack of funding, he said: “The KWSB board doesn’t have enough funds, which affects the overall results. Eventually, at some stage, raw water does mingle into the treated water.”

Similarly, while officials at the board were reluctant to take the blame for the quality of water being distributed, they did admit that it wasn’t meeting health standards.

I was rather amused to learn from officials at the site that when high-ranking government officials visit the plant’s premises, they are served branded bottles of mineral water.

Officials offered me a visit to their ‘LED’ plant, assuring me that was in a much better condition, to which I inquired: “What is the fault of the people receiving water from the COD plant?” Befitting my expectations, they just smiled and said they don’t have any choice.

A PHD professor who is also conducting a research on the water quality of KWSB stated that he was only offered a visit to the LED plant, the COD water plant was not mentioned.

Problem faced by the journalist

Initially, I was helped by a person directly involved with KWSB, I promised to not disclose his identity through out the investigation, and I stand by my promise.

But somehow my source was disclosed by KWSB officials, after which he started pressurising me stop the survey, and subsequently the article. When I declined to do so, I started receiving threats from him.

I discovered from my source that the KWSB personnel, who had officially given me their statements, were threatening my source of severe consequences in the case that this article was published.

My source additionally said that after I met with the KWSB’s officials, chlorine was now being properly infused to delude the public and counter my claim.

KWSB officials are accusing me of manipulating the results, however, I’d be more convinced of their attempts were they not approaching my friends and calling me continuously to stop the article.

I also discovered that a political party’s interest is vested in the organisation which is hindering the efficiency of the organisation and increasing corruption in it.

During this ordeal, I was perhaps most disappointed when my own friend (also a lecturer in a reputed university) called me and requested that I stop writing on this. He simply said: “Do you really think the status quo will change by what you’re doing? Nothing will change!”

I have only stated the above so, that the readers of this article realise the odds against the media in trying to render services to the public. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. And it is your awareness that will improve the chances of the KWSB working efficiently. It is your awareness that will challenge the status quo.


