THE access to safe drinking water has been recognised as a fundamental right of every citizen in the National Drinking Policy 2009. The policy’s key goal is to ensure safe and sustainable drinking water to all by 2025. This policy framework was laid down in the last PPP-led federal government.
According to the policy document, only 65pc of the population had access to safe drinking water, with huge disparities between urban and rural areas and among provinces/regions.
Clean drinking water in rural areas is a precious commodity particularly for the people of Tharparkar where elderly and young have to walk for miles to fetch it. And the continuing famine in Tharparkar for the last three years has made matters worse for the dwellers there.
The Pakistan Agriculture and Research Council has designed household level solar powered filtration plants which are installed in Umerkot district. Having a capacity of 40,000 to 45,000 litres per day, these plants cost around Rs65,000-70,000
The Sindh government is executing a multi-billion-rupee project of reverse osmosis plants in Tharparkar. It claims to have established Asia’s largest solar powered RO plant in district headquarters, Mithi, with a capacity of 2MGD (million gallons per day). Another project of 1.5MGD is under construction in Islamkot. Through Special Initiative Department (SID), the provincial government has, until recent reports, set-up 150 RO technology-based plants and the number is to increase to 750 by June. By end of February, 300 plants are expected to become operational.
Earlier, a finance officer had informed Dawn that Rs5.4bn was allocated in 2014-15 provincial budget for the current project, being executed by a private company. In all 750 ROs have been procured along with solar system and related equipment.
The Mithi plant’s cost is said to be Rs300m while a plant with 10,000 gallons per day (GPD) capacity requires investment of Rs2.5m. The 10,000GPD plants are being set-up to cover clusters of villages.
Some reports indicate that 79pc of the water in the Thar desert is brackish. It is only 21pc of the desert where groundwater is fit for human consumption. But the underground sweet water is not easily accessible and involves huge investment and manpower which is scarce in this marginalised community.
Secondly, a water pipeline between Naukot to Mithi and then Mithi to Islamkot brings canal water for people of the area. In Mithi, piped water is supplied once in a month. Admittedly, providing canal water involves a big cost but this option has yet to be properly examined to provide the desert with as much water as possible. A flood canal — Rainee — which would emanate from Guddu barrage is being built but that would not be a perennial one.
Pakistan Agriculture and Research Council (PARC) has also designed household level solar powered filtration plants. These model plants are installed in Umerkot district. Having a capacity of 40,000 to 45,000 litres per day, these plants cost around Rs65,000-70,000.
Ahmed Zeeshan Bhatti, an officer of Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Islamabad, believes that some basics regarding RO plants operation are very important and include required sunlight, humidity and temperature which has to be 35-50 degree centigrade for safe operation and maintenance. If solar panels are run sans batteries, the requirement of energy might not be met to pass saline water through sieve to clean impurities; and without batteries it is difficult to maximise their operational efficiency.
In Thar, ROs are said to have been designed to treat impurities of groundwater ranging from 3,000-9,000PPM. Around 70pc of pure water is obtained and 30pc rejected water is being disposed of through seepage underground which experts like Dr Ahsan Siddiqui believe is not advisable, affecting adversely National Environmental Quality Standards. He proposes waste water disposal through concrete sumps to get it evaporated instead of letting it re-mix with subsoil water.
A proper study of Thar’s groundwater resources needs to be done to show the actual quantum of reserves and its source of recharge, argued a social activist Ali Akbar Rahimoon. He believes in social entrepreneurship and community ownership. The ROs should be provided to the community for their upkeep and recurring costs. “It will ensure technology’s transfer to the community”, he said and feared Thar may otherwise become graveyard of projects in absence of measures for their sustainability operations.
According to the noted social activist from Thar, Dr Sonu Khangarani, the government needs to separate drought mitigation policy from RO plants project. Drought is the result of food unavailability because of no rains, thus ROs and food availability be seen separately. Changing the mindset of community is the key to enable it handle such facilities. As long as plants are new they would remain operational but when depreciation starts hitting them, the community will be unable to handle it.
Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, February 16th, 2015