KARACHI: The Sindh Environ­mental Protection Agency (Sepa) is yet to take action on a last year report that highlights high levels of pollution being caused by sugar mills.

The report prepared by private consultants of the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority was part of the water sector improvement project phase-1. The objective was to help make a regional master plan for the left bank of the Indus delta & the coastal zone.

The 19 sugar mills whose water samples had been tested were: Habib Sugar Mill, Sanghar Sugar Mill, Mirpurkhas Sugar Mill, Al Abbas Sugar Mill (Mirwah), Digri Sugar Mill, Ansari Sugar Mill (Badin), Seri Sugar Mill, Sindh Abadgar Sugar Mill, Shah Murad Sugar Mill, Dewan Bhudo Talpur Sugar Mill, Army Sugar Mill (Badin), Mirza Sugar Mill Kadhan, Khoski Sugar Mill, Pangrio Sugar Mill, Bawani Sugar Mill (Talhar), Farm Sheikh Bhirkio, Tharparkar Sugar Mill, T.M. Khan Sugar Mill and Mitiari Sugar Mill.

“The effluent discharge from the sugar mills is highly polluted. The dissolved oxygen level is far below the normal limit that shows it may cause death of biotic life in drains especially fish. Likewise, the biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand are very high than the WHO permissible limits. This explains huge reduction in the dissolved oxygen level.

“The total suspended solids are also higher than the permissible limits that hinder sunlight to penetrate into water to help photosynthesis to increase the oxygen level of waters,” the report says.

The samples collected from various locations of Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) & Kotri surface drains in 2012 also showed that all the parameters were above the permissible limits, it says. Therefore, it adds, the analyses of the samples collected from the sugar mills or drains suggest that the release of effluent in the drainage infrastructure is hazardous for human health and livestock. It is recommended that Sepa enforce the Environment Protection Act, 1997, making it mandatory for sugar mills to install in-house treatment plants, the report says.

Effluent contains wastewater from boiler and slush from the processing plant and is mainly organic, with a small amount of non-organic substances. “Of the process wastes, molasses spillage is, perhaps, the most difficult to deal with as it is solid and doesn’t disperse easily,” it says.

Sugar mill effluents, the report says, seep through the soil from unlined ponds and drains and contaminate groundwater that people living around the sugar mills complain was their only source of water but they had to abandon its use.

“Soils in sugar mills vicinity are found degraded. Villagers complain their livestock suffered from diseases and some of them also died due to the effluent being discharged by the sugar mill into drains,” the report says, adding that birds were found dead in the drains (which carried effluents from the sugar mills).

According to sources, it’s not the first time that concerns have been raised over the hazardous effluents being discharge from sugar mills, many of which have set up distilleries, thus increasing the scale of the pollution manifold.

The situation, however, have attracted little official action. This is so because sugar mills are owned by people who are either part of the government or have influence on the government.  

Sources told Dawn that Sepa received a complaint against Al Abbas Sugar Mill, operating in Mirwah Gorchani, Mirpurkhas, from one of its directors last month. The complaint also carried a letter from mill workers, alleging that effluent discharge from the mill was causing serious health problems to residents of surrounding areas. “The poisonous waste is destroying freshwater lakes. Drinking water of wells has turned brackish and poisonous due to chemical waste being released from the mill. In addition, the offensive and suffocating smell of chemical waste has forced hundreds of people to leave the area on health grounds,” the letter says. 

Raheema Panhwar of Strengthening Participatory Organisation told Dawn that the untreated effluent was playing havoc with environment yet the government was silent. She said the SPO had recently conducted a research in Matli, Badin, where Ansari Sugar Mill operated. “Untreated effluent from the mill has destroyed drains which were once a major source of livelihood for locals. The water bodies [Ameer Shah drain, Phuleli drain and Ansari Sugar Mill drain] used to have ample quantities of fish while grass along their banks served as grazing ground for cattle. All have vanished now,” she said.

She said the effluent also turned the groundwater unsuitable for human consumption. Most of the villagers, the researchers spoke to, said their main loss was contamination of irrigation water. “They also linked outbreaks of different diseases to the effluent,” she said, adding that soil in the area was found highly saline, badly affecting crops.

Sepa director general Naeem Mughal said though Sida had not shared its report with Sepa, there was no doubt that unsafe disposal of sugar mill effluent was a serious issue. “There are around 32 sugar mills in Sindh. Of them, only a few have treatment plants. Among environmental hazards caused by the sugar mills a critical one is air pollution caused by flying ash that is released when the mill waste is used as fuel,” he said.

He confirmed that a complaint had been received against Al Abbas Sugar Mill. A body was set up to look into the case, he said, adding that samples collected from the site had been sent for  analysis whose report would be ready within a week.

Sugar mills, he claimed, were off and on inspected and, in some cases, were prosecuted for violating environmental laws. “It’s the result of our directives that many sugar mills have set up oxidation ponds to treat waste-water. But this is not enough, as it only helps to reduce contamination to a limited level,” he said.

 Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2014

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