The writer is an Assistant Multimedia Producer at Dawn.com


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Comments (27) Closed




murk
May 02, 2012 12:11pm
definitly ,its excellent work
Usama Rauf
May 01, 2012 01:06pm
very good work anish.. keep it up
Reddy Marri
May 01, 2012 01:13pm
Anish kudos to your effort, few people like you matter , who will make a change , you are the the "Erin Brokovich"
SIR
May 01, 2012 01:47pm
For PCSIRs MD to state the water from Indus is low in turbidity but KWSB still doses it with chlorine to further protect the people of Karachi shows a disturbing lack of knowledge. Turbidity is removed primarily to remove sediment and colour from the water, to make it visually more appealing. This has very little effect on the suitability of water for human consumption. Clear water is not safe water. Turbid water is not necessarily unsafe. It is the presence of harmful bacteria (pathogens) in water that makes it unsafe, and chlorination, UV treatment, oxygenation are all effective pathogen killers, hence chlorine dosage both when making water safe initially, and then post-chlorination to have residual chlorine in water to keep it safe for human consumption during its passage through the long distribution system from the filter plant to the consumer. Chlorination declined to unsafe levels long ago, as did good engineering practise in laying water supply lines. many mains are laid back-to-front, and distribution lines re commonly laid in the same trench as sewerage lines, possibly to save on petty excavation cost. When sewerage lines leak, they contaminate water supply by entering the adjacent pipes. hence the gutter smell noted in the supply to many houses. Some years ago the KWSB floated a tender for enhancing water quantity supplied from the Pipri filter plant. The Pakistan army gave the lowest bid, about 50-times lower than the next lowest civilian bidder. On being awarded the work, they simply punctured the roof of the conduit bringing raw water from the Indus to the filter plant, which water contained all kinds of debris, detritus, which the filter plant screened. Another hole was punctured in the 6 million gallon treated reservoir, which was completely sealed earlier to protect the stored treated water from the plant . A pump was fixed between the two points and raw water was pumped directly into the treated water reservoir and supplied to Karachi.
Salman
May 01, 2012 12:59pm
Bravo! May God bless you.
Juzer Q. Pishori
May 03, 2012 05:27am
This is a core issue that is affecting the health of the citizens of this nation. Hopefully, by now, your article has made waves through our vigilant courts, since no action is expected from the government until an action is taken by the courts. Ms. Anish, you have done a courageous work and done your service to the nation, now it’s for the responsible institutions to take this matter to task and each one of us to pursue it till it’s achieved.
curious
May 04, 2012 07:46pm
common guys are you really so courageous, then why not to reveal the name of the real culprit ,,that political party,,, divulge the evidence against them let the public know afterall its all about public interest not vested interest,,,job for a journalist,,,still unfinished
pardesiuno
May 01, 2012 06:20pm
Thanks for your courage and determination for publishing this article - we have become a sorry state where it is easier to distort facts and harm our own people. Shame on KWSB and on PCSIR, which should be an honest broker, and not a partial crippled politician!
Nishtar
May 02, 2012 05:01am
The people should be grateful that they get any water at all from KWSB. It is difficult to figure out what work the KWSB staff do to justify their salary. It does not matter to KWSB if the water contains a few bacteria here and there or if it has things floating in it. The politicians are aware of the dangers of drinking polluted water and only consume imported bottled water. The general public should take solace in the saying "If it doesn't kill, it makes you stronger".
Adnan
May 02, 2012 07:19am
Real investigative journalism! This is the best article that I've read in the Pakistani media in a long time.
Imran Ali Rathore
May 02, 2012 05:54am
Its very big effort.
Ashar
May 02, 2012 08:46am
All yu heve revealed is the tip of an Iceberg. The real problem behind it you have already mentioned " I also discovered that a political party’s interest is vested in the organisation which is hindering the efficiency of the organisation and increasing corruption in it." Karachi has been disowned by its own people. As Iftikhar Arif very rightly said "Aay mere shehr teray log bhi ab teray nahin"
Anees
May 02, 2012 03:00pm
A great effort to summarize the state of purification plant. I think its more than that to just relay on these Government running plant. There is strong need to look at the back source of water, even in big cities like Lahore water resources are feed from running canals. what happend to these canals on can better judge.
krishgovind
May 01, 2012 04:45pm
Allow me to make a correction to your assumption that "Turbidity is removed primarily to remove sediment and colour from the water, to make it visually more appealing" No! It is not so. 99% of bacteria in water ride piggyback on suspended particles. In fact a quick and efficient method of estimating the number of bacteria in a liquid medium is to measure the turbidity or cloudiness of a culture and translate this measurement into cell numbers. By removing the turbidity the colonies of bacteria thriving on it are also eliminated and therefore a water with suspended impurities is hazardous where as a clear water is relatively safe. For the sub-continent conditions the best first line of defense against water borne diseases is clean piece of cloth preferably old can be used to strain sand, silt, clay and some pathogens out of water. Any old use cotton cloth that is fine and tightly woven, such as a sari cloth can be used. The cloth should be folded into a few layers and tied over a clean container. Afterwards, one should wash the cloth with clean water before using it again.
Cyrus Howell
May 02, 2012 07:58pm
This is like watching a TV episode of Law And Order. Only on Law And Order those responsible would be arrested and charged with "depraved indifference" which brings with it a charge of "murder in the second degree".
Cyrus Howell
May 02, 2012 08:00pm
Thank You.
Ali
May 02, 2012 12:42pm
Thank You very much, Anish for your great efforts. My God, I can not believe these people. They have no heart. KWSB is killing Karachites. I wish, we if we can force those who are in higher authorities and their children to drink this water.
Ankahi Baatein
May 02, 2012 08:25am
I was rather amused to learn from officials at the site that when high-ranking government officials visit the plant’s premises, they are served branded bottles of mineral water......He simply said: “Do you really think the status quo will change by what you’re doing? Nothing will change!” This is the mind set which is the reason for the decay of every system in Pakistan...... Sharm tum ko magar nahin aati!!!!! The greedy bureaucrats will not give up easily, but Alhumdulillah there still are brave writer who dare to unveil the truth..inspite of threats!!!!
Saleem Manghi
May 02, 2012 07:06am
At least we have a start with the KWSB admitting that the water is not up to the required mark.
Cyrus Howell
May 02, 2012 08:29pm
She has a talent for investigative journalism. It is a very satisfying profession. Virtue is it's own reward, but it is nice to get a paycheck and a some recognition. This article leaves us begging for more.
Cyrus Howell
May 02, 2012 08:21pm
Yet another good reason for boiling water and drinking tea.
Cyrus Howell
May 02, 2012 08:37pm
When British Petroleum was unable to cap their runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, one woman resident of Mobile, Alabama advised "We should plug the leak with BP executives."
@SyedAnser
May 06, 2012 12:17am
man, we still live in Pakistan and Karachi, where we can't say n show everything..we all have families and friends, which are important from anyone's profession..we have example of wali khan babar and saleem shehzad who lost their lives because of this same status quo. She took a step and this is her first investigative work, we should appreciate her...
Syed
May 12, 2012 09:56am
Excellent work !
sadaf bhabi
May 14, 2012 07:38am
There are few, if any, jobs in which ability alone is sufficient. Needed, also, are loyalty, sincerity, enthusiasm and girl i must say "YOU HAVE IT ALL"....Bravo May god bless u
Ayesha
May 13, 2012 02:36pm
Fabulous n Courageous job dear !! It worths alot. May GOD protect u n bless u always.
junaid kamal
Jun 19, 2012 12:24pm
The writer has captured the unrevealed facts! and no doubt she has mind blowing skills of writing.